How a Lost Funk Gem From a Detroit House Legend Wound Up in the Closet of Rolling Stones Records Head Earl McGrath

·2 min read
Earl_McGrath_by_Camilla_McGrath-02 - Credit: Camilla McGrath
Earl_McGrath_by_Camilla_McGrath-02 - Credit: Camilla McGrath

Norma Jean Bell is probably best known as a legend of Detroit house, largely thanks to her mid-Nineties club classic “I’m the Baddest Bitch (In the Room).” But the singer, songwriter, and ace saxophonist had been making music for decades at that point, working as a touring and studio pro with everyone from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention to Stevie Wonder. 

Around 1980, Bell was eying a solo career, and a demo she made wound up in the hands of Earl McGrath, the then-president of Rolling Stones Records. Though a deal never panned out, over 40 years later, the previously unreleased lead track from that demo — “Just Look-ah What You’ll Be Missing” — is finally available to hear as part of a new compilation, Earl’s Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath, 1970-1980, out July 15 via Light in the Attic. 

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“Just Look-ah What You’ll Be Missing” is a bit rough around the edges, as expected of a demo, but it’s still clearly a pristine hit of pop-punk. Over supple bass and flashy guitar work, Bell delivers a scintillating vocal performance and, later on, shows off her blistering saxophone chops. 

“Just Look-ah What You’ll Be Missing” is one of 22 previously unreleased recordings that will appear on Earl’s Closet, with every cut coming from a treasure trove of sound recordings found by the author Joe Hagan in McGrath’s personal collection. McGrath was a unique figure in mid-century popular culture — a rags-to-riches bon vivant who entered the music business when Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun decided to give him his own label, Clean Records. Then, in 1977, McGrath’s buddy, Mick Jagger, asked him to take over Rolling Stones Records.

While McGrath didn’t turn into a music industry titan, he did make one major discovery: Daryl Hall and John Oates. Previously unreleased versions of two of their songs — “Baby Come Closer” and “Dry in the Sun” — appear on Earl’s Closet. McGrath also helped shepherd the early career of musician and author Jim Carrol, whose song “Tension” appears on the compilation.

Additionally, Earl’s Closet features songs from an array of other artists in McGrath’s vast orbit, including the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, the duo Delbert and Glen, and the country art cowboy Terry Allen. The comp even contains two legitimate mystery tracks: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” by Blood Brothers Six and “Sail Away” by Jabor — there is no known information about either artist. 

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