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Tommy Ridgley: How Long Must I Wait?  E-mail
Saturday, 04 February 2006 08:42
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Tommy Ridgley
How Long Must I Wait?

By John Sinclair

"Tommy Ridgley--one of the originators of New Orleans rhythm & blues," WWOZ record professor Billy Delle lectured his radio audience one Wednesday night in December. "When you mention Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Tommy Ridgley's name has to be included in that bunch."

While most of the major New Orleans musicians who helped forge a revolution in Black popular music following World War II have passed into popular legend, one of their peers walks among us still mainly unrecognized. Roy Brown, Dave Bartholomew, Paul Gayten, Smiley Lewis and Professor Longhair--"The Bach of Rock"--have slowly gained international recognition and acclaim, and Fats Domino continues to be synonymous with New Orleans R&B in the public imagination.

But Tommy Ridgley has labored in relative obscurity since his discovery in 1949 by newly-appointed Imperial Records A&R men Dave Bartholomew and Al Young, although a pair of new CD releases and an important reissue of some classic sides from the late 1950s may go a long way toward garnering Tommy some much-deserved attention from the critical sector and, let's hope, the record-buying public at large.

Ridgley's brand-new release, She Turns Me On, should help rectify this situation. Recorded this past April at Festival Studios in Kenner for Modern Blues Recordings, Tommy's new album is one of the hottest musical packages to issue from the Crescent City in recent years.

Given his head in the studio with a band of hand-picked sidemen and a passionately sympathetic producer, MBR's Daniel Jacoubovitch, Tommy cut loose with a series of searing performances that have all the heat and fire of his timeless sounds of the 50s.

"They're kickin' butt," Billy Delle enthuses. "They sound like the original Untouchables."

"It was a great session," Tommy told annotator Jeff Hannusch. "We got a lot done and got a good sound. We cut a lot of songs that have been in my head for a long time. We also did some material that I cut before--but we improved on it and did it the way I wanted to do it in the first place.

It kind of reminds me of the sound we used to get back in the old days. It's definitely Rhythm & Blues all the way."

She Turns Me On restores to modern currency a batch of great Tommy Ridgley signature tunes, including masterful versions of "Ooh Lordy My Baby" and "Jam Up" (originally made for Atlantic Records in 1953-54), "I've Heard That Story Before" (cut for Herald in 1957-58), the Ric Records favorites "Should I Ever Love Again" and "Double-Eyed Whammy" from 1960 (the latter recorded by Freddie King and Tinsley Ellis), and the tough Eddie Bo composition "I Want Some Money," released by Johan Records in 1964.

Ridgley shows off his considerable chops as a blues shouter on his own "Bad Luck," a compendium of traditional blues verses set to a blasting beat, and reaffirms his credentials as one of the most soulful of all blues balladeers with the title track, his own composition.

"Man, that's a great tune," Mac Rebennack says. "I told Tommy, that tune 'She Turns Me On' could really do something with a little extra production on it."

The CD is perfectly rounded out by an extremely fresh arrangement of Chris Kenner's "Sick And Tired" (one of Fats Domino's finest 45s); a timely reading of Billy Wright's soulful extended gambling metaphor, "Stacked Deck"; a rousing rendition of the bawdy Chick Willis evergreen, "Stoop Down"; and a magnificent version of the Paul Gayten-Larry Darnell rocker "For You, My Love," a wonderful song brought back to life with a vengence by Tommy and his R&B shock troops.

For this recording Ridgley utilized the services of a group of veteran players led by pianist Reggie Hall (composer of "You Talk Too Much"), including bassist Richard "Tricky Dick" Dixon, drummer Isaac "Buddy" Williams Jr., and saxophonist Ronn Chapin, who has passed away since these sessions were made.

Some of these men have been involved with Tommy's music since the days of the original Untouchables, the crack performance unit that served for years as the house band at Frank Painia's Dew Drop Inn and backed up the big R&B revues at the Municipal Auditorium in the late 1950s and early 60s.

