In Pursuit of Bo-Consciousness - Part 2
THE RIC YEARS
I always felt Eddie was one of the most talented songwriters to come out of New Orleans. He was always coming into the studio with great ideas for songs and arrangements. Joe Ruffino realized he had something in Eddie Bo and he gave him free rein in the studio. - Tommy Ridgley, as quoted by Jeff Hannusch in The Soul of New Orleans.
From the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, the emerging recording business in New Orleans mainly involved outside companies (Regal, DeLuxe, Imperial, Chess, Specialty, etc) coming in to do sessions at Cosimo Matassa's studio on local artists and/or bringing in outside artists to record with the city's talented, resourceful musicians, arrangers and producers. As recording activity increased during the 1950s and numerous hits were being made, small homegrown labels sprang up run by entrepreneurs eager to get a piece of the action. In the first wave were Johnny Vincent's Ace Records and Joe Ruffino's twin imprints, Ric and Ron. Ever enterprising, and possessing skills sought by the record men, Eddie Bo recorded for both Vincent and Ruffino. The 1960s would see a proliferation of independent labels in New Orleans; and he worked for many of them, owning several himself, always seeking the elusive hit.
Joe Ruffino ran a record store in the French Quarter and worked briefly as a salesman for the record distribution business, Record Sales, that Vincent owned. In 1958, seeing what Vincent had done with Ace, Ruffino decided to take the gamble and start his own record company. The next year, he signed Eddie Bo to Ric as an artist. As Tommy Ridgley, another Ric artist of the time, points out above, Ruffino soon saw that Bo had more to offer and began giving him additional responsibilities: developing new talent, arranging, playing sessions, producing, and songwriting for some of the growing stable of young artists on both Ric and Ron. Also performing similar duties in-house from the beginning was the teenaged Mac Rebennack; and later Harold Battiste would also do some writing, arranging and producing for Ruffino . Ric and Ron productions were generally always high quality; and the labels had their share of very popular local sellers, plus a few that made it onto the national charts. But Ruffino's distribution was mainly regional by choice, although early on Ember briefly distributed his releases nationally. He often balked at leasing his records to larger national labels, fearing his artists might get lured away or that he wouldn't get properly compensated, which were valid concerns in an often cutthroat business. So, for the most part, Ruffino felt safer with his smaller market; but that business model limited the exposure of his artists and kept them from gaining more widespread recognition and any sort of substantial financial success. In any event, none of it would ultimately matter. By the end of 1962, Ruffino was dead after two heart attacks; and his labels pretty much died with him.
During a three year run with Ric, Eddie had nine singles released, several of which did quite well, including "Tell It Like It Is" b/w "Every Dog Got His Day" and "Check Mr. Popeye". For this installment, I am featuring four of Bo's Ric sides, including cuts from his first and his last singles and will link to some others, all to give you a sense of what this man,then in in his early 30s, was capable of.
For his debut on Ric, Eddie led off with two of his own compositions, the exceedingly upbeat pop of "Hey There Baby" backed with a ballad, "I Need Someone". The top side had a double-time, syncopated shuffle pushing it that hinted at some New Orleans roots, plus an energetic sax solo; but the structure and lyrics were pretty run-of-the-mill and forgettable. Eddie's vocal seemed a bit tentative and uninspired, too, as if he weren't totally committed to this more pop musical direction. Another factor that kept this side from connecting was that the mix had the instrumentation too far back, limiting the dynamics and muffling the arrangement. Things improved considerably on the B-side, however.
"I Need Someone" (Bocage)
Eddie Bo, Ric962, 1959
"I Need Someone" was no masterpiece of originality, either, as it was obviously made from the Fats Domino/Dave Bartholomew mold of rhythmic R&B balladry, piano triplets and all - the kind of song structure that would proliferate all over South Louisiana and later come to be called Swamp Pop. With the right artist, the formula worked well, though. I picked this tune because Bo did a much better job on it. From his strong statement of the title that starts it off, all the way through, his vocal was soulful and assured, with his tenor at times reminiscent of Little Willie John. Although I don't usually focus on the slower sides here, I think it needs to be said that Bo wrote and and sang some superb ballads over the years; and they are worth pursuing, if you are into it. Jeff Hannusch identifies the drummer on Bo's first single session as Walter Lastie , who played in Eddie's road band, and the sax player as Robert Parker, who had also worked with Bo live. Eddie had recruited Parker to play sessions backing Ric and Ron artists, and would soon collaborate on two Ron singles for the saxophonist/vocalist, including the wild, two-part "All Nite Long".
