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For an artist whose recording career lasted decades without a national hit of any kind, the disconnect between commercial success and their ability to keep being given chances to connect has to come down to something tangible about their prospects.

In other words, if an artist keeps getting chances to record yet keeps failing to deliver hit records, why do they keep getting even MORE chances?

There must be some plausible reason and in rock ‘n’ roll where the next big thing always seems to takes precedent over past successes, a lot of record men, a breed not known for having soft hearts or for handing out favors, thought enough of Tommy Ridgley’s potential to give him plenty of opportunities over the years. We’ll cover them all here of course, but since this record marks the start of his journey maybe we should start thinking of the answers to that question right away so we’ll know what to look for each time he’s given another chance down the road.


Tell Me Where You’ve Been So Long
There’s a few possibilities to consider here. Maybe each one alone might not mean enough on its own to justify all of those who kept going to the well in hopes of drawing water by cutting some sides with him, but when stacked together they make a pretty good case why Tommy Ridgley had more lives than your average alley cat.

For starters he was from the city of New Orleans which being the fertile ground of music that it was meant there wasn’t a shortage of aspiring record companies coming along seeking to make inroads with some authentic sounds from the region over the next twenty years or so. Since Ridgley was a reliable professional with a good voice and solid musical sensibilities he was someone who could fit in a variety of styles in any era without much trouble. Furthermore since he wasn’t a hitmaker it usually meant he wasn’t tied to any long term record deals with other labels and thus would probably be available to cut a few sides for whichever company wanted to pay for the session. Since he loved to record just for the thrill of seeing his name on records he also might not be averse to taking a few bucks under the table rather than demanding a more legitimate contract.

There was also the fact that in spite of not having hit records to his name, Ridgley took full advantage of the booming local live music scene and put together a top flight band that held court at many of the city’s hot spots over the years, both playing their own sets and backing a multitude of visiting artists who needed a house band behind them, thereby remaining on the radar while keeping their skills sharp and their finger on the pulse of changing trends, making them a perfect candidate to come in to the studio on a moment’s notice and cut tracks to capitalize on whatever trend was deemed promising.

So those reasons help to explain why Tommy Ridgley kept getting opportunities to record even if those opportunities didn’t change his fortunes much.

But maybe the reasons why his fortunes didn’t change was because of the reception of the two sides he launched his career with. Though neither one made the charts, it was the flip-side, the mournful ballad Shrewsbury Blues that impressed people and so Ridgley got a reputation as a ballad singer and that’s what people down the road tended to put their stock in when calling him in to cut some sides.

But had this, the more uptempo rockin’ number they laid down at his initial session, been the one to draw the attention, maybe they’d have realized he was just as skilled at these types of songs which in the future would have a much wider field with which to connect had they only focused more on pursuing that direction instead.

Somebody’s Got To Go
Through nearly 600 reviews to date we’ve mentioned the need for diversifying your output on A & B sides, like say with a ballad backed by a storming rocker, roughly 286 times, give or take a couple. I guess you could say it’s been a recurring theme around these parts.

Here producer Dave Bartholomew and Ridgley, who both wrote and sings this, do precisely that. Whereas Shrewsbury Blues was a mournful lament over losing a girl, Early Dawn Boogie was a loud and insistent stomper that either is the reason why the girl in the first song packed up and left Ridgley to begin with, or it’s Tommy’s misguided response to having his previous girl head for the hills by forcefully laying down the law with the girl who took her place in his bed when he recovered from being dumped and found himself a new main squeeze.

But we’ll get to the particulars of the story soon enough, first we need to re-calibrate the New Orleans music scene which was now seeing another shift taking place which under Bartholomew’s guidance would upend the sounds being heard emanating from Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios where all of the local legends and national stars from The Crescent City cut their records.

Paul Gayten had been the first New Orleans rock artist signed to a national label when DeLuxe came along in 1947 and inked him to a contract. The versatile Gayten – more than capable of playing pop (as he did initially), jazz, blues or rock ‘n’ roll (which he happily tackled once it came along a few months after he began) – wasn’t just a singer and piano playing bandleader, but he also functioned as a talent scout and de facto producer once he and his myriad of associates, including female vocalist Annie Laurie, became studio regulars over the next few years.

Gayten would write the songs, work up the arrangements, school the band and lead the session as well as play on most of these sides and when it was him being credited he’d of course sing on those records too. As such he more than most helped to shape how rock as a whole began to sound. His contributions in this way may be criminally under-recognized historically but they were quite notable in retrospect, such as his use of guitar accents when that instrument was otherwise barely used beyond basic rhythm, or his recruiting of a female backing group to add vocals to liven up Eddie Gorman’s Telephone Blues.

But he was still at times tied to the past and leaned towards a more pop or jazz-based approach, as did other non New Orleans producers handling rock sessions in studios across America in the late 1940’s. Some, like Maxwell Davis, were ahead of their time for the most part, but many others took a slightly more cautious approach in what they were laying down… as did Dave Bartholomew with Shrewsbury Blues on the other side of this, cut at the first session he oversaw for his new employer Imperial Records in late November 1949.

