One day, an album appeared in a Harrisburg coffee shop, sparking a search for the little-known story of Soulville Records.
This past April, a few days before Little Amps Coffee Roasters’ annual celebration of Record Store Day, a man named George Luckette came into the coffee shop on Green Street, unannounced, to donate two wrapped vinyl copies of the album, “Soulful Sounds of Soulville.”
We put the album on the turntable and swooning voices and soulful tempos from another time filled the café. I happened to be working that day, and Luckette nonchalantly mentioned that all of the songs were produced in Harrisburg.
Later, after Luckette had left, I thought more about that album, about the old songs, about the times they evoked and about the oddity that the record was made right here, in Harrisburg. And so began a months-long quest as I set out to discover exactly what—and who—Soulville was and, in the process, learn more about Harrisburg’s place in the legendary soul music era of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Things Took Off
“It’s a long story,” said Rev. Bobby Fulton, one of Soulville Records’ founders, when we spoke in August.
Tracking down the right people to tell me about Soulville was a challenge, especially because Fulton had moved to Pittsburgh decades ago. When I finally did reach him, he was happy to talk about the start of his label.
“I can’t take all the credit for Soulville,” he said. “I just like to say that Soulville was all [the people] really from the village where we lived in Harrisburg. The whole city, in my coming up, had so many people that never get talked about.”
Fulton was raised in the neighborhood of the Greater Zion Baptist Church, which, at the time, was at 4th and Reily streets. Today, it’s on Progress Avenue.
Soulville grew out of Harrisburg’s rich entertainment scene during Fulton’s upbringing in the 1940s and ‘50s, he said.
“Even before Soulville, Harrisburg was a central crossroads between New York, Baltimore, D.C. and Pittsburgh,” Fulton said.
Many venues, especially clubs along the 6th and 7th street corridors, hosted famous black artists passing through, and the city became known for its vibrant jazz and blues scenes.
Growing up around music and the church, Fulton started writing and playing music early on, and it was always his dream to record. The Hallelujah Chorus at Greater Zion “was most impactful on my coming up,” he said. His parents and aunts played piano at church.
As a young adult, Fulton was in a popular group called the Emperors, which performed locally and on the college circuit. Around 1964, he and two friends formed the Bobby Fulton from Soulville Band, scoring some hit songs and playing in New York. Then local musician Hulie Diggs, whom Fulton idolized, “came knocking on my door one day to tell me I was in the recording business.” This, Fulton recalled, was the moment that Soulville was officially born.
With his friends and business partners—radio personality George “Toby” Young and financier Jimmy Walker—Fulton was able to make his dream of recording his music a reality. Word of the new label got out in the tightly knit Harrisburg music community and in nearby bigger cities, partially thanks to the van that Fulton drove around with “Bobby Fulton’s Soulful Sounds from Soulville” plastered on the side.
The first group Fulton, Young and Walker signed to Soulville was the Soulville All-Stars, made up of both black and white musicians.
“I hate to mention color, but it was very unusual for us to start like that,” Fulton said. “But that’s been the way we grew up, and the way we live today.”
Another one of Soulville’s more popular groups, The Continental Four, had chart-topping soul music hits.
“So, it was all kind of miraculous to me,” Fulton said.
Groups from Harrisburg and Philadelphia became interested in working with Fulton, and “things just took off,” he said. Some acts recorded in studios in the cities where they were based, and, without any equipment of its own, Soulville’s local groups often recorded in a place in Mechanicsburg.
We Like That
Throughout our phone conversation, Fulton apologized for jumping from thought to thought. There were too many people and events involved in Soulville for each part to make perfect linear sense.
At the end of our talk, Fulton suggested I get in touch with Young, who he knew lived at the Homeland Center nursing home. When I reached out to the center to speak with Young, who suffers from dementia, I was told I could but under one condition: his friend had to be there with him. Coincidentally, that friend was Luckette, whose phone number I had lost shortly after he gave the albums to Little Amps months before. It seemed like fate, that everything was finally falling into place for me to tell Soulville’s story.
“Wherever I can go, or whatever I do, I try to speak highly of Soulville because it meant so much to me, the fact that they were in Harrisburg, and they were people that I knew,” Luckette said.
During our meeting at the Homeland Center in September, he spoke passionately and lovingly on behalf of Young, who was present but didn’t talk.
Luckette credits Young, who had established himself on the radio long before Soulville, for his role in connecting the label’s music with the public. Despite adversity and racial prejudice from radio executives, Young remained on the radio in Harrisburg until he became ill a few years ago.
“Bobby Fulton worked with so many groups, and then Toby was the connection between the record and the people, because a lot of people couldn’t go see the Emperors at [the club] Superette,” Luckette said. “But we could hear it if Toby was playing it, and we could go, ‘Hey we like that!’”
Luckette recalled his first real experience with Soulville as an example of how Fulton and Young ran their business: They came to his house to sign his brother’s group.
“But my brother acted a fool, and they picked up all their papers nice and neat, told everybody, ‘thank you,’ and left and never came back,” he said.
Fulton and Young stayed true to Soulville’s Harrisburg roots and to their strong ideals, not trying to mimic bigger labels like Motown or Soul Train Records.
“Toby told me a long time ago, ‘Everybody stands on their own merit,’” Luckette said. “He said, ‘What they’re doing in Philadelphia is fine and wonderful. What we’re doing in Harrisburg is our thing.’”
Fulton moved to Pittsburgh from Harrisburg in 1971 to get involved with a friend’s record label. Soulville continued for a short time after his move, releasing material from various independent producers around the country, and eventually lost momentum.
Decades passed. Fulton became an ordained pastor, and he remains involved to this day in music through gospel projects and ministry. Years ago, when a record convention took place in Pittsburgh, Fulton went to see if anyone there had ever heard of Soulville. He was amazed to find some record store owners who were collecting and selling Soulville albums.
Eventually, Fulton connected with Gregg Kostelich, CEO of the Pittsburgh-based label Get Hip Records.
“He had all these records, and I had all of the photos, and he said, ‘We have to do an EP,’” Fulton said.
In 2001, the double-LP compilation, “Soulful Sounds from Soulville,” was released.
Otherwise, though, little of Soulville’s physical history has been documented, except for what Luckette has collected. During our meeting with Young, Luckette filled the table with old soul albums featuring Soulville and Harrisburg acts and pictures of Young as a youthful radio personality.
“I saved it only because I’m a music collector, and I knew there was so much stuff that [Young] did,” Luckette said.
Despite the value Soulville held for Harrisburg, its community and its music, Luckette thinks it was about 15 years ahead of its time, and, for that reason, didn’t have the same revolutionary impact as Motown and other major African-American-led labels.
“Had Soulville Records come on the market in, I would say, 1975, everybody would’ve been a millionaire,” Luckette said.
But that’s irrelevant, he emphasized, because the legacies and culture that came out of Soulville are rich.
“Rev. Bobby Fulton, George Young, Jimmy Walker and all those involved in formulating it, they were blessed,” he said. “And because they were blessed, they were able to bless others, and they’ve touched people that they don’t even know they’ve touched.”
Author: Rebecca Oken