WLAC DJ John Richbourg’s decision in the early 1960s to extend his experience and to move into other areas of the music industry was timely. He had amassed a fan base through playing blues and gospel on his radio show. Taking advantage of his audience’s enthusiasm and the radio station’s facilities he started recording artists himself and airing these on his own show.
Initially around half a dozen 45s appeared on Rich, which ran from the very late 1950s to the early-mid 1960s. Nashville and Detroit singers would feature. Bobby Hebb’s output was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans. Some local recordings, including those by Jimmy Church remained unreleased until their eventual appearance on The Rich Records Story CD (SPV Blue 49742) in 2007. Other releases on Rich were Detroit recordings by J.J. Barnes and Cornell Blakely (Blakely’s “Don’t Do It” marking the last release on the label).
Shortly after Rich ceased operating, Richbourg met Fred Foster. Foster had come to Tennessee from Washington where he worked as local A&R man for Mercury and ABC-Paramount. Foster’s desire to set up his own label resulted in a business partnership with a local DJ. Monument Records was born in 1958. He soon bought out his partner, and took the label forward and was to become a long running label synonymous with Nashville pop and country legends. It was lucrative enough an operation even in its infancy to spawn a second label, Showcase. According to a 1963 edition of Billboard magazine, Foster was using this label to ‘showcase’ new talent and master-buys (leased-in product). A master of “Arabia” by Indiana band The Delcos had just been procured from the Ebony label, intended for release on Showcase. However Delcos’ manager Juanita Henson was unhappy with the substandard quality of the Ebony recording, and made a deal with Foster to have The Delcos re-record it at a Nashville Studio using Boots Randolph, Bill Justis and other talented Monument musicians. It was a top five regional hit in Pittsburgh, Washington D.C. and Detroit and almost broke the national top 100, but was to be the only release on the Showcase imprint. Registration issues required a name change of the label, and by late 1963 Showcase became Sound Stage 7.
Foster was known to have a passing interest in race music, but when he released an early R&B record on the predominantly pop orientated Monument there was uproar amongst bigoted Nashville music industry executives. It was this response that led him to create an R&B ‘specialist’ label. Studio owner Owen Bradley was fully supportive of Foster’s plan, and offered up his recording facilities for some time.
Roscoe Shelton, Allen Orange and J.R. Enterprises.
By 1964, Richbourg was already building up his own healthy artist roster which included one Roscoe Shelton (b.1931, d. 2002). At the time, Richbourg was sharing an office with Russell Sims who was operating his own label. Shelton already had a sound track record, firstly as a member of The Skylarks, Fireside Gospel Singers and the Fairfield Four. His solo career commenced in the late 1950s, recording on a few local labels including a handful on Excello. At Russell Sims’ label, Shelton recorded “Strain On My Heart” (Sims 217) which became an instant hit, reaching #25 on the Billboard charts in early 1965.
“Strain On My Heart” was written by Allen Orange (d. 2006) who had just arrived from New Orleans, down on his luck. Only a few years previously, Allen was one half of Allen and Allen (the other being legendary artist Allen Toussaint), and had some previous song-writing experience.
It wasn’t long before John Richbourg contacted Fred Foster telling him how excited he was by his idea to set up an R&B label – Foster simply told him “Well, you can run it”. The first forty or so releases were a combination of pop, doo-wop and experimental processes within R&B and soul, from unknowns such as Joanne Touchstone, The Dixiebells and Evaline. From summer 1965 onwards however, John Richbourg was the head man at Sound Stage 7, taking Roscoe Shelton and Allen Orange with him from Sims, and a little later young keyboard player and arranger Bob Wilson, who had wandered into Nashville from Detroit following his work for Ric-Tic. “J.R. Enterprises” now ensured the label had an exclusive R&B remit. So many names now associated directly with Sound Stage 7 - groups like The Valentines, The Fantastics, The Fabulettes, and The Avons; and solo artists such as Roscoe Shelton himself, Joe Simon, Sam Baker, Little Richie, Jimmy Church and Latimore Brown. Allen Orange would be J.R. Enterprises’ first songwriter, producer and occasional recording artists. In the early years at least, Richbourg preferred to opt for Stax and Chips Moman’s American Recording Studios, in Memphis. He would also lease in some product from the cities of the north and across the southern states. Ultimately however talent would be utilised from the rich pool of Nashville R&B and country music songwriters and musicians, right on his doorstep. Sound Stage 7 was now a serious competitor to Excello both in terms of sheer productivity and commercial success.
