Graded on a Curve:
The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume One–Volume Four

Any time is a good time to soak up old-school Soul and R&B, but really, there’s no better moment than right now, as 2018’s month-long observance of African-American history and achievement is set to begin. Rather than simply replaying the cornerstones of the styles, there’s much to be gained by diving into less celebrated regions of the music’s narrative. With the four volumes comprising The Ru-Jac Records Story, Omnivore Recordings provides a lengthy look at soulful happenings in and around the city of Baltimore. Meticulously researched and co-produced by East Coast soul historian Kevin Coombe, the first two installments came out on compact disc January 19. The others are available February 2.

Kevin Coombe’s notes for The Ru-Jac Records Story offer valuable insight into the entrepreneurship of Rufus Mitchell, who in mid-20th century Baltimore branched out from his vocation as a successful tailor to navigate the uncertainties of professional entertainment, first by getting his feet wet as the general manager of Carr’s Beach Amusement Company, a business focused on enlivening the Annapolis, MD beach that catered to African-Americans during the era of segregation.

Mitchell then struck out on his own; initially, there was Ace Promotions, an enterprise that grew out of a mounting list of contacts through his work at Carr’s Beach. Shortly after forming Ace, Rujac emerged (with investor Jack Bennett, hence the name), beginning as a publishing venture only to morph into Ru-Jac the record company.

Most independent labels last only a short time, but Ru-Jac persevered, in part because Mitchell recognized talent. An ample survey of his ability to identify the solid stuff has already been annotated by Coombe and Omnivore on a pair of 2016 discs, Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker at Ru-Jac and True Enough: Gene & Eddie With Sir Joe at Ru-Jac.

A perusal of the track lists to these new sets insinuates that Parker and Gene & Eddie were awarded the single disc anthology treatment partially through amassing enough material to fill out the plastic, but that sort of accumulation doesn’t happen by accident. Parker and (to a lesser extent) Gene & Eddie both figure in these four volumes, but they don’t dominate the proceedings, a factor that validates the sharpness of Mitchell’s ear as the percentage of unreleased cuts is certain to appeal to soul/R&B aficionados.

Unsurprisingly, it took the label a little while to hit stride, but the series’ first installment Something Got a Hold on Me, which documents the years 1963-’64, still features a high ratio of engaging material, including a few cooking slabs of instrumental R&B; opener “Fatback” by Lamont Esquires does justice to its enticing title, “Cross Track” by the excellently named Flattop Bobby & the Soul Twisters might be but one of a few hundred cuts to interpolate “Night Train,” but it does so with panache, and “Trash Can” by Unknown is a sax dominated groove situated halfway between the discotheque and the burlesque joint.

“Trash Can” is one of numerous selections from mystery artists sprinkled across these sets, establishing that Ru-Jac didn’t release everything they recorded and additionally, that a portion of the tracks left in the can were worthy of hearing. And the unknown contributors extend to vocal soul (an example titles volume one, in fact), which, instrumentals and a likeable gospel 45 by the Fruitland Harmonizers aside, was the label’s real focus right from the start.

Both male and female singers, with an emphasis on early, sophisticated soul models as typified by the flagship single by Jessie Crawford with Kay Keys Band, a little later the finger-snapping cabaret-isms (complete with backing vocalists and strings) of Tiny Tim (aka Mr. T), and a polished but hearty trio of songs by Brenda Jones. “Every Day I Have the Blues” by belter Jeanne Dee and a somewhat girl-group-ish pair of tunes by Celestine provide exceptions.

Although four tracks from Jones begin second volume Get Right, the contents, which pick up in ’64 and run to ’66, do present a productive move away from Ru-Jac’s relatively urbane beginnings, in part through a dose of Hammond B-3 action by Butch Cornell’s Trio, but more so due to the appearance of well-known soulster Arthur Conley.

Those absolutely nutso for ’60s soul may already know that Conley, who’d moved north after his Atlanta-based band Arthur and the Corvets was dissolved by the military draft, cut a single for Ru-Jac as the singer in the group of saxophonist Harold Holt; that disc, and an alternate version of A-side “Where You Lead Me,” is included here. So are two unreleased demos by Conley, including the killer piano and vocal-only “Whole Lotta Woman,” that reinforce why Mitchell was so eager to strike a partnership with the guy. His talent as vocalist and songwriter is considerable.

