In Pursuit Of Bo-Consciousness - Part 3
WORKING WELL WITH OTHERS ON RIC & RON
As an arranger, songwriter and backing musician, Eddie Bo assisted a number of artists who were beginning or continuing their recording careers at Ric & Ron in the early 1960s, several of whom would go on to become big names in New Orleans R&B. Around this time last year, I featured one of Bo's early productions in a multi-song post. It was Robert Parker's first Ron single, "All Nite Long", a rockin', quirky two-parter from 1959. For additonal documentation, this time I’m featuring tracks by Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams, and Tommy Ridgley, three of the greatest R&B/soul vocalists the city has engendered, plus notable sides by two lesser known artists, Warren Lee and Martha Carter. There may be nothing musically groundbreaking about any of these tunes; but, Bo’s work for Joe Ruffino’s labels was an opportunity for him to learn the ropes of studio arranging and production on his own projects as well as on those of other fine young talents. While there were hits and misses in that process, even the lesser tunes are enjoyable, and, I hope, provide some context in terms of his career. Oddly, one of his earliest collaborations as an arranger for another artist proved to be the most commercially successful.
"Don't Mess With My Man" (D. Labostrie)
Irma Thomas, Ron 328*, 1960
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In releasing this exceptional hit single, which was Irma Thomas' recording debut, Joe Ruffino took advantage of a slip-up by another new local label, Minit, owned by Joe Banashak and his silent partner, deejay Larry McKinley. Just 18 years old and already singing with Tommy Ridgley's band, Thomas had gone to an open talent audition Minit held in 1959, where she sang backed by a young pianist already working for the label, Allen Toussaint. While impressed by Irma, Banashak and McKinley did not commit to signing her on the spot, telling her they would be in touch. Disappointed, she told Ridgley what happened; and he soon arranged an audition for her with Joe Ruffino, who had recently added Ridgley to his Ric roster. The stars were in alignment, as not only did Ruffino want to record Irma immediately, he had the perfect song for her, the sassy, provocative "Don't Mess With My Man". The tune had been recently pitched to him by songwriter Dorothy Labostrie, who had also just penned Johnny Adams' debut hit on Ric, "I Won't Cry". Irma’s session was set up at Cosimo's studio; and, as fate would have it, Ruffino gave the arrangement duties to another of his new Ric signees, Eddie Bo.
Probably recorded late in 1959, the single came out early in the new year with a Labostrie ballad, "Set Me Free", on the other side. Most likely, Bo was on piano, and Mac Rebennack, who was Ruffino's right-hand man in those days, ran the session and played guitar; but the other fine players are less certain. With Bo's stop-time, pumping blues shuffle arrangement, a searing sax solo, and Irma's youthful, fetching vocal, "Don't Mess With My Man", a sly ode to marital double-dealing, became a local hit pretty much from the get-go. By May, it had broken nationally, rising to #22 on the R&B chart. When the action died down in a few months, Ruffino released a follow-up on Ron written and arranged by Bo, "A Good Man" (co-written with Thomas) b/w "I May Be Wrong". The top side was merely a rehash of her earlier hit, musically and lyrically, while the B-side was an exceptionally fine ballad, sung to perfection by Irma. I featured it back in 2006.
Her second Ron single played well locally, but didn't get much farther, even though Irma had been touring the South extensively on the strength of her first hit. Without a strong new single and feeling she had not been adequately compensated for her first substantial seller, Irma refused to do any more recording for the label. That allowed Minit to come back into the picture, with McKinley convincing Banashak to sign her around 1961. At Minit, Thomas began working under the direction of hot songwriter and producer Toussaint , and cut numerous classic sides with him, putting her on the path to becoming one of the great soul vocalists. But, strangely, those records did not result in much more than local and regional attention for her at the time. When Toussaint left for military service, Liberty Records bought out Irma's contract. She moved to Los Angeles and began recording for Imperial Records, which Liberty had recently acquired. That afforded Irma greater exposure and allowed her to get into the national charts again several times over the next couple of years. After she parted ways with Imperial, Irma had one more modest charter in 1967 while briefly signed with Chess Records; but none of her other singles gave her the boost of "Don't Mess With My Man" at the start of her career. Although she never did any studio work with Bo again after those early Ron singles, her performance at Eddie's memorial service a few weeks ago is evidence of her sense of gratitude to him.
*[Note: Many, if not all, of these red and black label Ron 45s are later pressings released after Joe Ruffino's death by his brother-in-law, Joe Assunto, who ran the One Stop Record Shop. The label for the original issue was yellow and black; and other stock Ron singles of this period had a pink and black label. It seems Assunto continued pressing some of the Ric and Ron popular sellers using the red and black Ron logo for quite some time after 1963. Besides "Don't Mess With My Man", the Mardi Gras favorites, "Carnival Time" by Al Johnson (originally on Ric) and Professor Longhair's "Go To The Mardi Gras" are often found in the red and back version. I would consider them re-issues. In addition, Assunto released unissued Ric recordings by Johnny Adams also using the red and black Ron logo around 1964. Read more about them later in this post. According to the R&B Indies, Assunto sold these post-Ruffino Ron singles exclusively at his store.]
