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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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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Nice story about an apparently nice lady. In the seventies I knew the Gordy's were pigs and would deceive anybody if they could make a dime. I feel badly for Ms. Rudolph.

Posted by: Michael1945 | August 31, 2008 11:47 AM

She can sing sitting down, can't she?

Posted by: Hank | August 31, 2008 12:21 PM

Great article!!!

Posted by: eclectic elder | August 31, 2008 12:36 PM

Billy Henderon(my husband) founded the Spinners. We were and I am still a dear friend of Lorraine. She supercedes many a female singer. Billy always believed in her until he died last year. My prayers are that she reap the benefits of such a dynamic voice somehow. Its not too late!

Posted by: Barbara Henderson | August 31, 2008 12:57 PM

I pray that someone would help Ms.Lorraine to realize her dream long delayed but not lost. May God bless her and others who have been cheaped by unscrupulous practices. Keep the faith!

Posted by: anthony | August 31, 2008 1:53 PM

A great talent certainly deserving of more recognition. And I know because I had the privilege of working with her here in DC at the start of my carreer and beyond. A mentor and friend Lorraine has been and an inspiration and a joy to know personally for many years. Many blessings!

Posted by: Lincoln Ross | August 31, 2008 3:00 PM

How sad. I have also been told I had a unique voice that could make me some money. So I opted to get educated first.
Suddenly, I wasn't in demand amongst those who wanted to promote me years earlier.

What's the lyric: I'd rather sit on it, than give it away.

Eat Rap!

Posted by: Dream | August 31, 2008 3:21 PM

She can sing sitting down, can't she?

Posted by: Hank | August 31, 2008 12:21 PM

Shirley Horn did.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 31, 2008 5:55 PM

I was one of many patrons to be entertained by Lorraine Rudolph when she performed at the Pitts motel on Belmont Street. She was the consumate performer and suurounded herself with musicians of the same caliber. I am so glad that others have an opportunity to read about a time that was thrilling to be a part of.

Posted by: JH Brooks | August 31, 2008 7:56 PM

Amazing. Radio DJs are the ones who found this music and brought it to the public. But record labels, including Motown, are using artists to claim that radio airplay is BAD, and that radio stations should pay a performance royalty. The record labels say they would share that money with artists and musicians. They've convinced former Supreme Mary Wilson to advocate their cause. But if Berry Gordy had taken care of Mary the way he did Diana Ross, she'd have no need of royalties. Same with Lorainne. Had she been given a share of her music 48 years ago, she'd have something to show for all she did back then. Instead of taking care of the musicians and artists properly the way the should, they instead want the government to force radio to do it. Something seems a little wrong here.

Posted by: George | August 31, 2008 8:03 PM

I went to the Long Beach Blues festival last night. It's in Long Beach, CA. I went only to see Chuck Berry, whom I just love. I now read this article and can't help but reflect about Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and others of that era, being cheated out of royalties, only see a person of color like Berry Gordy, come along and do the same thing to artist.

Posted by: Shag | September 1, 2008 12:11 AM

I am the friend that found Lorraine's record for sale on ebay. I also found my own record from 1975 on sale the same day, but Lorraine's popped up again and again so I let her know about it. I became curious about the designation: "Northern Soul", and looked it up the internet. I was one of her back-up bandleaders and arrangers and I know firsthand of her tremendous gifts as a singer, entertainer and songwriter (she wrote the lyrics to one of my songs.) I'm happy to have been the catalyst for her resurgence and hope the the sky is the limit for her!

Posted by: Gary | September 1, 2008 7:17 AM

Lorraine has been one of my favorite vocalist for years. Not only does she have a gift of delivering the sounds, she's truly a wonderful, funny and generous person. You go girl!!!

Posted by: Lorraine Smith | September 1, 2008 1:53 PM

I know Berry Gordy's reputation and it is well deserved, but shouldn't the anger this time be directed against Harvey Fuqua? Ms Rudolph recorded on Harvey and Tri-Phi and the story shows she moved away from Detroit some time in 1962. Berry Gordy/Motown didn't buy the Harvey and Tri-Phi labels till early 1963. Ironically Fuqua is now a trustee of the Rythym and Blues Foundation who are supposed to assist artists now finding themselves in Ms Rudolph's position.

Posted by: AJ | September 1, 2008 10:05 PM

god bless Lorraine Rudolph, props are most definitely due. Much love from the u.k.

Posted by: soulboy | September 2, 2008 8:26 AM

I had the privilege and honor of playing behind Lorraine back in the day. She really knows how to capture her audience. She is the greatest !!!!!!
Butch White (trombonist)
The Bethorns Section

Posted by: Butch White | September 2, 2008 10:05 AM

Im one of those "Northern Soul" devotees in England. For those who don't know its a club scene that originated in England and now has spread accross the world (the style of music played is generally up-tempo on the fours styled soul from the 60s and 70s mostly late-60s)
Lorraine is one of thoese vocalists the scene loves, an obscure vocalist who has a fantastic voice.Hopefully, now that the internet makes locating people easier which was so hard years ago Lorraine may be able to resurrect some kind of career or least some of her records can be re-released and she can reap some financial rewards

Posted by: Liam fuller | September 3, 2008 8:39 AM

Hi from the uk, been into Northern soul/soul since 72-73 aged 13ish. Big respect to all of the many many soulful voices that have brought me so much pleasure over the years, especially yours Loraine. Have danced to them many many times, the words and delivery STILL give me goosebumps. Im 50 now but can still move on a groove. If you can get over here you will see that there is more love and respect for your music that you will not beleive. Thanks for helping me escape from my working class life to dance at the weekends,a great quote not sure who said it, "We are all in the gutter but some of us looked up and saw the stars" You and your voice were already up there. I am deeply humbled to be able to thank you for cutting those toons. Kimbo.

Posted by: Kimbo | September 3, 2008 3:22 PM

Loraine, your record, "Keep coming back for more' is a trasured 45 in my collection. I am saddened to read the article, and see how you were sorely mistreated by the Gordy's. Please take heart in the fact that your fabulous voice and vocal styling has brought pleasure to many, many more people than you ever thought possible.
God bless you.

Posted by: Trevski | September 5, 2008 10:37 AM

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