Eddie's second single (964), "You Got Your Mojo Working" b/w "Everybody Knows", came out in late 1959 or early 1960. While the A-side was a reference to the Ann Cole's "Got My Mojo Working" that was covered so successfully by Muddy Waters, the song itself had nothing in common with their tunes. Bo's was a smooth mid-tempo R&B number, again very much in the style of Fats Domino (and why not cop the grooves of a man selling tens of millions of records). But, it was on his next release that something definitely changed. Eddie upped the ante considerably and jumped headfirst into the Sixties, making his best record yet, which was innovative, ahead of its time, and his first hit for Ric.
Both sides of Ric 969 from 1960 took Eddie's game to another level. "Tell It Like It Is" (not the same song as Aaron Neville's later hit), is surely one of the finest examples of funk's gradual bubbling up to the surface in New Orleans R&B; and you can hear it for yourself at The "B" Side (thanks for posting it, Red, although it was an A-side, actually!). Kicking off with an in-the-pocket second line marching beat played on just a tambourine, and soon joined in succession by the drums, bass, vocal, and horns, Eddie's effective arrangement locks you into the groove immediately; and his high energy, gospel-tinged singing fits the track perfectly. You definitely hear a Ray Charles influence in this song; but Bo injected such a strong dose of New Orleans feel into it that it became totally his own. Well, maybe not totally, as I do think he copped the basic syncopated parade groove for this tune from Smiley Lewis' 1955 record, "Jailbird" ; but Eddie and ensemble gave it more juice, resulting in a rave-up of a record that seemed guaranteed to fill a dance floor in a flash. Definitely, the man was on to something.
Note: Though written by Bo, the writers' credits on the label showed "Allen-Johnson". That would be 'Hoss' Allen, nationally known DJ on the powerful WLAC in Nashville. Giving various DJs part of the writing royalties was an attempted inducement for them to play the song frequently and build demand for it. The second name belongs to Delores Johnson, Bo's wife at the time, who often got credited, not because she wrote songs, but probably to elude the taxman.
"Every Dog Got His Day" (Johnson-Douglas)
Eddie Bo, Ric 969, 1960
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As remarkable as the A-side was, I think "Every Dog Got His Day", this ambitious soul-rock-funk hybrid on the flip, topped it by breaking new ground. It had a slightly stuttering, propulsive parade beat on the snare, while the kick drum turned some serious funky tricks; but the main repeating riff of the song (BAH-bada-bada-BOP-bah-bah) was really the driving force that rocked this arrangement. I wish I could name the players who contributed so much to both sides, but they remain unknown (at least to me). Eddie's strong, soulful vocal again owed much to the spirit of Ray Charles; and his singing the verses over drum breakdowns was a brilliant, attention-grabbing tactic. The funny, street-wise lyrics - priceless. It's no wonder that these songs did well in the local marketplace and got him into the lower reaches of at least one national chart. Had Ruffino's distribution been better, Confucius say Bo-Dog could have had a big payday.
I've featured this song before in reference to two other numbers of the period that used that riff, after Bo's single appeared. The first was Tommy Ridgley's "Double Eyed Whammy", recorded for Ric in November of that year, surely with Bo's assistance, followed by Freddy King's instrumental blues-rock classic, "San-Ho-Zay", released on the King label the following summer, which appropriated not only the riff but the melody line of Ridgley's tune. You can read more about them on my earlier post. But, ultimately in my book, nothing touches "Every Dog Got His Day", which really sounds like it came from the end of the Sixties rather than the beginning. One of Eddie's best singles of any era, no doubt. Surprisingly, I never heard him do it live in later years. Did anyone else?