It's not always what's on a record that makes it a hit. It's what you got behind a record. You had to have money to get records played then. I didn't have connections and wasn't the kind of guy to sniff a deejay's behind to get mine played. - Warren Lee Taylor to Jeff Hannusch in The Soul of New Orleans
Another artist who started his recording career working with Eddie Bo on the Ron label, Warren Lee Taylor certainly did not ever become a household name, unless maybe your household has an avid New Orleans music collector in it. Although he made good records and wrote much of his material, he had no substantial hits in more than a decade of releases on various small labels. With that frustrating track record, you can see how he acquired the record business wisdom in the above quote. Had Jeff Hannusch not tracked him down within the last ten years and gotten his story, virtually nothing would be known about Mr. Taylor today.
In the late 1950s, as a guitarist and vocalist, Taylor fronted his own band at various clubs around the New Orleans area, and gained a reputation for his impressive showmanship. He knew and was influenced by many of the guitarists playing locally at the time, including Guitar Slim, Earl King and Roy Montrell. While scouting talent for Joe Ruffino, Eddie Bo heard Taylor one night in 1961 at the Dew Drop Inn, and told him that he had record-making potential. Taylor was interested; so Bo arranged a session for him at Cosimo's. Two of the singer's own tunes, "Unemployed" and "The Uh-Huh", became the A and B sides of his first single, released under the name of Warren Lee.
"Unemployed" (W. Taylor)
Warren Lee, Ron 345, 1961
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"Unemployed" tells the story of a hapless, out-of-work loser who get thrown in jail and can't even get his wife or mother-in-law to bail him out. Sporting the virtually ubiquitous Popeye shuffle groove of the period, it was a decent cut, but had nothing to really make it stand out, including Lee’s hangdog vocal and Bo’s low-key piano solo. The flip side, was a more upbeat dance number, but again had nothing really memorable going on. Still, the single did well enough locally for a second release to be worked up.
For that next single, Taylor collaborated with Bo and Mac Rebennack to come up with “Anna (Stay With Me)”, an answer record to Arthur Alexander’s hit, “Anna (Go With Him)”. Again credited to Warren Lee, the 45 came out on a new subsidiary label Ruffino had started, Soundex , and garnered Taylor more local attention and better paying gigs, but still did not break out too far beyond the city limits. At that point, his contract with Ron was up; and Bo probably had already left Ruffino's employ, as well. So, Taylor opted to move on to the newly formed Nola label, working with Wardell Quezergue on several singles. Then, in 1965, Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn picked up Warren for their new Sansu production company, releasing his singles on the Deesu, Tou Sea, and Wand labels over the next four years, with the material getting markedly funky once the Meters became the studio band. I featured one of his enjoyable pre-Meters Deesu sides, “Climb the Ladder” in 2005. As far as I can tell, Taylor did not work with Bo again, after his Ron days.
For more details on Warren Lee Taylor's story, including a discography, I recommend Larry Grogan's overview of his career at the Funky 16 Corners webzine; and, of course, Hannusch's profile on the singer in The Soul of New Orleans is essential, as well.
One of New Orleans' best R&B vocalists, Tommy Ridgley signed on with Joe Ruffino's Ric label shortly after Bo, having been a recording artist for about a decade by that time. In the late 1940s, he won a talent contest at the Dew Drop Inn and soon started singing professionally in local clubs, where he was spotted by Dave Bartholomew, who was scouting talent for the Imperial label. Dave hired Tommy as a featured vocalist in his band and signed him to Imperial, as well. In late 1949, Ridgley and Jewel King, another Bartholomew find, cut their debut records for Imperial, and were the first of many New Orleans artists on the roster of the Los Angeles-based label. Tommy had number of fine records for Imperial over the next few years, with most doing well on the local level; but he did not have a national hit. He also had releases on King and Decca, followed by a brief stint with Atlantic, after Imperial dropped him. All the while, he continued to be a popular local entertainer in the clubs. In 1957, he signed with Herald Records out of New York City, releasing half a dozen singles, with a number of the sides being novelty tunes; but nothing broke big for him there either. Meanwhile, Tommy formed his own band, the Untouchables, who were very successful playing regionally and also backed big name artists who performed in town. When he and Herald parted ways for lack of hits, Joe Ruffino quickly recruited him.
