From the fifties right through the sixties and seventies, all over America, small independent record labels sprung up. From Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Philly and Los Angeles, small labels were founded. They released everything from blues, doo wop, pop, garage and soul music to varying degrees of success. Sadly, much of the music many of these labels released, never found a wider audience. Due to distribution problems, many releases were just regional hits. For many labels, this was deemed a success. Other labels weren’t even that successful. No wonder. Back then, the music business was very different. It was a cutthroat business. Many people running independent labels weren’t cut out for the Machavellian machinations of the music business. As a result, many labels folded after just a few short years. Romark Records lasted longer than many labels. 

Having released its first single in 1963, Romark Records closed its doors a decade later. In 1973, founder Kent Harris decided he’d had enough of the music business. Now forty years later, fittingly, Kent Soul have released a compilation of Romark Records’ releases. Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides, which was compiled by Peter Gibbon and Ady Croasdell, was released on Kent Soul on 27th May 2013. It features twenty-two tracks from Romark Records’ back-catalogue. Of the twenty-five tracks on Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides, four have never been released before. This is a tantalizing prospect. So is that at long last, Romark Records’ music will be heard by a much wider audience. Before I tell you about Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides, I’ll tell you about Romark Records.

Kent Harris was a successful R&B singer, songwriter and producer when he decided to found his own label, Romark Records. He’d released two singles as Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew on the Crest label in 1956. Cops and Robbers reached number nine in the US R&B Charts. This proved to be the end of Kent’s recording career. Instead, Kent decided to concentrate on A&R, songwriting and production. 

Among Kent’s discoveries, were Brenda Holloway, James Shaw and The Duals. Having discovered an artist, Kent wrote and produced their single, which he then placed with a variety of labels, including several Los Angeles based labels. This included singles by The Lon-Genes and The Phillips Sisters, plus veteran blues’ players Cry Baby Curtis and Ray Agee. Towards the end of 1963, Kent decided rather than place his recordings with other labels, he’d found his own label, Romark Records.

Romark Records was founded by Kent Harris towards the end of 1963. Kent named his new label after his son. His nascent label managed to release two singles in 1963. The first was The Phillips Sisters’ After Night. It was followed by I’ll Come Back To You by The Mighty Hannible. Complete with spelling mistake The Mighty Hannible marked the start of what would be a ten year musical journey for Kent Harris. 

Over the next ten years Kent Harris would continue to look for new artists for Romark. Among the artists he signed were Donoman, Eddie Bridges & His Lowriders, Faye Ross, The Francettes, Larry Atkins, Marcene Harris, Marshall McQueen, O’Malley Jones, Obie Jessie Seeds Of Freedom and Ty Karim. They were joined by The Lon-Genes and Ray Agee, plus Romark’s house-band, Romark’s Wrecking Crew. Kent wrote and produced songs for these artists, which were released between 1964 and 1973, when Romark Records closed its doors. Each of these artists feature on Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides. So does Jimmy “Preacher” Ellis. Tough Competition may show another side to Jimmy, but demonstrates why they called him the “preacher.” While Tough Competition is one of the highlights of Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides, there’s many more soulful delights awaiting discovery on this compilation. I’ll now tell you about them.

The track that opens Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides is Ty Karim’s All At Once. It sets the standard for Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides. All At Once was the B-side to her 1965 single You Really Made It which was recorded in Ray Charles’ studio. Written by Kent with Larry Jackson, it was arranged by Jerry Long. This is a mid-tempo ballad, which has a dramatic, Northern Soul sound. Key to this are the blazing horns and sweeping, urgent harmonies that accompany Ty’s heartbroken vocal. By the time this soul-baring track closes, you realize why Ty Karim would soon be regarded as Romark’s biggest star.

When Ray Agee recorded It’s Hard To Explain in 1972, he was something of a musical veteran. Originally, he’d been a blues singer, but had with Kent’s guidance, became a soul singer. Here, blues, soul and gospel are combined. A wailing, atmospheric Hammond organ adds a gospel sound, while a blues guitar and lush soul strings add to the emotion, sadness and frustration in Ray’s vocal. Reminiscent of B.B. King and Ray Charles, this isn’t just a minor classic, but a reminder of one of the most underrated, but talented singers of his generation.

Given that The Phillips Sisters released Romark Records’ first single, it’s fitting that one of their singles feature on Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides. 1964s Where Did You Stay Last Night sees The Phillips Sisters at their best. Their vocals are feisty, frustrated and angry, while growling horns, handclaps and driving rhythm section accompany them. Although the sound is raw and gritty, it’s certainly not lacking in emotion and energy. Indeed, it’s what you’d get if you combined of Ike and Tina Turner with The Supremes. 