"I had a hell of a band then," Tommy says. "A lot of people said that was one of the better rhythm and blues bands that New Orleans has ever had, and I agree. We played behind everybody--I tell you, we made James Brown come out of his dressing room in his drawers. Blew the roof off of that place. He came out in his drawers to find out who it was.

"It was me, Justin Adams on guitar, Buddy Williams was on drums, Tommy Shelvin was on bass--that was the first bass player--and I had Larry Marioneaux on tenor and alto, Charley Burbank on tenor, and Dalton Rousseau on trumpet. And the band was--all the musicians were bringing music and sittin' and performin' and readin' it. That's the kind of band it was, and we were tight like that.

"The time I made James Brown come out of the dressing room in his drawers, the tune was "I Who Have Nothing." We had this thing perfect--we had the arrangements written, and we had rehearsed it, and it was a show with James Brown we were on. I was up there, and we went into this tune, and it was an SRO crowd--standing room only everywhere--and, boy, my band hit and--that band was good.

"We drew attention with the intro, built it up and held it, and the whole Municipal Auditorium got quiet. You could hear a pin drop. And I went into this song and I did my thing to it--I walked from that side of the stage to that side, and I mean--nobody made a noise--just listened until I finished.

And when I finished, it was like a pause, and then--the roof came off! [Laughs And James Brown came running out, because the quietness had drawed everybody's attention--and that was the highlight in my musical career!"

Producer Daniel Jacoubovitch attributes the success of the sessions to the spontaneity of live recording, coupled with meticulous pre-production work and careful tune selection. "My concept was to work with Tommy and his musicians, especially Buddy Williams and Tricky Dick, to bring out what Tommy wanted to hear.

We were in pre-production for three months, working on tunes and ideas for the album, with Tommy rehearsing the band on the material several times, and then Randall Merryman and I came down there to cut it."

"The key to this recording is the drummer," Ridgley points out. "Buddy Williams used to play with me 30 years ago--he played with the original Untouchables. He's a minister now, but he still can play. He puts that thing on you--in other words, he push you and he don't let up. And the bass--he plays just enough. He plays what you got to play, no more and no less. Play that. That's why I like Tricky Dick.

"But it was a hand-picked band, and everything worked out pretty good. I liked it. We rehearsed about five times, and everything fell right into place. And you know, I couldn't've picked a better saxophone player than Jerry Jumonville, because Jerry remembers my original band, the Untouchables.

On that 'Double-Eyed Whammy' I was gonna go in a different direction, but Jerry say, 'Man, why go in a different direction? That's what I remember.' So I said, 'Well, okay, if you say so....'"

Jumonville definitely adds a special touch on tenor sax, cooking on all four burners every time he appears. Guitarist David Douglas rocks hard whenever called upon and contributes beautifully to the ballad charts as well.

Modern Blues' selection of Tommy Ridgley for its second contemporary recording project was mostly a matter of serendipity. "A guy named Rick Jones in New Orleans who used to work for OffBeat was calling me up for review copies of our Freddie King and Albert King CDs that we put out from the Federal/King archives," Jacoubovitch explains.

"He was a big fan of Tommy's who was involved with trying to get Tommy recorded and was talking to some other labels about him. One day Rick calls me up and says, 'I talked to Tommy about making a record with you and he's waiting for your call, but do it before 1:00 pm because he's got to go out and get his car lubed. 

"I was totally unaware of Tommy's music up to that point--the only thing I knew was that Freddie King had copped the riff for 'San-Ho-Zay' off of 'Girl from Kooka Monga' and had also covered 'Double-Eyed Whammy.'

But I spoke to Tommy on the phone that day, and shortly after that he was in New York City for the first time in many years, so we got together to start talking about making a record."

She Turns Me On is causing a lot of excitement in local radio and record circles, but no one's more worked up than the artist himself. "I'm very, very excited," Tommy told Billy Delle. "Because I'd compare my record to anybody's in town--that's the way I feel about it. And what's so good about it--everything on here is so very very well done. That's why I say I'm so excited about this record, because I got a pretty... good...record."

Ridgley's justly proud of his own participation in the production of his new album because, in contrast to the earlier periods of his recording career, he functioned as considerably more than just a singer in the studio.

