48 Years Later, A Singer Finally In Demand
Here's today's column--with samples of Loraine Rudolph's songs embedded as links...
Forty-eight years ago, an ambitious teenager with a whale of a voice and a dream born of evenings singing doo-wop on street corners found her way from Louisville to Detroit, to an apartment just upstairs from the Gordy family's recording studio.
In 1960, Loraine Rudolph became a cog in the hit music machine later known as Motown. She sang back-up for one future star after another, toured with The Spinners, hung out with Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye and lived with Motown mogul Berry Gordy's sister and her husband, the singer and producer Harvey Fuqua.
The hitmakers in the extended Gordy family thought Rudolph might make it as a lead singer, so she cut a couple of records under her own name, and a couple more as a duo (Loe and Joe) with a Chicago cab driver.
"They went nowhere," says Rudolph, who since 1971 has lived in a tidy brick house in the Hillcrest Heights section of Prince George's County. No radio play, no sales to speak of. Like many artists from that time, Rudolph never saw a penny from any of her records.
After less than two years in Detroit, Rudolph moved to Washington to be with her sister. She spent two decades clawing out a living as a singer at legendary nightspots such as the Bohemian Caverns and Pitts' Red Carpet Lounge, but that all ended in 1981 when she hurt her back. Then, earlier this month, a friend who'd been bopping around on eBay told Rudolph that she has some not-so-secret admirers. Hundreds of them, on three continents. A whole world of people who trade Loraine Rudolph stories and collect her records and outbid one another for anything she's made.
"I'm over here, all banged up and beat up, calling myself retired, and all of a sudden I find out one of my 45s is selling for $100," she says. "I remember when they were 69 cents, and when they went on sale, two for a dollar."
On one eBay page advertising a Rudolph song, the record was described as "hot and in demand."
"Hoo-ooh!" Rudolph shrieks, collapsing into a girlish giggle. "In demand! What can I say? I hit a lot of brick walls in my life, but no smash hits."
As it turns out, her "Keep Coming Back For More" has been a steady hit since the mid-1980s in the Northern Soul scene, a thriving music subculture in clubs in the British Isles, on the European mainland and in Australia. Djs compete to find obscure 1960s and 70s soul records, mostly from Detroit and Chicago, that fit the hard-driving, jazz-inflected, dance-tune Northern Soul template. When Rudolph's song was first rediscovered, says Dublin dj Danny Duggan, the man who found it, Guy Hennigan, would cover up the singer's real name on the records so other djs couldn't copy his playlist.
But Rudolph's name is now firmly attached to that song, and collectors are on the hunt for more. Rudolph wishes she could help with that search, but although she still keeps towering stacks of old 45 rpm records in a cabinet in her den, she doesn't have a single one of her own recordings.
"We signed our whole lives away and never knew it," she says of her time with the Gordys. "We gave them power of attorney, everything." Living with the first family of Motown, Rudolph heard firsthand the executives' attitude toward the hungry young singers who would do almost anything to be on a record. When some artists agitated for a share of the receipts from their records, Rudolph says one of the Gordy sisters told her, "I'm not giving them nothing. They all come out of the projects. The only thing they can count is roaches."
Convinced she'd never make it as a singer, Rudolph left Detroit on a Greyhound bus in the middle of a snowstorm, headed to the District carrying only a single suitcase and a box tied shut with two of Fuqua's neckties.
There would be a couple of other recording dates, but Rudolph doesn't think any of those songs were ever released. She can't even recall where she recorded the 45 that's most in demand on collectors' Web sites; neither the label nor the producer's name rings a bell.
Rudolph's life in Prince George's is a long way from Motown. She's lived on Social Security ever since her back injury forced her to stop playing nightclubs. On her dining room wall, there are reminders of some fine times -- a telegram from jazz legend Lionel Hampton telling her that "a great voice like yours comes along once in a decade," a framed cigarette butt that trumpeter Miles Davis dropped on Rudolph's table as he chatted her up at a U Street club in 1966.
Now, Rudolph says, "I'm old, I'm not as pretty as I used to be." She has trouble getting around, the house next door is boarded up -- another foreclosure -- and she just gets by. The money she sees flowing around the Internet for her records can seem awfully enticing.
"I know what they're doing is legal because if you buy a record, you can make a fruit bowl out of it if you want to," she says. "But it still seems unfair somehow."
The collectors who worship Rudolph's sound from across the oceans agree. They wonder if they could maybe bring her over for an appearance (she's never been outside the States.) They want any information they can get on the singer they know only from a couple of 45s.
"At one point, I even tried to locate Lorraine," says Vince Peach, a radio dj and collector in Melbourne, Australia who discovered Rudolph while searching for records connected with Huey Meaux, a legendary Texas producer. But to most collectors, Rudolph's trail stopped in the early 1970s, when she toured with The Spinners as a replacement for Dionne Warwick.
Rudolph doesn't know whether to be bitter that her records are selling for big money or thrilled that she's discovered fans she never conceived existed. Both emotions come over her in waves. "What can I do to get a piece of this?" she says one minute, then, just a few seconds later, "I guess I am 'in demand' now, huh?"
Her big, round eyes fill and she's very quiet. And then: "I always did think I should be in demand."
By Marc Fisher |
August 31, 2008; 7:25 AM ET
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