Larry Atkins has three tracks on Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides. Good as they all are, one stands out for me, Ain’t That Love Enough. Released in 1967, this is another track that will appeal to Northern Soul fans. With a stomping beat and sweeping, cooing harmonies, Larry’s worried vocal is filled with emotion. He feeds off the backing vocals, mixing power and passion, he pleas and questions on this hidden soulful gem.

Another of Kent’s pre-Romark discoveries was The Lon-Genes. Kent realizing they were a talented group, signed them to Romark. That was a good decision. Proof of this is the mid-tempo ballad, Dream Girl. From its sound, you could guess that it was released in 1964. Driven along by piano and percussion, the lead vocal is filled with loneliness and longing. Harmonies sweep in, as is trying mend a broken heart. Nothing could do this, apart from a “Dream Girl.” Wistful, melancholy and beautiful, this song is all this and more.

Deborah Foster released Bye Bye Baby (I’m Leaving You) in 1984, despite Romark closing its doors in 1973. By then, music had changed. You can hear that here. Synths are used extensively. This was the norm though, when electronica and soul met head on. Even that doesn’t spoil this soulful farewell. As Deborah bids farewell to the man she loved, her vocal soars high above an arrangement, which features piano, synths and rhythm section. It’s as if she’s been freed and her life is about to start all over. Backing vocalists sweep in, as Deborah, mixing gospel and soul, says goodbye and soulfully, heads to destination unknown.

Earlier I said that Jimmy “Preacher” Ellis’ Tough Competition was one of the best tracks on Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides. I haven’t changed my mind. Released in 1972, Jimmy was a well travelled singer. Previously, he’d been a member of The Centuries, but when they split-up, became a blues singer. On Tough Competition, Jimmy fuses blues, gospel and soul, pleading, preaching, questioning and unleashing power, passion and emotion. 

My final track from Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides is Marshall McQueen’s If I Can’t Stop You. Marshall penned the track with Jesse Roberts. It’s one of two songs Marshall has on the compilation. Sadly, neither were ever released. This is the first time this track has ever been released. That it’s not been released before seems almost unjust. His whispery vamp quickly becomes a soaring soulful falsetto. As Marshall pleads and begs, his vocal is filled emotion, hurt and heartache. Describing this track as soulful and heartbreaking, doesn’t even come close.

That Romark Records outlasted many other labels is no surprise. If you listen to Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides you realize why. Quite simply, Romark Records released better music, music that changed as musical fashions changed.  Owner and founder Kent Harris realized that this was crucial. Music was constantly evolving, so labels had to evolve. Another reason for Romark Records success, was they were always looking for new artists. 

With Kent Harris in charge of A&R, Romark Records were constantly discovering talent. These new artists were transformed. Their talent was then honed. After all, there was no point an artist releasing a single before they were ready. Then, when they were ready to release a single, Kent would often write it. He would take charge of production. Sadly, many of Romark Records’ releases weren’t huge commercial successes. This wasn’t a reflection on the music. Instead, it was about Romark Records’ size. 

Other “independent” labels, including Stax, Hi, Motown and Philadelphia International Records’ music were backed by majors. Romark Records weren’t. This put them at a huge advantage. As a result, many of their releases weren’t the commercial successes their quality deserved. So, by 1973, and after ten years in business, Kent Harris decided that Romark Records would close its doors. Soul lost another label. Now just a handful of labels, with their trademark sounds, dominated soul. Soul, it seemed, had lost some of its soul. 

Thankfully, Kent Soul decided to rectify this. They decided to delve into the vaults of Romark Records. The result was Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides, which was released on 27th May 2013. Romark Records-Kent Harris Soul Sides included twenty-five soulful reminders of back when soul was a whole lot more soulful. Standout Tracks: Ty Karim All At Once, Ray Agee It’s Hard To Explain, The Lon-Genes Dream Girls and Jimmy “Preacher” Ellis Tough Competition.


1 Comment

  1. dan

    Great review of a great compilation. I believe you are confused, however, in linking Jimmy “Preacher” Ellis to the Trammps. “Preacher” Ellis, born in Arkansas and later of Seattle, has a recent compilation out on Tramp Records. Another Jimmy Ellis, born in South Carolina and passed away in 2012, was the Trammp.

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