Surely, Eddie Bo and Tommy Ridgley knew each other on the music scene prior to joining Ric; but I don't think they had worked together. From Tommy's comments about Bo's studio smarts quoted in my prior post, it would seem that Eddie produced or arranged a number of sessions for Ridgley's eight singles on the label between 1960 and 1963; but there seems to be nothing definite to be found about which tunes Bo had a hand in. One that Bo would have obviously worked on, it seems to me, was the one he wrote.
"In The Same Old Way" (D. Johnson)
Tommy Ridgley, Ric 984, 1961**
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According to Jeff Hannusch, "In The Same Old Way", written under Bo's nome de plume D(elores) Johnson, was Ridgley's most popular record for Ric; and it's easy to understand why, when you listen to it: simple structure; hip, uncomplicated arrangement; memorable melody; nice lyrics; and a vocal performance like butter. The changes are based on the repeated shift from the major chord to its relative minor for most of the song - a common device in in popular music upon which Bo built a quiet, uncomplicated tune that effectively sneaks up and grabs you with its catchy, instant familiarity. In the same old way, indeed. I've always dug this timeless song and feel that it is one of Eddie's best pop songwriting efforts.
The record, Ridgley's fourth on Ric, got a lot of radio play in New Orleans and sold well; but Ruffino refused to lease it to a larger company who could distribute it nationally - those trust and control issues again - and, thus, deprived Tommy of a chance at wider recognition. The flip side, "The Girl From Kooka Monga", a Ridgley-penned novelty number, had the Popeye groove going on, and, as the singer told Hannusch, was inspired by Jessie Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo". For the next single (#990), released early in 1962, Ruffino had Tommy cut a catchy Earl King song, "My Ordinary Girl"; but neither it nor "She's Got What It Takes" on the other side were very successful, with part of the cause likely due to Ruffino's first heart attack, which kept him from promoting the record.
Ridgley's final two singles for Ric, "Heavenly" b/w "I Love You Yes I Do (#993) and "I've Heard that Story Before" b/w "Honest I Do" (#994), were also victims of Ruffino's ill-health subsequent death, which closed down Ric for good by 1963. Likely, only a limited number were ever pressed; and promotion would have been virtually non-existent. It's hard to say if Bo had a hand in either of them; but I doubt it.
During the next few years, Tommy continued performing with his band and worked with Bo again on one-off singles for Cinderella and Bo's own Blue Jay and Ridge-Way imprints; and I'll cover more from Bo's mid-1960s period in the next installment. Although Tommy continued to record sporadically through the 1960s, and later in the 1970s, I don't think he and Eddie Bo ever collaborated in the studio again, either.
**[Note: Due to the noisy pressing quality of my 45, I've substituted the remastered version of this cut from Rounder's Ridgley LP compilation album, The New Orleans King of the Stroll, which featured many of his Ric sides. It's also available on CD and mp3.]
What little is known about Martha Carter comes via Jeff Hannusch's segment on her in his notes to Rounder's compilation CD, New Orleans Ladies: Rhythm and Blues from the Vaults of Ric and Ron***, which was also reproduced in his book, The Soul of New Orleans. From the city's Ninth Ward, she came into the world as Martha Nelson and grew up singing in church, that great proving ground for so many soul vocalists. In the late 1950s, when just 16, she got the attention of Oliver 'Nookie Boy' Morgan and joined his band. When Bo encountered her a few years later in a nightclub, Carter was still a teenager but singing with the Porgy Jones Band, tackling jazz numbers along with the popular R&B of the day. Impressed, Bo brought her to Ruffino, who immediately signed her to a recording contract in 1960. She sang back-up on Eddie's "Ain't It The Truth Now" (Ric 974) and was soon cutting her own first release. While in the Ruffino fold, she recorded four singles, all under Bo's supervision: three as Martha Carter (her married name), released on Ron, and one on Ric, as Martha Nelson.
Her first Ron single as Martha Carter (#336) from 1960 consisted of two Bo compositions, "Nobody Knows", a fairly straight-ahead pop R&B number, backed by an equally conventional, mid-tempo ballad, "I'm Through Crying", which was the side that got airplay. Though no fresh ground was broken, Carter's vocals showed promise and the single sold well in New Orleans and environs, encouraging Ruffino to green-light more sessions. The radio exposure also created a demand for Carter's live performances; and she frequently shared billing with Bo. For her next release, Ruffino wanted Martha to do an answer record to Joe Jones', "You Talk Too Much", which had recently come out on Ric (#972) and was the label's biggest seller. Jones' 45 would have probably broken big nationally, too; but he had recorded an earlier version of the hit for Roulette, who sued Ruffino once the Ric single started getting attention in other markets, stopping sales and distribution of the 45 for a time. They eventually forced Ruffino to give up the publishing royalties for the song and gained control of his master tape. Badly stung, Ruffino would thereafter deeply distrust dealings with outside companies; and his desire to do an answer record to "You Talk Too Much" hinged on commercial revenge, trying to cut into Roulette's sales and recoup some of his losses. Unfortunately, "I Don't Talk Too Much", which was issued on Ric 975 under Carter's maiden name late in 1960, did not have the intended effect and quickly faded after getting some local airplay and selling only moderately.
