OK, kids, it's time to fasten your seatbelts, put on your official Captain Musique time traveler helmets and set the controls for the heart of ... Baltimore?
Yup! As in gooood morning, Baltimore!
And as a precursor to this review I ask you to sort of imagine an alternate universe to the original movie of Hairspray (which takes place in Baltimore and features an awesome soundtrack of period hits and forgotten-by-some swingin' n swayin' dance grooves). In this alternate vision of John Waters' classic film, there is an equally groovy alternate soundtrack featuring mostly local and regional artists who issued mostly 45 RPM singles, most of which were probably sold in stores around Baltimore and the Washington, DC area. Among those recordings would probably be singles put out by a brave indie label named Ru-Jac Records.
Now, don't worry if you've never heard of this label - - I barely had heard of it when I first started listening to these CDs... I think I have one of these singles somewhere in my collection (I need to double check!). I certainly don't expect many of you to have heard of most of these artists as many were just local entities as far as I can tell thus far. But that doesn't mean the music is any less good -- in fact a lot of the music on these four CDs is quite terrific and worthy of your exploration.
So, the time frame for the music on the Ru-Jac label begins around 1963, pretty much the dawning of modern soul and R'nB as we know it today... this was the period of post-Doo Wop, and just before The Beatles and British Invasion music swept the nation. The Beach Boys were building up steam and the "girl group" sounds of The Ronnettes, The Crystals and others were in the air. The Motown sound was bursting out of Detroit while Stax and Volt Records were playing all the way from Memphis. And down there in that corridor between Baltimore and Washington D.C., a fertile music scene emerged delivering numerous great artists some of which went on to some notoriety.
This new four CD retrospective from Omnivore Recordings paints a vibrant portrait of a very creative independent record label (note: look for Amazon links on each volume sub-header following). There is a great story told across the four included booklets explaining the trials and tribulations of the label, from its genesis as an outgrowth of a publishing and booking arm of a local entertainment / amusement complex to a full-fledged label trying to nurture and break out new talents.
Volume One is sub-titled Something Got A Hold On Me maps the early period where as the label gets its footing issue some very cool sides between 1963 and '64. These include the smokin' opening (previously unreleased) instrumental called "Fatback" by Lamont Esquires. "Everyday I Have The Blues" by Jeanne Dee may be the swingin-est take on that theme. "When I'm Alone" by Winfield Parker easily stands up alongside classic Otis Redding sides from the period. "The Monkey Cha Cha" by The Jolly Jax sounds like some alternate universe version of The Mar-keys -- the Stax band which had the early hit "Last Night"-- by way of a dance scene in a teen exploitation flick of the period. Like the label's output of this period, this CD is all over the place and a whole lot of fun because of it! If you have Tidal, you can stream this album as well at this link.
Volume Two, called Get Right, escalates from '64 to '66 with more sophisticated production and better song writing still. Some of my favorites on this include "It Must Be Love" by Brenda Jones and Winfield Parker's "I Love You Just The Same." Perhaps the most fun track is by a group called The Mask Man &The Cap-Tans and its called "Chicken Wings." That is as in 'do the chicken wings!' You can't make stuff like this up folks - it's the best dance craze that never happened since Lou Reed's "Do The Ostrich." If you have Tidal, you can stream this album as well at this link.
Volume Three, Finally Together, covers the '66-67 period and again Winfield Parker's tracks jumped out at me right from the get go: "Sweet Little Girl" and "Go Away Playgirl." But there are many other great tunes on this disk including songs by Rita Doryse, Kitty Land and Leon Gibson. If you have Tidal, you can stream this album as well at this link.
Volume Four, Changes, may be the best overall end-to-end listen of the series as it takes you from 1967 on through to 1980 and features more sophisticated productions and songwriting. The album contains some of my favorites in the series including "You Don't Fool Me" by Gene & Eddie (who are sort of like Sam & Dave, but with a harmony sound all their own). They also include killer alternate take of "Let Me Go Easy" by that duo which has a wonderful hook and a great soul horn section. "Take Me Back Again" by the Fred Martin Revue sounds like a cross between Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Little Anthony & The Imperials and The Flamingos. "Contagious" has some drum breaks I'm sure some DJs somewhere must have sampled, falling somewhere between "Wooly Bully" (Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs) and (the aforementioned) "Last Night" by The Ma-keys - a way fun little instrumental groover there! "Changes" by a group called Saturday would have been a great tune for Charles Bradley (RIP) to cover. "It's a Trap" sounds kind of like a wonderful cross between a singer with Curtis Mayfield like vocals and lyrics set to a nifty rethink of The Shocking Blue's "Venus" riff held together on a groove even James Brown would have dug. If you have Tidal, you can stream this album as well at this link.
And so it goes with The Ru-Jac Records Story series. Included in each CD is a remarkably detailed study of all the artists included on the set. I used the word "remarkably" very specifically because usually when you read about little indie record labels in reissue booklets and such there's typically not much information available. So it is refreshing to learn where these records came from and why they are still valid today.
Omnivore Records should be applauded for their efforts pulling these fine collections. These are mostly fine sounding recordings apart from the handful of archival tracks and demos, made from I would suspect are the best available sources. Some later period tracks sound pretty incredible, actually.
If you like vintage soul and rhythm 'n blues, Ru-Jac Records may well become your jams of the year.