By Bill Kopp
Beginning operations in 1963, Baltimore-based Ru-Jac Records was an African American-owned and -operated record label. Founded by Rufus E. Mitchell and Jack Bennett, Ru-Jac was a singles-only label that released dozens of 45 rpm discs, primarily between 1963 and 1974. Much of the label’s output has remained largely unavailable since the label ceased operations in 1980. But Grammy-winning independent label Omnivore Recordings recently purchased the entire Ru-Jac catalog, and has embarked upon an ambitious reissue/compilation campaign.
As Kevin Coombe (known to Washington D.C. fans as DJ Nitecrawler) writes in his liner note essays for the four volumes of The Ru-Jac Records Story from Omnivore, “Ru-Jac compiled the most extensive singles catalog of any Maryland imprint during the period.” In fact, Coombe notes, “the label logged more releases than most highly local ventures in the entire U.S.”
Ru-Jac founder Mitchell was an associate of Little Willie Adams, a prominent Baltimore figure described in a 2011 Baltimore Sun obituary as someone who “went from being a numbers runner on the streets of Baltimore to to city’s first prominent African-American venture capitalist.” He selected Rufus Mitchell as the general manager of his Carr’s Beach Amusement Company, an organization that developed and maintained Carr’s Beach, one of only two resorts on Chesapeake Bay designed exclusively for African-American vacationers.
By the 1950s, Carr’s Beach was a popular spot on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” frequented by musicians and entertainers of color. A steady stream of quality performers made appearances on Carr’s Beach stages. Mitchell scheduled shows through his Ace Bookings company, often supplying local artists top open for the headliners. Building on his experience gained working in business and entertainment, Mitchell started Ru-Jac in 1963, operating the label out of his home on Laurens Street, northwest of downtown Baltimore.
Georgia-born Arthur Conley had begun his musical career in 1959 with Arthur & the Corvets, releasing three singles on an Atlanta-based label. By 1964 he had moved to Ru-Jac, releasing “I’m a Lonely Stranger.” That single attracted the attention of Otis Redding, who convinced Conley to work with him instead. After cutting Conley’s remake of “I’m a Lonely Stranger” for his own Jotis label, Redding collaborated with Conley to write “Sweet Soul Music,” a massive hit for Atco Records in 1967.
And it was through her interest in Conley’s work that Omnivore Recordings head Cheryl Pawelski first learned of the Ru-Jac story. “Arthur Conley was the lead singer of Harold Holt & His Band,” she says. A couple of Ru-Jac sides were included on a 2011 Ace Records compilation, I’m Living Good: The Soul of Arthur Conley 1964-1974. “I think that was the first time that the Ru-Jac Harold Holt single had appeared in the digital era,” Pawelski says.
Her interest in Ru-Jac piqued, she was very receptive when contacted and offered an opportunity to purchase the label’s entire catalog. Pawelski explains, “A common question that people ask me is, ‘How do you choose your projects?’ The honest answer is that we have a million ideas. Everybody – attorneys, writers, collectors, managers, artists, estates, friends – everybody has ideas. And,” she says with a chuckle, “it’s my job to say ‘no’ for a living.”
But in this case, Pawelski responded to the idea with an enthusiastic ‘yes.’ “And Ru-Jac is a great label to start with,” she says, “because it’s a lot of fun for me. I like doing deep research.” But Ru-Jac would present a great challenge, too, because there was only so much to work with. As the Omnivore team began work on gathering the Ru-Jac material for release, they had to search far and wide for source material.
Omnivore now owned the Ru-Jac catalog, but that didn’t mean that they suddenly had physical possession of a complete set of master tapes. “A lot of the masters never came back from the pressing plants” back in the 1960s, Pawelski says. So the Omnivore team for the project – Pawelski, Coombe, Dutch Cramblitt, Joy Graves, Lee Lodyga and Brad Rosenberger – worked with what they could find.
“We sourced everything from acetates to the most pristine 45s that we could find,” Pawelski says. And when they did locate tapes, those tapes were often of dodgy quality. “We could barely get through some of the tapes, because the splices were breaking,” Pawelski says. “And some were recorded backware and forward, at different speeds.
“This wasn’t a totally professional outfit,” Pawelski says, noting that Ru-Jac founder Mitchell was more of a promoter than a record executive. “But,” she hastens to add, “if he wasn’t a record guy to begin with, he certainly became one.”
After bringing everything up to the highest sonic quality possible without compromising the integrity of the original recordings, Omnivore had enough material for several releases of Ru-Jac music. The label’s first release of Ru-Jac material was Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker at Ru-Jac, released in March 2016.
Winfield Parker was in many ways the cornerstone of the Baltimore label. The multi-talented Parker played guitar and saxophone, sang lead, wrote songs and produced sessions. He would release a string of singles on the label, as well as overseeing sessions by many of the label’s other artists. Omnivore’s 2016 collection features 23 tracks featuring Parker in various contexts: under his own name, as “Little Winfield Parker,” fronting the Shyndells Band, and in the form of some previously-unreleased backing tracks and alternate takes.
But Mr. Clean offered modern-day listeners just a taste of what was to come. In September of 2016, Omnivore released its second collection of material from the singles-only Ru-Jac archive. True Enough: Gene & Eddie with Sir Joe at Ru-Jac spotlights the work of the Baltimore soul duo. Gene & Eddie cut six singles for the label; the compilation features all 12 sides including their sole (local) charting single, “It’s So Hard.” The collection also features four sides from Sir Joe (Joe Quarterman), producer and writer of much of the duo’s materiel as well as a vocalist in his own right.