Next up, Bo and Carter went back into the studio that spring and cut two outstanding sides for Ron 339 (a hard record to find), "One Man's Woman", written by Bo, and "You Can If You Think You Can", from the pen of Harold Battiste. Despite both songs being strong and highly danceable, the single did not have much commercial impact even locally for Carter; and she did not record again until 1962, when she cut what would be her final single.
"Then I'll Believe" (D. Johnson)
Martha Carter, Ron 346, 1962
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For these sessions, Bo took Carter back to church, at least in spirit, with two of his own compositions. Both songs, "You Shall Not Be Moved" and this B-side, were inspired by bedrock gospel music, though the lyrics were thoroughly secularized. The arrangements were minimal; and Carter's vocals were serviceable, but not revelatory. Frankly, I don't think either the writer/arranger or performer were totally committed to this single. In fact, Bo was on the verge of leaving Ruffino's employ in a dispute over royalties due him; and Ruffino had already suffered one heart attack, leaving him unable to properly tend to his companies or artists. Though it's certainly not a bad record, I chose this cut mainly because it's the only Martha Carter 45 I own. If you get the chance, I highly recommend that you get both sides of her previous single to hear her and Bo at their best together. [*** All eight sides from her four releases can be found of the Rounder compilation mentioned above.]
Remarkably, Irma Thomas and Martha Carter were the only female recording artists on Ric or Ron, although a singer named Barbara Palms did one single for Ruffino's Soundex label late in the game. While Martha was no match for Irma, she held her own over the course of a very short recording career with Eddie Bo's assistance. Soon after Ruffino's death, Carter was forced to retire from performing and recording when an operation to remove polyps from her vocal cords failed, leaving her voice permanently impaired.
Meanwhile, even though Bo had already parted ways with the labels before they were effectively shut down after Ruffino's demise, at least one more record he was involved with did get a limited release on Ron.
Certainly one of the finest vocalists ever to come out of the Crescent City, then gospel singer Johnny Adams began his recording career when songwriter Dorothy Labostrie convinced him to take up secular music and sign on with Joe Ruffino's Ric Records in 1959. Mac Rebennack arranged, supervised and sometimes wrote a number of Johnny's releases; and, according to Jeff Hannusch , Eddie Bo was in charge of other sessions over the course nearly a dozen singles Adams made for the label. I assume that Bo would have at least arranged and/or produced the tracks he wrote, as it seems to make sense; but there is no definite documentation to verify exactly who worked on many of those records. In 2007, I featured one of those Bo songs, Johnny's final Ric release, "Tra-La-La"; and you can read about it and Adams' history with Ric via that link.
As he had done with Tommy Ridgley, Ruffino's brother-in-law, Joe Assunto, released two more singles on Adams with material recorded for Ric that had remained unissued due to Ruffino's sudden passing late in 1962. Again, according to the R&B Indies, Assunto sold those records, which had a red and black Ron label but used the Ric numbering sequence, exclusively through his One Stop Record Shop; and the first of them contained another Eddie Bo composition.
"I Want To Do Everything For You" (D. Johnson - J. Ruffino)
Johnny Adams, Ron 995, ca 1964
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This single contained the impressively sung waltz-time ballad "Lonely Drifter" on top, backed by our featured track, which had a fairly standard-issue R&B song structure and arrangement, including piano triplets, likely played by Eddie himself. Delivered by another singer, this song wouldn't have had much to offer; but the sheer power and high quality of Adams' phenomenal voice makes for a fine listening experience that brings out the full intent of Bo's devotional lyrics.
Meanwhile, I don't think Bo had anything to do with Adams' other post-Ruffino Ron single (#996), "Coming Round the Mountain" b/w "Cold Cold Heart" (a Hank Williams tune!). Eddie would work with the singer only once more, a single project released on the Gone label in 1964, which we will take up in the next installment. It's really too bad that Eddie and Johhny did not get to do more together over the years, as I think Adams could definitely have taken some of Bo's better material to the heights.
For the next few weeks, I'm going to take a Bo-break to get back to some other music I've wanted to feature for a while now; but I will return to the path of Bo-consciousness and move the discussion and musical selections into the mid-1960s. So, as always, stay tuned. And thanks for sticking around. I appreciate your patience, as I've spent most of my free time for the last month or more in New Orleans at the festivals and also celebrating the graduation of our daughter from college this past weekend!