"Back then, in recording, I could say--when you're not free to do really what you want, you go in the studio and they be kinda, 'You gotta do this, do this, do this...'

But this time I recorded, and I recorded me and I was in charge of me, and that's why this record is so good--I was in charge of me.... That's New Orleans funk, and that's hot, and that's the way it used to be."

"That's the big difference to me in the way this record was produced," Tommy emphasizes. "I had never been involved in recording like that, because all the other times people would just bring me songs to do. But this time it was all me. 

As a blues singer, blues shouter, blues balladeer and bandleader, Tommy Ridgley at 67 is performing at peak capacity, still an exciting master of stagecraft as well as a productive writer and recording artist.

He continues to be pleased with the fruits of his previous project, a recent CD for Sound of New Orleans Records titled How Long? which features nine Ridgley originals, a remake of his popular Ric recording of the Bull Moose Jackson ballad "I Love You Yes I Do", and an irreverent, hard-rocking version of Jessie Hill's immortal "Oo Poo Pa Doo." Only one selection, a smoking version of "Bad Luck," is shared with the Modern Blues CD.

Additionally, Collectables Records has just issued a CD containing Tommy's long-suppressed recordings for Herald Records in 1957-58, including "When I Meet My Girl" and "Baby Do Little" as well as six previously unreleased cuts, backed by the legendary Cosimo Studio Orchestra--including Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Melvin Lastie, Chuck Badie and Hungry Williams.

And, unlike many of his contemporaries here and elsewhere who continue to record at an advanced age, Tommy's new recordings--especially She Turns Me On--are every bit as full of excitement and musical interest as his earlier output.

What's even better, Tommy Ridgley is back on the airwaves in a big way, with heavy play for She Turns Me On at WWOZ and high hopes for more exposure through the commercial stations.

"We're getting quite a bit of interest in the record at the store,  Jerry Brock of the Louisiana Music Factory reports. It's high time there are great new R&B albums being made again by great New Orleans artists, and Tommy Ridgley sounds so fresh on this record--he's never sounded better.

He's one of the kindest, warmest guys around too, one of my most favorite people in the New Orleans music community, and I couldn't be happier for Tommy right now."

"With this record," Ridgley explains, "I think what's so nice is, I'm selling records and Black people are buying. They don't buy records like white folks do, but they're buying this for me.

And this Tommy Ridgley Day affair--I think that's the best thing that ever happened to me. And I really believe this could help down the line--it's got to help me--because the people that know about me stay home now. [Laughs] See, I play about 90% of my jobs for the Black elite social clubs, and this is gonna help me find a younger audience."

Tommy Ridgley, born October 30, 1925, in Shrewsbury, is also proud of his ability to keep performing on a higher level than many men much younger than himself. "One of the things that I can say," he told his WWOZ listeners, "over the years--I been singing all these years--I haven't lost anything. And I attribute that to one thing--I don't abuse me. I have never abused my body, and I sing better now, and longer now, and as hard now, as I did 40 years ago.

"See, I'm not only from the first bunch, but I'm the last one out of the second bunch, too. That's what I'm happy about, because I'm the last of that bunch that's still active--all the ones that ain't dead, they don't perform too much any more. Like Sugar Boy, Danny White, Robert Parker--we ain't worried about him no more--Chris Kenner, Lee Dorsey, thay're dead, and right on down the line. I'm the last of that bunch.

"You know, when I went to Europe this past year, they were expecting an old Black dude, on the way out, and I surprised everybody over there. What it was, every night on my show I did what I had to do, and I just tore the house down. There was me, Oliver Morgan, the Zion Harmonizers, Milton Bastiste 'n them, but my band always closed the show, and I did what I had to do.

"You see, over the years I've had my share of spotlights--and I've turned down even more chances, like the offers I used to get from the Shaw Agency in New York to go out on the road. But what it was, I was doing okay here. I was playing every college, every university campus in the South--I played Tulane, Loyola, UNO, LSU, Southeastern (LA), Northwestern (LA), Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Mississippi Southern, Auburn, Alabama, Alabama State--so that's the way I was working.