His next release later that same year, "Warm Daddy" b/w "Ain't It The Truth Now" took a step or three backward to the relative safety of mid-tempo R&B. The top side wasn't much, although it did have what would later come to be known as the "Popeye groove" that so many New Orleans records of the early to mid-1960s had, a mildly syncopated, laid-back shuffle beat that eventually came to be overused. But it's the back side that I think is the more interesting of the two.
"Ain't It The Truth Now" (Burmah - Johnson)
Eddie Bo, Ric 974, 1960
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A fairly straight ahead, gospel-influenced, medium shuffle tune with a relaxed vocal from Eddie, "Ain't It The Truth" still had some syncopation going on in the kick drum that gave the groove some extra energy and interest. What's puzzling about this record and his next few releases is how removed they were from "Tell It Like It Is" and "Every Dog Got His Day" in sound and sales. It's like he reverted back to formula, a less successful one at that. Still, even standard-issue Bo on auto-pilot, which is what these sides appear to have been, made for some enjoyable product. On a side note, the background singer on this one was Martha Carter, a full-tilt vocalist who Bo discovered when she was singing with the Porgy Jones band. Eddie convinced Ruffino to sign her and produced three singles on her for Ron and one for Ric. But more about Martha down the road.
Though there were several decent tunes among the sides on his two remaining 1961 releases, none were in the same league as his creative breakthrough back on #969. Notable were "It Must Be Love" on 977, a ballad with strings that Eddie delivered very well, and "Dinky Doo " from 981, an upbeat mover, also with strings, that recycled some lyrics and its theme from "I'm Wise" on Apollo; but it's hook, "I aint' no dinky doo ", doomed it to silly song oblivion, even though the single did get leased to Capitol. Even better was his other release from 1961, "I Got To Know" b/w "Bless You Darling" (985). The soulgeneration Eddie Bo Discography calls "I Got To Know" a "first class moddish R&B dancer" and notes that it was written by Harold Battiste and Melvin Lastie of AFO Records, whose team of studio talent, many of whom co-owned their company, had begun working with Ruffino. I think the excellent top side shows Bo back in his Ray Charles mode and all the better for it. The nice, mid-tempo "Bless You Darling" has kind of a Fats Domino feel to it, complete with the piano triple playing. Contrary to his usual inclinations, Ruffino leased this single, too, out to Capitol, a company not adept at R&B promotion; and, thus, it did not get anywhere. The AFO Combo then backed Bo on his next single (987) in 1962, "Check Mr. Popeye" b/w "Now Let's Popeye", which proved to be a winner.
As Jeff Hannusch notes in The Soul Of New Orleans, "Check Mr. Popeye", playfully based around a local dance craze called The Popeye, was Bo's best selling record on Ric and by far the most popular of the other Popeye inspired records that sprang up at the time. A simply arranged novelty record with that insouciant shuffle, Bo's lyrics and vocal delivery remind me a bit of the Coasters; but his song didn't get a chance to rise to their heights. Much to Bo's consternation,Ruffino dithered about leasing the record nationally, finally allowing Swan Records to put it out after the Popeye wave had crested, and leaving Eddie Bo once again with chump change. By the time Bo's final single for Ric came out, he was definitely on the outs with Mr. Joe, feeling exploited, a bit older, and definitely wiser about the perils of music business.
"Baby I'm Wise" (D. Johnson)
Eddie Bo, Ric 989, 1962
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Fittingly, Eddie's swan song for Rick was "Baby I'm Wise", more or less a remake of his earlier Apollo side with words that took on new meaning as a result of his business dealings. It was backed with "Roamin-titus", a none too subtle song about making a getaway. Neither song broke any new ground musically, but were both solid, Popeye style dance numbers. While Bo had no problems writing songs for the popular marketplace, some of which deserved wider recognition, and a couple of which were exceptional, I think he was still finding his way as a writer and performer during the period. It was a process of growth that proceeded through the decade as he pursued his label-hopping journey.
I'm going to come back with some of the records Eddie Bo produced for other artists on Ric and Ron, before we explore other of his adventures in recording in the 1960s. His story provides a revealing look into the artistry and business of music in New Orleans and helps to show how he developed his unique style and worked his way into becoming a guru of funk before he was done.
Note: You can hear many of Bo's Ric sides on Rounder's CD compilation, Check Mr. Popeye.