Irma Thomas

The Soul of Ric & Ron Records

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 06.05.12 in Spotlights

The Complete Ric & Ron Recordings, Vol. 1: Classic New Orleans R&B And More, 1958-1965

Various Artists

[Listen to the playlist that accompanies this feature here]

Ric & Ron Records was founded late in 1958 by New Orleans music-biz veteran Joe Ruffino, and folded shortly after his death at the end of 1962, though his brother-in-law continued releasing completed masters for another three years. The two labels, like local labels everywhere, were dependent on local talent. But inNew Orleans, “local talent” often has national impact. Ric and Ron took advantage of that to record several established artists, while also developing new talent. The music itself was a mixed bag; some followed traditional, 2-4 parade-beat motifs; jump blues was still in vogue; vocal groups, doo-wop and otherwise, were plentiful; white pop acts were tried; other sounds presaged soul and even funk. But Ruffino garnered just one national hit out of all of that: Joe Jones’s laconic “You Talk Too Much,” which peaked at No. 3 on the pop charts before Roulette, which had an earlier version of the song it had never released, snatched the singer back. Still, Ric and Ron were influential locally, while blazing a few new trails.

Guitarist Edgard Blanchard, who led a combo called the Gondoliers and had also been Roy Brown‘s bandleader, was the label’s first arranger (and, unofficially, producer). He used musicians who weren’t in the established studio group that backed singers on New Orleans records, and he changed the prevailing sound by having two guitarists playing harmonies, rather than one providing the bass line and the other the chords. He also released a couple singles, one under his name and one as the Gondoliers; the former featured the raunchy “Lonesome Guitar” backed with the more loungey “Let’s Get It.” But Eddie Bo, who also wrote and played piano on sessions, became the label’s primary producer/arranger. Bo, who’d first recorded in 1955, was also one of its key artists; though ultimately best known for his snazzy ’70s funk sides, he did some of his most rocking R&B for Ric. “Tell It Like It Is” (not the later Aaron Neville hit of the same title) sported an infectious parade beat, and its flip, “Every Dog Got His Day,” hints at the hard funk Bo would be churning up a decade later. “Ain’t It the Truth Now” (not the similarly-titled Ernie K-Doe hit) swings behind Eddie’s Ray Charles-like vocals, while “Check Mr. Popeye,” which exploits a popular NOLA dance, barely fell short of national charts. Bo also usually cut Tommy Ridgely, who’d been around since 1949 and had sung with Dave Bartholomew’s big band; he boasted a sly voice and deft phrasing, but on “Let’s Try & Talk It Over” is more of a blues belter.

Though Ridgely brought her to Ron, Irma Thomas‘s debut single was one of Bo’s greatest triumphs. When she was just 18, he cut her on “Don’t Mess with My Man,” a rather, shall we say, “worldly” song for one so young. But his stop-time piano and a screaming sax break booted the saucy soul-blues along, and Irma had no trouble handling the sassy lyric (“You can have my husband/ But please don’t mess with my man”). “Set Me Free,” the B-side ballad, was another harbinger of the brand of soul that would define Thomas’s subsequent career, but she had just one more single there before jumping to producer Allen Toussaint at Minit Records. Martha Carter (who also recorded under her maiden name Martha Nelson) was Ruffino’s only other notable female singer, a pop-R&B balladeer with a rich voice who was usually brought down by inferior material or distracting background singers. The same could be said for Johnny Adams, another fabulous singer who made his debut with Ric but went elsewhere to make his reputation. His strong, flexible voice was already there when he deserted gospel music to go under Bo’s wing, but he hadn’t yet developed his ad-lib abilities and he was shackled with insipid songs and arrangements. Still, occasional gems like “A Losing Battle” virtually define soul balladry in its infancy.

The rest of the catalog varies wildly. Guitarist Joe Morris and tenor men Robert Parker andJames Riverwailed infectious two-part instrumentals. Eddie Lang fronted a tough blues-rock band whose best record was “Easy Rockin’.” The Velvetiers’ “Feelin’ Right Saturday Night” is one of the few vocal group efforts that’s not an embarrassment. The Party Boys (probably formed spontaneously in the studio, for they made no other records) took the New Orleans tradition of novelty songs to new heights with “We Got a Party, Parts 1 & 2,” which starts out with the Boys chanting normally if boisterously and ends a few minutes later with them slurring their words; an obvious riff on “We Like Birdland,” it’s long been rumored to feature Huey “Piano” Smith. The label is also responsible for two of the finest carnival records. Al Johnson’s playful singing makes the buoyant “Carnival Time” perhaps the favorite theme song each year when Mardi Gras rolls around. And the Ric version of “Go to the Mardi Gras” wasn’t the first by Professor Longhair, but it’s the one that always gets played, and is arguably the only such single more popular than Johnson’s. If Ric had never released anything except those two anthems, its place in New Orleans musical history would be assured.