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In the spring of 2012, Whitney approached Gilley about looking into Numero Group and evaluating whether the deal they were offering was a legitimate one. "I knew a little about them [Numero]," Gilley says. "So I started calling people I knew I could trust. And everybody was saying Numero pretty much does what they say they'll do. Then I had to educate myself on the history of Forte. I talked to [The Fish Fry's] Chuck Haddix, I had [Cyprus Avenue's] Bill Shapiro look over contracts. And Marva had me talk to Ellis Jr. about it."
Ultimately, Whitney and Ellis Jr. decided to move forward, with Gilley negotiating the deal. "As I told Ellis Jr., at the end of the day they're reissuing a nice keepsake of your mother and father's work that wouldn't otherwise exist, and they're writing you a check to do it," Gilley says. "And maybe one of the songs gets used in a TV show or movie and you get some royalty money. Marva held some of the project up with unusual requests, but you can't really hold that against her — when you've had a lifetime of getting screwed over by record labels, it's hard to trust people."
Whitney was the star of the label in its later years, but in a lot of ways, the story of Forte is Taylor's. Before founding Forte, Taylor worked in a TV repair shop on Walrond Avenue, and then as an engineer at radio station KPRS (then AM, now Hot 103 Jamz).
"Ellis Taylor was a bit of a hustler, and — this is something I've found a lot with old label guys from his era — his inroad to the music business was his knowledge of electrical engineering," Sevier says. "He didn't have a ton of musical talent, but he had the know-how for the equipment. So he hooks up with a DJ named Rick Darnell, who turns out to be kind of a classic music-industry crook who stands between the money and the artists. Darnell recruits Taylor because he needs somebody to generate masters for his artists. They work together on a release, and it flops, and Darnell disappears, but Taylor ends up sticking with the business."
"In 1967 to '69, there wasn't anybody else in KC producing soul or funk music for black folks," Gilley says. "Ellis was a guy who was trying to get talent around here rolling and get artists in front of bigger industry people. I think he was more inspired by the technical and studio side of the process than being a business owner or bigwig. And I think he saw Forte as more of a demo label — he was able to get Decca interested in [Forte artists] Tony Ashley and the Rayons using demos he cut. He didn't hold anybody back, which is what a lot of managers, agents and producers did in those days."
Gilley also notes that business ethics were crucial to Whitney's agreeing to the deal with Numero. "They [Numero] had to agree to pay artist royalties to everybody on the compilation — and work to find everybody on the compilation — or else she wouldn't do the deal," he says. "She wanted to make sure everybody got paid, even if it meant she got less."
Forte continued releasing 45s (never an LP) through the late 1970s, when Whitney and Taylor divorced. Taylor reportedly stored his stock sleeveless, in a squalid garage, until just before his death. After some dark years as a lounge and torch singer, Whitney enjoyed a brief resurgence prior to her death, experiencing popularity abroad and having her work sampled in the DJ and hip-hop worlds. In recent years, certain Forte records have sold online for as much as $3,000.