History is written by the victors. That's why you've heard of Motown or Stax Records and not Cleveland's own soul upstart, Way Out Records. Housed in a storefront on East 55th St. between Euclid and Chester, the label grew out of an odd-couple partnership between a hustler and a cop.
It released 35 records over eleven years from 1962 to 1973, but despite an occasional alliance with Atlantic or MGM, its artists never found great success and Way Out finally blinked out of existence without much to show for its life. Since then, for four-plus decades or so, the music produced there has remained chiefly the province of vinyl collectors, locked away with other rare 45s.
But it has gotten a fresh look as of late. On July 15, upstart Chicago label Numero Group shed light on this chapter in Cleveland music history with the release of a two-disc label anthology on the Eccentric Soul moniker. Among the label's 53 releases are a three-disc retrospective of local artist Lou Ragland and another three-disc collection featuring the best of the local Boddie Recording Company's in-house labels.
"Eccentric Soul is a phylum of music we've deemed a bit left of center," says Numero Group's Jon Kirby. "You have your Motown, Stax, and High Records. Then you have these musicians and labels that are sort of orphaned from the mainstream."
Eccentric Soul began a decade ago with an anthology of recordings by Columbus native Bill Moss's CapSoul label. Indeed, the Way Out release was actually accompanied by another collection of Columbus R&B entitled Capital City Soul. Numero has made it its mission to seek out forgotten nuggets and those that barely saw the light of day.
"They never took hold and sometimes it's just bum luck or bad distribution deals. Sometimes it was just something that went against the grain," says Kirby. "The independent soul man who may have been one toke over the line, or had three guitarists when one would've sufficed. They didn't always fit in to the musical communities where they were operating. They were people that took risks and made great music that deserves to be celebrated."
The anthology features forty tracks of R&B and soul recorded and released in Cleveland more than 40 years ago. It's highlighted by the sultry feminine funk strut of Betty & Angel's "Honey Coated Loving," the lush harmony-laden sweep of The Sensations' "I Won't Be Hurt" and the elegant jazz-pop "Red Robin" by Volcanic Eruption, featuring backing by the O'Jays (excluding Eddie Levert).
"I don't think this music is by any means inaccessible," says Kirby. "It just means there are people whose music is 40 years old who are now making their debut."
Lester Johnson started Way Out in 1962, and Cleveland cop Bill Branch joined up a couple years later. At the time, Branch was managing The Delamingos. The duo knew each other from around town, as Branch describes it, and eventually connected on their love of music. The two hit it off and would remain close friends until Johnson's death from pancreatic cancer in 1979. The lean, fit 84-year old Branch stays busy working as an electrician these days.
"I don't want to sit at home," says Branch, chatting in a Wendy's on East 55th not far from the site of Way Out's offices.
From the beginning the name was prophetic. "Lester called it Way Out because he thought it as a way out idea to attempt this," says Branch.
Ragland got his start as a teen leading the back-up house band at the old Music Box on Euclid. Johnson caught him performing Joe Scott's "Never Let Me Go" in 1963 and asked Ragland to cut it as Way Out's third-ever release, his only one for the label.
It'd earn Ragland a trip to L.A. to join Billy Ward and the Dominos, but he'd return four months later when Ward tried to cheat him out of credit for his musical contributions. After Ragland came back he sought out Johnson and wound up Way Out's only full-time employee and jack-of-all-trades. He was the in-house engineer, publicist, producer, arranger, writer and session sideman.
"Bill Branch was a policeman and Lester Johnson was a hustler," Ragland explains. "They were trying to get out. They thought they were going to get a megahit and get out of the lives they had. Bill thought he was going to quit the force and Lester thought he was going to retire from the underworld."
But they were rank amateurs who didn't understand what goes into making a successful record. Mostly they discounted the importance of publicity. It wasn't that uncommon among these small-time operators, some of whom — not necessarily Way Out — may have been laundering money.
"There are records by gangsters, hustlers, card sharks and numbers runners but when there is no obligation to make that money back when that money is just kind of free money, there's also no obligation to promote it or provide distribution," Kirby says. "That's why a lot of these groups do end up in a warehouse somewhere."
