'The Ru-Jac Records Story' Is Like Some Alternate-Universe Stax/Volt Compilation

One of the most interesting aspects of The Ru-Jac Records Story is that it's a collection of music that many people never even knew existed. It's one thing to put out a multi-disc set from the vaults of, say, Sub Pop, Factory, or Blue Note – well-established, iconic labels that helped define genres. But who's ever heard of Ru-Jac except for hard core soul fanatics?

Fortunately, the folks at Omnivore Recordings know all about Ru-Jac, and true to their reputation as a reissue label that knows no genre boundaries -- they're responsible for reissues of works from everyone from Big Star to Maynard Ferguson to Townes Van Zandt -- they've assembled an endlessly entertaining four-volume set of the Baltimore label's potent soul recordings.

Founded in 1963 by Baltimore promoter Rufus Mitchell and investor partner Jack Bennett, Ru-Jac specialized in regional R&B music and was primarily active from 1963 to 1972. Ru-Jac soldiered on in the mid-'70s after Bennett left the label and continued to release music until 1980. The four discs are available individually and each mark specific periods of Ru-Jac's existence: Something Got a Hold on Me (1963-64), Get Right (1964-66), Finally Together (1966-67), and Changes (1967-80). As with any chronological compilation, it's fascinating to witness the stylistic arc of the label's roster as it moves from doo-wop to disco-tinged funk over the course of a nearly 20-year period.

The aforementioned roster is odd in that the artists are almost all relative unknowns to just about anyone but the most dedicated scholars of Baltimore's soul scene. One possible exception is the legendary Arthur Conley, who rose to fame in 1967 with the classic "Sweet Soul Music". Prior to that massive hit, Conley recorded a handful of music for Ru-Jac, including the single "I'm a Lonely Stranger" in 1964 (bringing him to the attention of Otis Redding), but the only two Conley recordings included here are demo takes of "Whole Lotta Woman" and "Hiding Out in Blue Shadows". It's refreshing to note that this collection is heavy on demos and alternate takes, giving it a real "digging through the vault" feel.

The remaining acts in this set are wide and varied and include Ru-Jac artists such as Harold Holt, Brenda Jones, Celestine, and Winfield Parker, the latter a Ru-Jac flagship artist who still performs to this day and was one of Omnivore's primary consultants for these reissues. His soulful ballad "When I'm Alone" is one of the highlights of Volume 1 and helps set the scene for the kind of music that Ru-Jac was cranking out, particularly in the fertile soul climate of mid-'60s Baltimore. It's a heart-on-the-sleeve tale of heartbreak, accompanied by plaintive piano and a mighty horn section. Jesse Crawford and the Kay Keys Band also contribute to a similar style on that first disc with the sturdy, bluesy "I Love You So", in addition to the more upbeat, Latin-flavored "Please Don't Go".

Lacking the commercial sheen of Motown, the Ru-Jac sound is more in line with the rough, Memphis soul of Stax, a comparison that holds even more water with the inclusion of instrumental tracks like "Fatback" by the Lamont Esquires or "Goose Pimples" by Butch Cornell's Trio. The combination of tossed-off song titles and finger-popping, Hammond organ-fueled R&B melodies brings to mind Stax instrumental combos like the Mar-Keys and Booker T. and the M.G.'s. The music is that good.

The formula, particularly on the early volumes, is somewhat predictable yet no less intoxicating: a heaping helping of melody, emotion, and soul. The Ru-Jac roster also depends heavily on female artists like Brenda Jones, who channels contemporaries like Dee Dee Warwick and Claudine Clark with lively, horn-spiked pop/soul gems like "Can't You See" and silly, teen-targeted tracks like "Let's Go Back to School". Adding another unique dimension to the collection are tracks by the Fruitland Harmonizers, a gospel combo who add stirring fervor to songs like "My Father Watches Over Me", sounding like Hank Ballard and the Midnighters taking over the local Baptist chapel.

A slightly frustrating aspect of the set results from lack of decent documentation (or perhaps, lost paperwork) – a few of the tracks have "Unknown" listed as the artist. As a result, the Jackie Wilson-inspired swing of "Something Got a Hold on Me" is uncredited. The same goes for tracks like the frenetic female shout of "Searching", the stately girl-group ballad "Never Never Leave Me" and the greasy, horn-laden funk of "Trash Can". In a way, the mystery of these tracks makes them somehow more enjoyable, like you're in on a secret that nobody else knows.

Throughout the '60s and into the '70s, it's apparent that Ru-Jac was intent on keeping its finger on the pulse of contemporary R&B, to the point of mimicking current acts that were enjoying mainstream popularity. I can't pretend that the artists known as Gene & Eddie weren't an attempt to create another Sam & Dave, and the tight funk of their single "I Tell You" is a wonderful track, but an almost overly obvious nod to Stax's legendary duo. Likewise, Winfield Parker's "She's So Pretty" (from Volume 4) is a fantastic dancefloor stomper obviously inspired by Wilson Pickett singles like "Land of 1,000 Dances".

As the Ru-Jac story begins winding down into the '70s, their songs faithfully adapt to the times – "Keep Off the Grass" by the terrifically named Dynamic Corvettes employs a wah-wah guitar funk sound that conjures up images of bell bottoms and Streets of San Francisco chase scenes. "Contagious" by Fred Martin Revue updates the Ru-Jac instrumental combo tradition for the Watergate era. "Think of Me As Your Soldier" by Jimmy Dotson & Rhythm By Inner Light Band is a bright slice of late '70s quiet storm ballads, aided in large part by Dotson's flawless, soulful vocalizing and a lovely soprano sax solo.

Going through all 100 tracks in this four-volume set is a bit of a surreal experience in that the songs are all new to most ears but have an instantly recognizable sound and feel as if they were in heavy rotation at one time but were somehow wiped from listeners' memory banks. It's like some alternate-universe Stax/Volt compilation. In other words: an essential collection for anyone who can't resist the allure of classic soul music.

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