Plus all the things I had here in New Orleans. Now, I'm into all the Black social clubs, I started playing a lot of Black sororities, and I just keep on working. I had to. See, I couldn't do nothing else! [Laughs] Because I was too lazy to go to work!

"People don't understand: You dedicate yourself to this business. Okay, here I am, and you suffer, but you dedicate yourself to it and say, hell, I ain't gonna give up. You see, what's been good with me, over the years, I look in my book, and things don't look so good, so I get to calling. I call and say, 'Man, look, you got any gigs for me?'

And I always wind up where one gig will be good enough to carry me over a couple of weeks. And then I don't care how I work it, but in two-three weeks I get another gig that'll carry me over a couple of more weeks.

"I never was particular what I did with money a long time ago. I've had plenty money, you know. Oh, man, money was coming in from everywhere, all kinda ways! Every which way I turned! And you know what I did? I played cotch [a card game using three cards]. You know about cotch--and, man, those cats would wait for me!

I'd go play LSU, Baton Rouge, and make me $300, $400, $500, which was a lot of money at that time, and when I'd walk in they'd say, 'Here comes School Boy!' Somebody'd get up so I can sit down. Because they know they gonna break me.

"And you know what, though? If I get broke, Monday morning I got all kinds of deposit checks and stuff come in, and it just didn't phase me. I lost over $50,000 that way--that's why I ain't got nothin' now! I ain't gonna die about it. And my wife didn't know--I had my wife on a hundred dollars a week. I always put $100 back, which was her money, so she didn't ever have to worry about what I had. And I just wasn't a good manager."

Tommy is full of great stories about his many years in New Orleans show business--not just his own exploits, but his contemporaries as well. "You know, there's nobody who's ever been somebody that I don't have some story about. Like Dr. John--Dr. John was the first white musician in New Orleans to go Black completely. Dr. John moved into the Dew Drop Inn and stayed there for over a year, running from the police, and they never did find him.

"But let me tell you about Jimmy Clanton. I used to play this club in Baton Rouge called Broussard's--I used to play there every Saturday night when I wasn't playing at LSU. Dave [Bartholomew] played there, Sugar Boy [Crawford], all of us. And I was pretty popular in there. And Jimmy Clanton--before he got his name out there--he would come by with his guitar and sit in with us.

"One Saturday night I went there and Broussard come up, say, 'Tommy, look, man, the Ku Klux Klan told me I can't let that white boy get on the bandstand with you no more.' So when Jimmy came, I had to take him aside and say, 'Man, I can't let you play with me tonight because Mr. Broussard say the Ku Klux Klan don't want you on the bandstand with us. 

And Jimmy started crying. He said, 'Man, I ain't did nothing! All I want to do is learn what I'm doing with you.' And he started crying. And he said, 'Well, I ain't going back there no more.' So, after that, I said 'I quit too--I better not play here no more either.' 

Bringing his focus back to the present, Tommy summarizes his prospects with an unjaundiced eye: "I'm glad I was able to stay around, and the reason I work today is because of what I can do. See, I can do a whole gang of things--I can sing Stardust  and all the rest of that kind of stuff, as well as sing some blues and do a little progressive jazz stuff. So, basically, I call me a singer--not the greatest in the world, but I'm a singer.

"I'll tell you what I'm thinking now," Tommy adds, "and I hope I'm not jumping ahead, but the way this record's going I feel like I should get a Grammy nomination from New Orleans. [Laughs] I'm an old dude--why not?"

Old in years, maybe, but in spirit, attitude, and, most importantly, in his music itself, Tommy Ridgley seems to be drinkly deeply from the Fountain of Youth, and he's never sounded better.

Let's give New Orleans promoter Lance Slom the last word on Tommy's new record: "It's just damn funky fresh!"

--New Orleans

The author would like to thank Billy Delle of WWOZ-FM for use of excerpts from his interview with Tommy Ridgley; WWOZ's Ready Teddy for his assistance with my own interview; and the Louisiana Music Factory, where all of Tommy Ridgley's currently-available recordings may be found, for their help with the research for this article.

(C) 1992, 2006 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.