During the 2018 holiday season, Shirley and Lee’s 1956 hit, “Let the Good Times Roll,” accompanied Walmart’s Christmas-themed TV commercial. In 2016, Professor Longhair’s 1959 recording of “Go to the Mardi Gras” accompanied Subaru’s “Jr. Driver” spot.
Classics from the golden age of New Orleans rhythm and blues are often licensed for film and TV. That would surprise the musicians, songwriters and producers who created the music. They lived one recording session to the next, never thinking the music would endure into the next century.
Joe Ruffino’s Ric and Ron record labels operated from 1958 through 1962. Despite that brief existence, the 70 singles Ruffino released yielded many local classics. In 1959, Ron Records issued Professor Longhair’s definitive recording of his Carnival anthem “Go to the Mardi Gras.” The following year Ron released Irma Thomas’ debut, “Don’t Mess with My Man.” A regional smash and national hit, it launched Thomas’ nearly 60-year career.
In 1960, Ric Records issued Joe Jones’ “You Talk Too Much.” A novelty item arranged by Harold Battiste, it rose to number three on Billboard’s pop chart. Tragically for Ruffino and his independent labels, he lost the rights to the recording and the financial windfall it generated. Because Jones had previously recorded “You Talk Too Much” for Roulette Records in New York, Roulette’s Mafia-connected owner, Morris Levy, claimed Ric’s recording of the song after it entered the charts.
Nevertheless, “You Talk Too Much” belongs to the Ric and Ron legacy, joining “Go to the Mardi Gras,” “Don’t Mess with My Man,” Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time,” Johnny Adams’ “A Losing Battle” and “I Won’t Cry,” Eddie Bo’s “Check Mr. Popeye” and recordings by Chris Kenner, Tommy Ridgley, Robert Parker and Barbara Lynn.
Feelin’ Right Saturday Night: The Ric & Ron Anthology, released in vinyl and CD formats in conjunction with the labels’ 60th anniversary, features 28 Ric and Ron recordings. Scott Billington, a Grammy-winning producer and former artists-and-repertoire vice president at Rounder Records, co-produced the collection.
Beginning in the 1980s, Billington produced new albums by former Ric and Ron artists Thomas and Adams. “It’s amazing,” he said of the labels’ catalog. “Joe Ruffino was a hustler and he had the sense to hire really good people to make those records.”
The behind-the-scenes talent at Ric and Ron included producer-arranger-musicians Battiste, Edgar Blanchard and the future Dr. John, Mac Rebennack. The label also benefitted from local songwriters including Rebennack, Reggie Hall and the composer of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” Dorothy LaBostrie.
Ric and Ron also captured New Orleans R&B in transition. “The shift from the Fats Domino era into something that had more funk in it,” Billington said. “The Eddie Bo and Johnny Adams recordings stepped away from the Domino–Dave Bartholomew sound and the ‘studio band’ at Cosimo Matassa’s studio.”
No less than Matassa, owner-operator of the city’s major recording studios, told Billington that Adams was the best singer New Orleans ever produced. “Johnny was one of those people who had the physical capacity to push his body to the limit and be the best at what he did,” Billington said. “He not only had the physical attributes necessary to be a great, beautiful voice, he had the ear, too. He could sing anything.”
The Ric & Ron Anthology includes Adams’ Rebennack-produced “A Losing Battle.” “It was the perfect song for him,” Billington said. “Johnny made great records all along, but Mac really had a handle on who Johnny was.”
Nearly a decade younger than Adams, Irma Thomas was 19 when “Don’t Mess with My Man” reached number 22 on Billboard’s R&B chart. “I was so naïve back then,” she says in the anthology’s liner notes. “But I came in and did my best. I stepped up to the microphone and sang—that was my job.”
Billington later produced Thomas’ Grammy-winning 2006 album, After the Rain. When he listens to her Ron recordings, he said, “I hear this brash young woman in full possession of her creative and vocal powers, just going for it.”
Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras” and Johnson’s “Carnival Time” can both make a claim to being Mardi Gras’ greatest hit.
“The energy in ‘Go to the Mardi Gras’ and John Boudreaux’s drumming really drive it home,” Billington said. “Fess cut that song many times, but this is the one that’s got the mojo.”
Another anthology track, Bo’s “Every Dog Got His Day,” is New Orleans proto-funk. “On Ric and Ron records, you hear the first ruminations of funk in New Orleans music,” Billington said.
The Ric and Ron era ended in 1962, after Ruffino experienced multiple heart attacks. He died just a few years later, at 43. His legacy endures.
“So many musicians in that era—not just at Ric and Ron—thought their music was ephemeral,” Billington said. “They thought it would last as long as it was on the radio. Nobody had any idea that they were making music people would be listening to 50 and 60 years later.”