Old Soul Never Dies: A Quirky, Historical Cleveland Record Label Gets New Life

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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."

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