Shelton was one of the first artists to record for Sound Stage 7 under the supervision of John Richbourg. His “Easy Going Fellow” was released in December 1965 and within a couple of months reached #32 on the R&B Charts. Of particular interest to the northern soul scene however is the powerful uptempo “Soon As Darkness Falls” (Sound Stage 7 S-570), flipside to “A Man’s Love” - both written by Allen Orange; and Shelton’s self-penned stomper “Running For My Life” (Sound Stage 7 S-571).
By the end of 1960s Shelton had grown tired and cynical of the local scene. Things were changing musically; commercially he had failed to sustain his earlier success with Sims and early Sound Stage 7 material; and some of his closest friends in the industry had passed away including Otis Redding and Sam Cook. Disillusioned, Shelton took up a post as a student housing director at Meharry College, the first medical school for African-Americans in the southern states. Other than a couple of sporadic recordings for Ted Jarrett and reissued Sound Stage 7 material via Richbourg’s new labels, Shelton called it a day.
Some twenty-five years later, Shelton would be drawn back to music through the activities of musician and producer Fred James. James was fundamental in pulling together a number of black Nashville singers from the 1960s to satisfy a revived interest in the Nashville R&B scene, particularly across Europe. Shelton would work with old label mate Earl Gaines and other artists, touring as part of a revue, and culminating in new studio recordings. The 1995 British film “Blue Juice” featured Shelton’s “You are/were The Dream” on the sound track; with the film storyline carrying a minor northern soul element. Shelton also received some posthumous recognition through his appearance on the Grammy Award winning 2004 CD Night Train To Nashville.
Roscoe Shelton’s unreleased song “You’re The Dream” (also known as “You Were The Dream”) became an underground favourite on the northern soul scene when it was discovered in the mid-1980s. UK DJ Guy Hennigan recalls how the track was turned up:
“Brian Rae was a rep at Charly Records at the time. He told me I’d be getting a call from the in-house soul R&B expert in London, Cliff White. Cliff has been described in the past as a record industry legend. Put it this way, when James Brown was incarcerated in some US penitentiary or other and limited to outgoing phone calls, he would on occasion ring Cliff for a chat...’nuff said! Lovely bloke as well. Anyway, Cliff explains that Charly have got their hands on a bunch of unmarked master-tapes that originate from Sound Stage 7 / Monument. Original tapes, but a right jumble and no sheets with them. Would I be interested in coming down to London and going through them for them? He added that I could pull off and use any of the tracks exclusively, and somewhere in the not too distant future they would add my choices to a compilation album, another volume of Rare Soul Uncovered possibly. I had helped my mate Dave Evison put together the first comp LP a few years before. A day or two later I'm sat in some dark studio with an engineer, twenty cigs, four or five cans of bitter and a pile of scruffy tape reels. Some boxed, canned, loose, quarter-inch and half-inch etc. God, I was excited, imagining a female version of Little Ritchie by Gwen Davies, Ella Washington doing “Running For My Life”, Ted Ford doing...I think you catch my drift. Well, we were ploughing through the tapes, and zilch, three cans drunk, ten cigs smoked and nothing. Well nothing for a hard-core Northern Soul boy, didn't give a shit really about other forms of black music at the time. The rather miserable engineer who it appeared didn't give a shit about any form of black music whatsoever. He was very obviously wanting to be somewhere else - anywhere else - kept suggesting I give up. Then we put on this unboxed, unmarked quarter-inch reel and hit the play button. Five seconds of silence…then the count in: "one, two, one, two, three, four"; then that first tinkle on the vibes. I knew what was coming even before Roscoe’s spoken intro "Darling, I went to sleep last night". I just knew this was gonna explode into a cracker. I felt it, I'm already half out of my seat as the thumping drum and baritone sax burped in, it just didn't let go. I think the engineer chap thought I'd gone mental, leaning over the spinning reels, fist pumping the air in time with the beat. It was a pounding piece of supreme northern soul. A perfect discovery for that period too; hard hitting for the top-end, hard-core northern soul crowd. Unissued and totally unknown too! We kept on until we'd been through the reels. Found an alternative take of Jimmy Church “Right On Time”, and a few other bits and pieces. But "You’re The Dream", was a DJ’s dream - come true! That pile of tapes was about a foot high, and represented just a very tiny piece of what that group of labels put out. God knows what's still hidden out there, even now.”
UK collector and DJ Mark “Butch” Dobson acquired the 7” studio acetate in more recent years: “I first heard ‘You’re The Dream’ at the Stafford all-nighters via Guy, when he played it as a dub from the original tapes. I got the original acetate from Soulbowl many years later. I can’t remember when exactly, maybe around 2000. I’m not sure where John Anderson (Soulbowl owner) got it from, but he had about a hundred acetates for sale at a Cleethorpes weekender.”
Modified chapter excerpt from House of Broken Hearts, a book by E. Mark Windle available to order in the new book section. Copyright E. Mark Windle (2017, 2018)