For 50 years, Tommy Ridgley has been one of the great and enduring rhythm and blues artists in New Orleans. A regal, confident and engaging performer, he has never had a national hit, but he has made an impressive string of recordings which date back to December of 1949. His music has entertained three generations of New Orleanians and reached listeners in all corners of the world. Tommy Ridgley is a most deserving recipient of OffBeat’s 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born October 30, 1925, in the Shrewsbury section of Jefferson Parish, Ridgley sang spirituals on the corner of Andover Street and Harlem Avenue (now Causeway Boulevard) with his childhood buddies. During a stint in the Navy, where he served in Okinawa, he taught himself to play blues on the PX piano. After his 1946 discharge, he returned to Shrewsbury and studied music under the G. I. bill. Evenings would often find him at the Dew Drop Inn, then New Orleans’s most popular black live music venue.
“The Dew Drop had a Monday night talent show and it was big,” said Ridgley. “I’d been there a couple of times to see what the competition was like, but it took me a couple of weeks to build up enough confidence to enter. I knew I could sing, but I didn’t know what would happen when I got on stage. Finally, I built up the nerve and entered. The MC, Sporty Johnson, called me to the bandstand and Edgar Blanchard and the Gondoliers were the house band. I asked them to play ëPiney Brown Blues.’ I stood behind the microphone and didn’t move anything but my lips. I got a tremendous ovation and won the $5 first prize. I went home that night and looked at that $5 bill over-and-over.”
With stage fright behind him, Ridgley began singing with the Bama Band and with Al Anderson’s band, which worked at Gerttowns’s Starlight Inn. In 1949, he moved up to the big league when he was hired by Dave Bartholomew as vocalist.
At the time, Bartholomew had just been hired as talent scout, arranger and producer for the Hollywood-based Imperial label. Naturally, Ridgley was one of the first artists to record for the label. His initial 78 rpm, “Shrewsbury Blues” (a tribute to his neighborhood) was a big local hit. A productive writer, Ridgley penned most of his Imperial sides, including “Lavinia,” “Monkey Man” and “I Live My Life.”
Ridgley stayed with Imperial until 1953 when he formed his first group.
“Dave had gone to California and left me with the band,” said Ridgley. “We were playing at the Pelican Club on South Rampart. A guy from Nashville came in the club and offered me $150 a week to sing in Nashville. That was good money and I wanted to go. The owner of the Pelican let me out of my contract, so I put a band together and went to Nashville. I had Milton Battiste on trumpet, “Guitar Red” Edwin Mollier on drums, Sam Noel and Eddie Smith played saxophone. ëWoo Woo’ played piano (I can’t remember his name) he was high on wine all the time. We played in Nashville for six weeks and then came home. After that I got with this Big Curtis who booked us and we stayed on the road from 1954 to 1956.
When he wasn’t on the road, Ridgley often recorded, waxing sides for Decca, Atlantic (where he narrowly missed the charts with the instrumental “Jam Up”), Herald and Waldorf, where he used the alias “The Shrewsbury Kid.”
In 1956, Ridgley was working regularly at the 1202 Club in Carrollton before moving to Natal’s Club on Chef Menteur Highway.
“That was when Justin Adams joined the band,” said Ridgley. “That was the beginning of the Untouchables. In 1957, I was with Al Silvers’ Herald Records and we had a big record with ëWhen I Meet My Girl.’ Al promised me a new Cadillac, but I preferred the money. Things were going pretty good, at that time. I was also playing at Tulane, LSU, North Western, Mississippi State and Ole Missóstrictly white colleges.”
By the end of the decade, the Untouchables had moved to the Dew Drop where they were installed as house band, playing the talent shows, backing out of town acts and playing the early morning jam sessions. The group also backed big stars like Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, Ivory Joe Hunter and Little Willie John, when they appeared at the Municipal Auditorium or Lincoln Beach.
Ridgley started the 1960s by joining Joe Ruffino’s up-and-coming Ric label. Ridgley’s Ric debut, “Is It True” b/w “Let’s Talk It Over,” aptly billed him as The New King of the Stroll.
“Ruffino wanted to make that a stroll record,” said Ridgley, refer to a popular dance of the era. “Chuck Willis (who Atlantic billed as “The King of the Stroll”) had just died and Ruffino thought we had a similar style. That was a big record for me around New Orleans.”
Ridgley had several local best sellers on Ric including, “My Ordinary Girl,” “Please Hurry Home,” “The Girl From Kooka Monga” and “Double Eyed Whammy” (the inspiration for Freddy King’s guitar instrumental “San-Ho-Zay”).
“There was a lot of interest in my records from major record companies,” said Ridgley. “But Ruffino got burned by Roulette on Joe Jones’ ëYou Talk Too Much’ and he distrusted people from the North. He didn’t lease my records so they just stayed local. But those records were professional by any standard.”
Ruffino’s death in 1962 briefly left Ridgley without a label, but that was a small hurdle considering what was around the corner.
