Various Artist: The Ru-Jac Records Story, Volumes 1 & 2

The history of a 1960s should’ve-been soul powerhouse

The Baltimore-based Ru-Jac label, a long-time favorite of in-the-know collectors, is finally getting its historical due. Omnivore began digging the Ru-Jac vault with 2016 titles on Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie, and now traces the length of the label’s entire story with four expertly curated, smartly illustrated and knowledgeably notated volumes [1 2 3 4]. Ru-Jac was born from the unlikely confluence of a numbers-running real estate investor and a dry cleaner with a sideline as a promoter. The latter, Rufus Mitchell, gained a spot managing the operations of the summer resort Carr’s Beach, and developed a nexus of musical acts, managers and disc jockeys that provided a foundation for a booking agency, a song publishing concern, and finally, the Ru-Jac record label.

Mitchell drew his acts primarily from Baltimore and D.C., releasing a string of excellent singles that began with Jesse Crawford’s dramatic plea “Please Don’t Go” and it’s sorrowful B-side “I Love You So.” A distribution deal with a larger label wasn’t enough to garner any commercial action, but Mitchell was undeterred, and doubled-down with a second pair of soul laments by Sonny Daye. The A-side, “A Woman Just Like You,” is a deeply wounded mid-tempo number with a fetching sax hook and a Latin undercurrent; the flipside pairs a raw blues guitar with a soul croon. As with the initial release, the single’s lack of commercial success barely slowed Mitchell down, as he continued to capture magic on tape, whether or not the stars aligned to lift his singles onto the charts.

The first two years of Ru-Jac were filled with terrific records, and even more impressively, a few A-side-worthy tracks that never made it out of the vault. The set opens with the wicked soul jam “Fatback,” a tune that should be the fondly remembered closing theme of an early-60s Baltimore TV dance show; something John Waters could have reintroduced to the world in Hairspray. In that same fictional history, the slower “Cross Track” would have replaced “Fatback” mid-way through the second season (after a single episode in which “Trash Can” was used) when the show’s producer and the record label had a falling out, and fans would argue to this day which was the better show closer. Those same kids likely would have spent their summer time at Carr’s Beach, making the resignation and renewal of Brenda Jones’ “Let’s Go Back to School” someone’s very fond memory.

Baltimore native (and former carnival pitchman) Winfield Parker first appeared on Ru-Jac with the moody, Stax-influenced 1964 ballad “When I’m Alone,” backed with the mid-tempo “One of These Mornings.” The latter is presented here in a previously unissued horn-lined alternate that some will find bests the master found on Omvnivore’s Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker At Ru-Jac. Winfield would turn out to be one of the label’s most prolific artists, and perhaps even more importantly, the caretaker of the label’s legacy. With Mitchell’s passing in 2003, the label’s riches – which included tapes, promotional material and business records – passed to Parker, who has now passed that archive on to Omnivore, while serving as the executive producer for these releases.

Volume one is filled out with numerous little-known, or in the case of the ten previously unreleased tracks, unknown gems. Jeanne Dee roars through a vault recording of the blues standard “Every Day I Have the Blues,” Tiny Tim’s “Saving All My Love” suggests Clyde McPhatter, and Celestine’s B-side “You Won” borrows its hook and New Orleans roll from Barbara Lewis’ “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More).” Mitchell tried out gospel with the Fruitland Harmonizers, torch-singing with Marcie Allen’s “All Over Again,” soul-jazz with its flip “Crying Won’t Help You,” fast-talking jive with Rockin’ Robin’s “Don’t Bit Mo,” and numerous deep-groove instrumentals, including the Jolly Sax’s “The Monkey Cha-Cha.”

Volume Two picks up the story in 1964 with Brenda Jones’ second Ru-Jac release “It Must Be Love,” its flipside, and the previously unreleased 50s-styled ballad “So Alone.” The year finished out with singles by D.C. native Shirley Grant and Harrisburg organist Butch Cornell. The latter pair of sides are particularly fine, as Cornell offers up Hammond B-3 licks in a trio setting with a jazz-chording rhythm guitarist and a hard-swinging drummer. A previously unreleased alternate take of Cornell’s “Goose Pimples” gives the song an entirely different feel from the single, with a full horn section and dance-friendly go-go beat. 1965 brought the legendary Arthur Conley to Ru-Jac as the songwriter and vocalist on Harold Holt’s “Where You Lead Me” and its flipside “I’m a Stranger.” Conley’s songs graced other Ru-Jac artists records, and Conley self-recorded several piano-and-voice demos, two of which are included here.

1965 also brought a sharper focus on DC acts, including The Neltones and Bobby Sax, and in 1966, The Mask Man & The Cap-Tans with The Paul Earle Orchestra. Like many of Mitchell’s signings, all three were one-off Ru-Jac artists, and though there was some regional action, like the rest of the Ru-Jac roster, there was no national breakthrough. The durable Winfield Parker is represented here by two previously unreleased recordings of “I Love You Just the Same,” one a demo with Parker singing slightly off mic, the other a finished studio alternate of the original single. Two garage rock bands borrowed talent agent Lillian Claiborne, The Reekers and The Henchmen, are omitted here, leaving the door open for Bear Family to render the Complete Ru-Jac box set.

Track after track it’s hard to imagine how this music failed to break; but the business of hit singles has never been strictly meritorious, and Mitchell’s Baltimore-based connections apparently didn’t have the juice to gain the national attention his productions deserved. Other labels, such as Lieber & Stoller’s Daisy/Tiger imprints, suffered the same fate, but it still remains stupefying in retrospect. Each of the four volumes in this series is illustrated with vintage photos and ephemera, and the history of the label and its artists is given detail by Kevin Coombe’s studious liner notes. Volumes 3 & 4 are due in March, and a set of Arthur Conley’s demos in May, but these first two collections are ready to take you to Charm City. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.