On February 2, Omnivore Recordings will release the third and fourth discs in their splendid compilation series The Ru-Jac Records story. Ru-Jac was a Baltimore-based soul and R&B label founded by Rufus Mitchell and Jack Bennett (hence the label name) that began operations in 1963 and continued into the 1970s. The label featured better-known artists like Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie (Omnivore has already released CDs devoted to the work of these artists) along with many lesser but should have been better-known artists.
Cheryl Pawelski is a co-founder of Omnivore. Her music business career has been focused on preserving, curating and championing historic music and has included stints at Rhino Entertainment, Concord Music Group, and Capitol-EMI Records. Her many accomplishments include supervision and production of reissues and box sets by artists like Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin & King Curtis, Otis Redding, John Coltrane, the Staple Singers, and many more. Cheryl has also served as a Governor and Trustee of the Recording Academy and she is currently on the Board of Directors of the Blues Foundation.
Recently, I discussed The Ru-Jac Records Story releases with Cheryl who co-produced the Ru-Jac reissue series with Kevin Coombe.
Kevin Coombe has provided extensive liner notes for each of the four volumes. Together they lay out the history of Ru-Jac Records. What is the cliff notes version?
The Baltimore soul/R&B label Ru-Jac Records was founded in 1963 by local promoter Rufus Mitchell and investor partner Jack Bennett (their names forming the Ru-Jac label name). The label primarily released regional soul/R&B singles from 1963 until the mid-1970s, when Mitchell stepped away to focus on another business venture. A few tracks had been licensed throughout the years, but until now, there have been no comprehensive collections of the Ru-Jac label.
How did Omnivore come to acquire the rights to the Ru-Jac catalog?
A music attorney friend of mine had deep ties to the Ru-Jac catalog. While there had been offers in the past to purchase the catalog, he and the owners had rejected those. We’d worked together before and he thought we’d be a good home. Turns out, I think he was right! We’re so grateful to be the caretaker of this music. It’s a great responsibility and a great joy. There are so many terrific songs.
Omnivore previously released discs focused on Ru-Jac artists Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie. What was the thinking in regard to releasing these discs before the multi-artist compilations?
They were the biggest artists on the label and the most recorded. We thought it’d be great to get those out first before diving into the overall story which naturally took longer. There were lots of tapes and acetates to transfer and try to identify, nothing being marked well, of course. So while we were sorting and figuring out as much as we could of the material emanating from the sources, we thought it’d be best to re-introduce Ru-Jac with Winfield Parker (a consulting producer on the whole reissue program) and Gene & Eddie with Sir Joe first.
While you were preparing these compilations was there one artist you were previously unfamiliar with who impressed you, or maybe one you hadn’t heard for awhile who surprised you?
There were many. The Teardrops Band featuring Marie Allen just shreds. I love the Mask-Man and the Cap-Tans tracks. There are so many great tracks, some by completely unknown, unnamed artists. Notable to me are Celestine, Brenda Jones, The Jolly Jax, Rita Doryse, Kitty Lane, Leon Gibson, Dynamic Corvettes, so many – just jump in a let it rip, these are fun!
The liner notes include capsule biographies of the Ru-Jac artists. Is there one great Ru-Jac story, in the notes or not, that you love?
The thing that struck me the most (and to be certain, I don’t love it), and it’s still, sadly, so relevant today is the origin story. Rufus Mitchell, the owner of the label, was a promoter who was booking the segregated beach stages on the east coast. This label has the same sad story that Stax does, not as politically developed musically, and certainly lacking the bigger audience that hits afforded Stax, but the music came from the same place, the African American community. I find it intolerably sad and infuriating, the racial divides that existed then and persist and are being stoked now. It makes want to protect and preserve this music even more. Because of the cultural/political origins of Ru-Jac, I feel besides the super fun nature of the music, we also have a responsibility to tell the story of the artists and people involved and hand the stories and the music down, and not let it be lost to history.
Can we look forward to more Ru-Jac music from Omnivore?
This is pretty much it. It was a singles-only label, so we’ve restored what we could from what we have. If more tapes materialize, for sure, I’d love to do a volume five of odds and sods that might be found in the future, but right now, this is pretty much it. We are working on a collection of demos by Arthur Conley. He was the singer on the Ru-Jac Harold Holt single, but I found all these demos in the Ru-Jac tapes and despite their audio compromises, the songs are simply beautiful. Some are just solo piano demos with him singing, some have a little combo. Later he cut some of the songs he was writing during this time for Jotis, Fame, and Atco, but there are a bunch of previously unknown compositions. If the songs weren’t so cool, we wouldn’t bother because the audio quality may not be brought up to our usual standards. We’re working on it now, but frankly, I can’t get some of the tunes out of my head. That tells me a whole lot. These are intimate and magical little performances in a very workmanlike setting. In one, a phone rings in the middle of the song, a few he announces who he is and the song title at the beginning. It’s fly on the wall stuff and while listening your imagination gets enough clues to paint the scene. I hope folks like them as much as I do.
Provide a brief history of Omnivore. Where did you come from? How long has the label been around? What is your mission as a company? In terms of soul and R&B, what have you done so far and what can fans look forward to?
Omnivore is a label, publisher, licensing and consulting group of industry veterans that came together eight years ago to form a company primarily focused on the preservation and release of older recordings. Focusing as much as possible on great or important recordings that were never previously issued or those left behind or overlooked as the business and configurations rapidly changed over the course of the last 50 years. We’re not interested in genres, we interested in great music. As far as soul/R&B, in the past, we’ve released albums by Arthur Alexander, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, The Bo-Keys, Darondo, Carl Hall, MC Lyte, Bobby Patterson and Bobby Rush. We also just produced a Nina Simone release for BMG that will be released in early February. Looking forward, you never know, we’ll be as surprised as the fans are – that’s all part of the fun.