Marva Whitney, one of the greatest soul singers to come out of Kansas City, died of complications from pneumonia last December. Whitney was best-known for her association with James Brown — she was a member of his James Brown Revue and later released solo records for Brown's King Records. Brown, sometimes known as Soul Brother No. 1, used to call Whitney Soul Sister No. 1.
By 1969, Brown and Whitney's romantic and professional relationship had soured (for those details, see Whitney's book, God, the Devil and James Brown: Memoirs of a Funky Diva), and Whitney returned to Kansas City. Back home, she hooked up with a man named Ellis Taylor, who ran the only soul label in town: Forte Records.
Forte Records operated from 1967 until the late '70s and released soul and funk albums from such groups as the Four Darlings, Everyday People, the Fabulous Rhythm Makers, and the Rayons. Unless you're a crate-digging DJ, a serious record collector or a local historian, those names likely don't register. But to the Chicago-based Numero Group — a pre-eminent reissue label that this week officially releases 28 songs from Forte's catalog on CD and a double LP — the songs have been worth years of pursuit.
"Forte is one of those labels that's been kind of known to us for a long time — it's been floating around," says Rob Sevier, a Numero Group founder who heads up Eccentric Soul, the funk-soul arm of the label. "Ten years ago, shortly before Ellis Taylor died, he basically dumped all his record stock to a junker — a guy who cleans out houses, basically. So there was this junker selling all these old Forte 45s on eBay, and I bought a bunch and so did a lot of other people. For a moment in time, they were very attainable records."
This was before Numero Group was even a label; Sevier was collecting purely out of enjoyment. He says he remembers hearing from other collectors that Taylor's son, Ellis Jr., was considering reissuing Forte's catalog. But that never came to pass. "Then about five years ago, we started thinking seriously about Forte," Sevier says. "By that point, we had gone from being a label that barely existed to one that had done a lot of soul reissues. So we were in a position to get a Forte release some attention." (Forte is the second KC-area reissue from the Numero Group; in 2008, it released a four-LP boxed set of Titan Records' late-'70s and early '80s power pop.)
The process was slowgoing. Whitney, who married (and later divorced) Ellis Taylor, owned half the rights to the label's masters; Ellis Jr. had inherited the other half after his father's death. Having been burned by record labels in the past, Whitney was initially suspicious of Numero Group and would communicate with the label only via surrogates. One of those surrogates was Dawayne Gilley, a longtime champion and historian of blues and jazz in Kansas City. "Dawayne was integral," Sevier says. "Marva trusted him."
Gilley and Whitney became friends in 1998; they met through another Kansas City diva, Myra Taylor. "I never knew Marva as a funk legend," Gilley says. "I didn't know that about her backstory for four to five years. Then one day at Music Exchange, I saw a reissue of a King album by Marva. Over time, I picked up that she was part of James Brown's show, that she had all these old connections. One time, she had [Stax Records owner] Al Bell give me a call about something or other — I mean, she was the real deal."