From the point of the Holt single, volume two enters a cool stretch that rolls on to the end of the disc, with the contents tougher and grittier, even as the instrumental swagger of Bobby Sax and His House Keepers, the vocal group-derived down-on-my-knees urgency of The Neltones’ “Come On Over,” and Mask Man & the Cap-Tans’ moderately Sam Cooke-esque “Love Can Do Wonders,” illustrate no desperate break with the past.

But there was also Winfield Parker, who debuted on part one. He gets an enlightening demo-to-finished take (though unreleased ‘till now) side-by-side showing of the decidedly Southern soul-inflected “I Love You Just the Same” on part two, and then really busts out on Finally Together, as part three rolls on from ’66 and into the peak productivity of the next year.

It’s here that Gene & Eddie enter the picture, though the disc’s initial eight tracks are split between two female singers. First, the assured if unexceptional Rita Doryse, fronting both the Shyndells, who also back Parker and get their own unreleased pair of swank instrumental cuts later in the set, and the less enjoyable organ stylings of the Bob Craig Combo, and second, the gutsier entries by Kitty Lane; that she backed Otis Redding (getting connected by Mitchell) before returning to Baltimore and cutting her sole Ru-Jac single (and a bluesy unreleased number) is no surprise.

There are a handful of interesting mystery contributors, both male and female, across Finally Together’s sequence, plus the nifty dance craze throat rawness of Leon Gibson’s “Do the Roller” (his flip-side “Working Hard” is swell, too) and the pleasing soul harmonies of The Caressors’ single, but the balance of part three belongs to Parker (all but one of his cuts previously unreleased), a 45 by Gene & Eddie, and half a single by that duo’s songwriting associate Sir Joe Quarterman. It all helps to solidify Ru-Jac’s strongest burst of activity and sets the stage for part four.

The span covered by Changes, specifically ’67 to ’80 is deceiving, as except for two singles the label was essentially defunct by ’72. Still, that’s a period of major change in soul and R&B, and that Ru-Jac’s late output, if increasingly less likely to dent any charts, doesn’t flounder and flop around in the attempt for hits (and make no mistake, hits were always the intent) is a significant achievement.

The disc begins with Parker (the only artist featured on all four volumes), who promptly gives way to instrumental cuts by The Upsetters (not that Upsetters) and another Unknown followed by strong showings by Gene & Eddie and Sir Joe. They get interspersed with the work of Fred Martin, who with eight tracks represents over a fourth of the disc’s sequence and is the final volume’s unsung, and largely lovey-dovey focused, star.

But not entirely romantic, as the Martin Revue’s “Contagious” is a cool slab of instrumental funkiness. It nicely foreshadows the psychedelic soul behemoth of “Changes Part 1” (which didn’t come out until ’74) by the group Saturday and “It’s a Trap” by the Dynamic Corvettes (who provide another fine moniker and a solid 45 to boot). Martin also vocally interjects into the psych-soul-tinged Meters-like “Sugar” and turns up later backing the somewhat throwback stylings of singer Willie Mason.

There are also two versions of the turn-the-lights-down-low number “Days May Come, Days May Go” by Francine Long and instrumentally by the Utopian Concept. Jimmy Dotson & Rhythm by Inner Light Band’s ’80 single ends the set (the A-side is Stevie Wonder’s “Think of Me As Your Soldier”), and if it does so not with a bang (the disc was likely payback by Mitchell for declining to fund a repress of his friend Dotson’s ’72 45 on local label Aar O Dot), it’s far from a poor showing, the sides wrapping up the Ru-Jac story quite nicely.

Folks demanding the levels of quality associated with Atlantic or Motown or Stax or Hi are likely to be a little disappointed with the sounds collected here, but methinks those expectations are out of whack. Taken together, these volumes do exactly what the title states, telling the tale of a record label connecting musicians to a community; along the way, a whole lot of strong work made it onto 45s (never did Ru-Jac release an LP), and it’s presented here with obvious care and passion.

Ultimately, it’s a familiar scenario. The Ru-Jac Records Story may only be a few modestly-scaled chapters in the grand digest that is Black History, but the intent in compiling clearly wasn’t to rewrite the narrative, but to document; the results deepen, and are enriching. If there are no real bombshells, simply getting to soak up a cross-section of individuals just keep on keepin’ on is nearly as sweet.

Something Got a Hold on Me
B

Get Right
B+

Finally Together
A-

Changes
B+

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