During his brief time with Ward, that's one thing Ragland noted — Ward was a talented and relentless self-promoter. Ragland knew this was missing and stepped into the breech.
"Promotional and marketing departments didn't exist at Way Out. Closest they got was me writing those booklets and taking photographs," says Ragland. "That was a major part of it so when we spread out to Milwaukee, Chicago, Indiana, New York and all that stuff we didn't have any publicity to go along with it so it didn't catch fire. But the records got their fair share of airplay."
Way Out wound up outmaneuvered by bigger, savvier competitors who knew their way around the game, and had the relationships, money and muscle to close them out.
"Motown folks killed us," Ragland says. "They talked to pressing plants and told them not to supply our record. They would pay people more money not to play our music than we could pay to play it."
Without the cooperation of the pressing plants, Way Out was always a step too late. They could never capitalize on the street-level groundswell quickly enough to get anything going.
"We could have a tune going in the neighborhood and we couldn't get our stuff pressed for three or four weeks. It felt like something was going on, but we really didn't see it," says Branch. "We were new to the game and they were already in the game so they could pull strings. They could tell radio stations, don't play us. They had the muscle."
But even when they had the muscle on their side, things often didn't materialize. Local doo-wop and gospel-soul sextet The Springers landed a slot at the Apollo. Atlantic president Jerry Wexler saw them and helped secure distribution for their debut single. In 1965 Atlantic backed their second single, but neither broke out, and Atlantic ended the partnership.
"They had the record," says Branch. "Why they didn't get it played, I don't know, because they were a big dog at the time for R&B."
Still looking for the kind of backing that would give them a fighting chance, Way Out turned to a hometown hero. They reached out to Jim Brown through their relationship with his former teammates Leroy Kelly and Walt Roberts. Don King was another early, limited investor in the company too.
"Jim at the time was dealing with the [Negro Industrial and Economic Union] and they propositioned him that this was a good thing," recalls Branch. "At the same time Jim was transitioning from football to movies so we were able to get a contract with MGM through him."
The only problem was that while MGM was much more familiar with the music business than Way Out, they weren't any more plugged in on soul.
"They didn't really have anything happening in the R&B field — they were a pop label," Branch says. "They didn't really have no muscle in the game. As a favor to Jim they took us on, but they never really gave us a push."
By the late sixties Ragland had left to make his own music and run a series of Cleveland labels before moving West and settling in Las Vegas 33 years ago. In the early seventies, Branch began pulling back from the label and devoting his time to other endeavors.
Johnson pushed on a couple more years, releasing the final Way Out record, "Ain't That a Heartbreak" by Norman Scott, a guitarist in Lou Ragland's funk combo Wildfire, in 1973.
But the music didn't completely disappear. Ragland remembers clever Brits coming over during the seventies and buying up old soul singles. It's proven a good investment. Ragland saw where a British collector paid £1500 for his very rare Way Out single. Others routinely go for hundreds of dollars
"I look on the internet sometimes and it amazes me," say Branch with a shake of his head and a chuckle. "We couldn't sell them for 40 cents."
Sometimes Branch wishes he could have another shot. He knows there's still gold out there if he only had an opportunity to mine it.
"To me the music may be dated and nostalgia but that doesn't mean the stories aren't good stories or the lyrics aren't good or there isn't a good melody," he says. "There are several songs I'd love to do again with a modern tempo and some modern sounds. There is so much you can do now that we couldn't do then."
At the very least he's happy to have taken his shot, however it turned out.
"All of that is part of the business," he says. "The mix is mean, and there's a lot of heartache and crap in it, but those that have something special will generally get the opportunity to rise up. It can take a long time. There must be 20 million singles and artists and crap around the country. And only 10 to 15 at the top? Shit, it's a hard game."
Kirby, who eventually turned his musical obsessions into an avocation, suggests that while there may be no perfect arbiter of greatness, popularity may be one of the worst. It's too fickle and prone to manipulation. In his estimation, true musical talent endures noticed or not.
"You have this independent black business operating in East Cleveland with little to no crossover success that believed enough in what they did that they kept doing it for 11 years," Kirby continues. "Yet they were putting out these records that were jaw-droppingly beautiful. But if you didn't hear about it back then, we're here to let you know it now. It's not all for nothing — somebody cares, and more will."