Omnivore’s busy release schedule – several titles each month – wouldn’t include any Ru-Jac archival releases in 2017, but behind the scenes, work continued. In late January and early February 2018, the label debuted four new standalone compilations of music from Ru-Jac. Under the banner of The Ru-Jac Records Story, the volumes chart the history of the Baltimore indie label in chronological order.
Something Got a Hold on Me covers 1963-1964, the earliest years of Ru-Jac, ones that featured the Kay Keys Band, Little Sonny Daye, Brenda Jones, Parker, the Teardrops Band and several others. Most names won’t be familiar to most outside the Baltimore soul scene of that era, but the quality of the music is undeniable.
Owing to both the passage of time and Rufus Mitchell’s sometimes less than meticulous record-keeping, the Omnivore team would be unable to identify the provenance of some of the Ru-Jac tapes. As a result, two of the cuts on Something Got a Hold on Me – “Trash Can” and the song that provides the set with its its title – are credited to “Unknown Artist.”
And despite Omnivore’s best efforts, that lack of information would sometime extend beyond the name of the artist. Several songs across the Ru-Jac compilations are missing writer’s credit. And session information – recording dates, personnel – would be even more difficult (and sometimes impossible) to come by.
“There’s nothing you can do,” Pawelski admits. “The songs are so great that you can’t say, ‘Well, we’re just not going to include them.’ So we have to just admit that we don’t know who it is; there’s just no information.”
Sides from Holt, Brenda Jones, Butch Cornell’s Trio and Parker predominate on Get Right, the second volume in the new Ru-Jac series, this time covering 1964-1966. Two more volumes, Finally Together and Changes, take the Ru-Jac musical chronology up to its end in 1972, adding a final single released in 1980. Access to the Ru-Jac archives included discovery of a number of demo recordings, instrumental backing tracks and alternate takes, and whenever possible Omnivore has included these on the new collections.
It’s worth noting that the Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie tracks on The Ru-Jac Story discs aren’t repeats of cuts found on Omnivore’s earlier CD releases. “We had some alternate recordings,” Pawelski says, “so that even after doing something comprehensive on both of those artists, we’d still have some nuggets to add.”
And nuggets abound. “I love the Rita Doryse stuff,” Pawelski says, referring to the five cuts that open Finally Together, the volume covering Rujac’s 1966 and 1967 output. And she gushes that Marie Allen – a highlight of the first volume – “just rips the head off the songs she sings. Kitty Lane was a super awesome singer, too.” None of those singers would become a household name beyond Baltimore. “They were all either regional, or didn’t go very far,” Pawelski says.
Cheryl Pawelski readily admits that when she first dug into the Ru-Jac archive, she was unfamiliar with most of the artists. Serious Northern Soul aficionados, however, have long known about the Ru-Jac label. Pawelski says that she discovered that some of the highly collectible 45s from Ru-Jac sell for more than $1,500. “Or more,” she adds. “Sometimes a lot more.” Pawelski credits some “high level collectors” for helping compile the complete picture that The Ru-Jac Records Story represents.
Pawelski stresses the musical and historical importance of the body of work chronicled by Ru-Jac. “Somebody said that it’s a sort of alternate universe Stax/Volt,” she says. The venerated Memphis label had its own stable of in-house writers, including Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Mac Wright and Betty Crutcher. “And in a similar way, the Ru-Jac folks had Arthur Conley and Sir Joe.”
And employing a practice common at the time, writers would often have their songs cut by more than one artist, in hope of increasing the chances for a return on investment. Pawelski says that in that manner, Ru-Jac followed “the way that a bigger publisher or label operated.” Referring to the new compilations, she points out that “you’ll see that Winfield Parker would release different versions of songs. There’s one – ‘Days May Come, Days May Go’ – that he tried two different ways with two different arrangements.”
Remarkably in light of Ru-Jac’s limited output, the six CDs released so far by Omnivore don’t represent the whole story. “There could be one more package that comes out of the Ru-Jac tapes,” Pawelski says. “Arthur Conley’s songwriting demos. He was writing a lot at the time,” she explains. “And some of the songs came out on Fame and other labels … but not all of them.” So the demos in Omnivore’s possession represent a cache of Conley songs “that nobody’s ever heard.”
But the challenges involved in that potential project make the difficulties with the previous Ru-Jac recordings seem small. “For some reason, the (audio) signal most on of the demos I have by Arthur Conley is so low that there’s a lot of hiss,” Pawleksi says. “We’re working right now to do our best to marginalize that.” She remains confident that Michael Graves of Osiris Studio – the man responsible for the audio restoration on all the Ru-Jac material – will “have it signing to the best of his technological capabilities.”
And Cheryl Pawelski believes that the music deserves the effort. “The songs are amazing,” she says. “I don’t even care about the occasional audio anomalies, because the songs are beautiful.” Listeners interested in a preview of the demos of which Pawelski speaks can hear “Hiding Out in Blue Shadows,” the final track on Get Right: The Ru-Jac Story Volume Two.
If all that’s not enough, Pawelski remains on the lookout for more lost nuggets from music’s past. Making the point that as special as Ru-Jac was, it’s merely one of a large number of local and regional labels that cut songs worthy of rediscovery. “It’s insane, the amount of music that was recorded,” she says. “There are labels all over the place.
“It’s a lifelong pursuit,” Pawelski says. “You keep learning, and your listening aptitude grows and changes. To me, it’s massive amounts of fun. Because it’s endless.”