“A turning point in my career came with the Beatles,” said Ridgley. “There was a change in music and people at that time got away from R&B. All the college work disappeared, mostly I started playing for middle-aged audiences, white and black. It was tough, but I hung in there.”
By the late 1960s, while many once prosperous recording artists were reduced to clerking in department stores, driving cabs, refereeing YMCA basketball games, or repairing cars, Ridgley continued to hustle gigs and get the occasional recording date. Singles on Johen, Blue Jay, Dew Drop, White Cliffs and International City, were pretty much neighborhood records, but they kept him working.
“I’ve always been the kind of guy who jumped at the chance to record,” said Ridgley. “I never concerned myself with contracts or money. I just wanted to see my name on a record.”
By the 1970s, the initial revival in New Orleans R&B, fueled by John Broven’s book, Walkin’ To New Orleans, and the emergence of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival benefited Ridgley. Outside of Fats Domino’s band, most of the great New Orleans R&B bands of the 1950s and early 1960s, had dissolved once their style of music fell out of favor.
However, Ridgley’s band remained untouchable over the years. Now that past hit makers like Irma Thomas, Bobby Mitchell, Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville, Benny Spellman and Robert Parker were again starting to work, they needed a crack New Orleans band in order to work. More often than not, Ridgley and the Untouchables got the call.
Ridgley continued to wax new singles on Hep Me, Sansu, Basin Street, River City, Ronn and Sound of New Orleans. He was also subject of one of the first New Orleans R&B reissues, Through the Years, which collected most of his Ric singles.
In the 1980s, Ridgley kept busy working around New Orleans in between the occasional European festival date. Reissues of earlier work appeared on Rounder and Pathe Marconi, while new singles appeared on Sound of New Orleans, Tudor and Du Bat.
While there were several collections of Ridgley’s previous material available, he didn’t cut his first full length contemporary album until 1990, when How Long appeared on Sound of New Orleans. In 1992, he moved over to the Modern Blues label and waxed, She Turns Me On. His best contemporary recordings though might be contained on Since the Blues Began, a CD which featured a crack New Orleans band that appeared on Black Top in March of 1995.
Unfortunately, Ridgley fell ill after the release of the Black Top CD and he was unable to fill dates that might have helped promote the CD. After several months in the V.A. hospital, Ridgley had recovered and was back playing, primarily at the Boomtown Casino and doing the occasional festival gig.
In the spring of 1998, Ridgley received a new kidney which pretty much took care of his recurring health problems.
“I’m feeling great now,” confirmed Ridgley. “The doctors have said I’ve passed all the tests and I’m 100 percent. I’m taking it a little easier, but I still want to work and do more recordings.”
Looking back on his career, Ridgley is justifiably proud.
“I’ve never had a big hit, but I’ve cut some pretty good records that could have gone national with a a little luck. I’ve been able to play music all these years when a lot of guys that had hits lost it and were doing nothing. I’ve said it before and it’s still true, around New Orleans I’m still a star.”
Shrewsbury Blues (Imperial, 1949)
This was Ridgley’s recording debut and a tribute to the neighborhood he grew up in (“just two miles from town”). “That record came out before Fats’ first record [“The Fatman”], said Ridgley. “That puts my career in perspective.”
Tra-La-La (Decca, 1952)
This was later covered by the Griffin Brothers and provided the inspiration for Big Joe Turner’s 1954 hit “Ti-Ra-Lee.”
Jam Up (Atlantic, 1955)
Although Ridgley’s only contribution to this rousing instrumental was yelling the title during the into, it nearly became a national hit. The song has appeared on several oldies packages and Ken Burns used it on the soundtrack of his baseball documentary during the Mickey Mantle segment.
When I Meet My Girl (Herald, 1957)
A big local record for Ridgley, the tune has a Scottish beat (if such a thing exists). It helped Ridgley get on the college circuit.
Should I Ever Love Again (Ric, 1960)
All of Ridgley’s Ric sides were excellent examples of New Orleans R&B, but this track is among the best. A cover of an obscure Wynona Carr song, Ridgley’s impromptu intro sells his version.
I Want Some Money Baby (Johen, 1964)
New Orleans meets Motown on this rare single. A big band and great vocals make this one.
Fly In My Pie (International City, 1968)
Recorded for New Orleans deejay Bobby Robin’s short lived label, in collector circles this single can fetch $200 (much more than Ridgley made from the session). Never reissued, it was a northern soul hit in the UK.
I’m Not The Same Person (Ronn, 1970)
This was the B-side of the remake of “When I Meet My Girl.” Ridgley does an outstanding cover of a Johnnie Taylor LP track and dramatically out-souls the “Soul Philosopher.”
I Can’t Wait Any Longer (Hep’ Me, 1978)
Several New Orleans hit-makers from the 1960s made their way to Senator Jones’ label in the 70s, including Ridgley. This is an outstanding Wardell Quezergue production which became Ridgley’s last local radio hit.
Tommy Ridgley will perform at the House of Blues on January 29th. Showtime approximately 9 pm.