A stalwart presence on the New Orleans rock scene for decades and although he never scored a national hit was widely considered powerful singer and great bandleader throughout the 1950’s.

Tommy Ridgley was born in 1925 outside of New Orleans in Shrewsbury, a town he later immortalized in his first record. He sang gospel as a youngster and learned piano in the Navy during World War Two. Upon being discharged he pursued music in earnest, winning a talent contest at the Dew Drop Inn which led to him getting a regular gig at a Gerttown club called The Starlight Inn where he was discovered by Dave Bartholomew who had just started with Imperial Records as a producer and talent scout.

Ridgley was the first of Bartholomew’s signings in late November 1949 that would quickly transform the record label, making them the destination for an entire generation of New Orleans rock acts. Though his first record, “Shrewsbury Blues”, sold well locally it failed to make the national charts and he was soon overshadowed by other newcomers brought in by Bartholomew, most prominently Fats Domino who became an immediate star with his first release a month later.

Ridgley’s years on Imperial resulted in some very good records and were consistently strong regional sellers but while most of those from New Orleans recording under Bartholomew’s watch scored at least one national hit Ridgley couldn’t break through even though Imperial, and later Herald and Atlantic Records, were commercial powerhouses in rock during that era. Even major label Decca took a shot with him to no avail. His songs were well conceived and featured stellar musical support from Bartholomew’s crack band and one record featured none other than Ray Charles in support, but he continued to just miss scoring the hit that would put him on the map.

In the mid-fifties Ridgley formed one of the more highly respected bands around town and increasingly made his living as a live attraction, whether holding court at one of the many clubs in the city or backing a wide array of national stars who came to New Orleans without their own musicians. He continued cutting records for whatever label came calling and enjoyed the strongest run of his career in a decade on a succession of releases for the local Ric label in the early 1960’s.

By the latter half of the decade his recording opportunities had dried up as the local scene saw most of its record labels folding and for the first time in a half century the New Orleans sounds of jazz and rock were deemed to be largely non-commercial. But within a few years there was renewed interest in vintage artists from the city, most of whom were glad to perform again but were in need of musicians who could faithfully play their styles. Tommy Ridgley and The Untouchables were one of the few groups that had never stopped playing and so once again they were enlisted to back some of the biggest names in New Orleans rock lore, a role they continued to fill over the next two decades.

By the 1990’s Ridgley was back in the studio cutting a handful of well-received albums before health problems, including a kidney transplant, curtailed his activities though he managed to play the famed New Orleans Jazz Fest each year – 28 in all – until his death from cancer in 1999 at the age of 73.

TOMMY RIDGLEY DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Imperial 5054; December, 1949)
Imperial Records’ first entry into rock ‘n’ roll which also launched Dave Bartholomew’s production career, it features an impressive vocal by Ridgley but the confusing story and slightly undercooked musical accompaniment hold it back from matching its historical importance. (6)

(Imperial 5054; December, 1949)
Ridgley shows he can handle uptempo rockers just as well as he can ballads with a song that might not be too deep as written but is delivered effectively and features some nice subtle arranging touches courtesy of Dave Bartholomew which helps it to stand out. (6)

(Imperial 5074; May, 1950)
A generic workmanlike song in construction but carried out with enthusiasm and helped by a fairly tight arrangement that keeps everything in line… nothing to get excited about, but nothing you’d object to hearing either. (5)

(Imperial 5074; May, 1950)
A track dominated by a wandering saxophone clashes mightily with Ridgley’s far too sparse vocals… not a great song to begin with but it’s done in more by the misjudged arrangement in an attempt to diversify his output early on. (2)

(Decca 48216; June, 1951)
Though his voice is a little overpowering, taking away some of the lyrical nuance of the song in the process, his energy works well when contrasted with another strong Dave Bartholomew arrangement featuring a great tenor solo by Clarence Hall on this minor hit. (6)

(Decca 48226; July, 1951)
A fairly well-written song with a subtly great arrangement by Dave Bartholomew has a vocal by Ridgley which starts off poorly but soon finds its footing for the most part even if it never feels completely at ease with the job at hand. (6)

(Decca 48226; July, 1951)
A confusing and contradictory story doesn’t help an otherwise unambitious side which features a slightly too classy backing track and vocals that show him to be emoting with conviction for a story that makes little sense. (3)

(King 4523; March, 1952)
Though he didn’t get label credit on this two-part Dave Bartholomew single, it’s Ridgley who delivers the whining vocals to set up this extended mid-tempo dance groove that works well enough for what it sets out to do which is keep you moving on the floor. (5)

(Imperial 5198; July, 1952)
A reliable workmanlike song and performance from Ridgley in his return to Imperial Records with an efficient arrangement by Dave Bartholomew, all of it perfectly agreeable without doing too much to really stand out at the same time. (5)

(Imperial 5198; July, 1952)
The written song is really good showing a confident worldview that is backed by a nice simple melody and fine Dave Bartholomew arrangement, but Ridgley’s vocals are atrocious at times as his grating harmonies with the band are impossible to ignore or excuse. (3)

(Imperial 5214; December, 1952)
Completely ripped-off from Big Joe Turner’s “Low Down Dog” without bestowing credit, while the one thing changed is the title and main hook which potentially hints at racist put-downs thereby overriding the decent delivery and arrangement that goes with it. (3)

(Imperial 5214; December, 1952)
A workmanlike performance of a simple song in which Ridgley’s voice suggests a little more under the surface, perfectly serviceable but otherwise unmemorable save for the Ernest McLean guitar solo giving this added punch. (5)