It’s hard to imagine an era when an industry giant like Capitol Records would have to choose between signing Brief Encounter or Maze. Although Brief Encounter had sold well and toured extensively through the Southeast, the Los Angeles label must have seen something in their Cali-cool neighbors to the north that Brief Encounter couldn’t deliver. Perhaps the band’s collective twang was too tangy for label tastes. Perhaps the traces of gospel made secular execs nervous. Or perhaps Brief Encounter’s imaginative output was either too high or too deep—Maze was the ensemble Goldilocks would have chosen, and so Capitol assumed, the record buying public as well.
The result of this historic coin-toss has made assembling Brief Encounter’s far-flung discography a maddening yet fulfilling undertaking for a generation of collectors. Most followers have a favored flavor, whether the pair of disco sides released on Capitol or the modern masterpiece We Want to Play, recorded at their own Dream Studios in 1981. Still one of the finest bargains at auction is the surprisingly affordable string of singles released on John Richbourg’s 77 Records, emphasizing one of the art forms in which Brief Encounter was most prolific—the ballad. “It was almost self-protective,” says bassist Gary Bailey of their often-unruly hometown shows in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. “You get somebody in a nice love groove, they’re not going to want to fight.”
Regardless of the decade, the moment, or the motive, a few traits are consistent throughout Brief Encounter’s catalog. Beneath Maurice Whittington’s tender lead, brothers Gary and Montie could provide harmonies so similar in texture that they sound like a fleet of Cadillacs accelerating in unison. Although youngest brother Gary arrived at bass by ageist default, he quickly developed a curious staccato style that provided a foundation and contrapuntal statements at once. Nestled amidst the Appalachian Mountains, Brief Encounter no doubt benefited from the geographical and cultural isolation of their native Wilkes County.
After years of following eBay auctions of their scarce recordings, some exceeding two thousand dollars—namely the dozen or so copies of Special Release to surface, reissued late last year by Jazzman—Brief Encounter reunited to provide something new at the marketplace for their scattered family of fans. Both “Shake and Move” and “I Want You So Much” contain residue from unreleased ’80s sessions, polished to Bailey-grade perfection, and pressed to 45. The band hopes to raise $15,000 for Haiti relief efforts from the meager run of five hundred. They are over halfway there.
However flattering, the remaining share of Brief Encounter’s catalog has been reissued in various mediums over the years by an international cast of boutique labels who probably presumed Brief Encounter to be underground or off the grid (I found both Montie’s and Gary’s numbers in the phone book). Meanwhile, in the rap world, Gary uses the terms “sampled” and “stolen” interchangeably when discussing “Clap Wit Me” by Detroit rapper Proof, constructed entirely from Encounter’s own “Total Satisfaction.” Although compensation would be ideal, the concepts of justice and recognition are discussed with equal interest. “So he just took the song and sped up the thing,” Gary digresses. “But you can tell it’s us, can’t you?”