But Bartholomew, as we’d seen with his own records cut for DeLuxe, was nothing if not creatively ambitious, not to mention commercially astute, and experimented with different techniques by taking full advantage of the A & B side theories we’ve laid out here to see what might work best artistically while also getting a chance to see which elicited the most interest commercially to build upon the next time out.

He’d found that formula with his own Country Boy, a national hit selling over a hundred thousand copies, a sizable amount for 1949, and if he’d taken things a little easy on Shrewsbury Blues, owing the song’s downbeat content and maybe his own caution in making sure he didn’t cause a panic at Imperial Records with what they heard him deliver his first time in the producer’s chair, he was wise enough to see how he could take some risks with the other side and let each of them off-set one another, which is why Early Dawn Boogie is such an effective rocker.


Rock ‘Til Early Dawn
Tommy Ridgley wrote this on demand – whether that meant the same night they cut it in the studio, or perhaps a few days in advance of their session when running down material with Bartholomew who said they needed an uptempo song to pair with the ballad. Either way the results are pretty impressive for such a rush job.

The excitement is established right away with hand claps and rhythmic chanting of the title line by the band as the horns riff behind them at a fast impatient clip. Once Ridgley enters they downshift into more of a groove oriented approach as the riff they play is simple but creative, emulating a trombone in style with how they seem to pause and then go up at the end of their lines, drawing that note out in a way which lends both suspense and yet brings it back to the root so they can repeat the process again and again. Dave Bartholomew has already earned his money for that clever little trick alone.

(The fact that Bartholomew, who died yesterday at the age of 100, is making his first appearance as producer for Imperial on the two reviews sandwiching his passing making for one of the more fittingly ironic coincidences imaginable… R.I.P. Dave)

Bartholomew sticks to having an alto carry the solo, but even here he’s flexing creative muscles in a unique manner, as the horn works in a bit of the Woody Woodpecker Theme, something which isn’t heavy handed and might not be noticed by everyone, but those who do will surely smile at hearing it and since the song itself was a huge hit a year earlier there’s a certain timeliness to its inclusion as well.

But it’s not all tricks and gimmicks, as the kinetic drumming and driving thrust of the rhythm never lets up and gives Ridgley the perfect platform from which to launch himself vocally into the song.

You can see why so many people in the know praised Ridgley’s voice for his ballad work, which recalled Ridgley’s admitted primary influence Roy Brown quite effectively, and you can also hear why those same people neglected to single out his uptempo delivery because unlike Brown, whose voice sparkled on both, Ridgley reveals the limitations of his vocal chords which are decidedly mortal compared to Brown.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t used properly when he does take on a more romping beat as Early Dawn Boogie proves, as Ridgley has an innate understanding of pacing, vocal emphasis and urgency to get his point across and even if his breath control could use a little refinement his getting winded a few times here doesn’t detract from the performance because it somehow fits into the character’s mindset.

Now as stated, the song itself has its issues thematically, as Ridgley is upset when his girlfriend sneaks in around 4AM with excuses galore once Tommy questions her. We never do find out whether she’s taken a job on the night shift at the local market stocking shelves to pay for Tommy’s birthday present, or if she’s working a different type of night shift with random men who lurk the bars and waterfronts seeking some action which typically pays cash and thus can’t be claimed as legitimate income on her tax returns.

Ridgley suspects the latter and despite not knowing the participants I probably wouldn’t blame him altogether for thinking this, but in spite of having reason to end this relationship he’s merely throwing around threats rather than throwing her out onto the street and starting over with a new girl. But even here nothing comes of his ranting and raving, he’s just trying to keep her for what he himself can get out of her – meaning a warm body to cozy up to – while trying to stop her from giving that same thing out to other fellas. As we all know that type of bargain never works out and he’ll have no choice but to follow through on his threat to throw her out next week or he’ll have to go on swallowing his pride while she swallows someone else’s pride, if you get my drift.


Your Happy Home
In the end the affairs of these two wayward souls – and even the fate of Ridgley himself as an artist, sad to say – take a back seat to the ones who took full advantage of these circumstances to carve out their own spot in the rock kingdom as it continued to evolve.

With the high octane formula of Early Dawn Boogie producer Dave Bartholomew showed he could convincingly ply his trade in this area as well, streamlining the sound for maximum visceral impact while still maintaining appreciable musical ingenuity to satisfy his own creative urges.

In the process the next generation of New Orleans music was starting to take shape with younger artists and musicians taking one step away from what preceded them and one step closer to the innovations just around the corner… how soon that corner would be reached might be surprising to all of them, but they had to know even at this stage they were getting closer to something not seen before.

As for the artist in the eye of this emerging storm, Tommy Ridgley acquits himself fairly well. Though the song as written is nothing special, it also doesn’t need to be in order to be enjoyed for the pulse-quickening listening experience it is. He might technically sound better singing ballads but he’s got the right energetic frame of mind for uptempo songs as well, which means he should be able to keep alternating between the two in order to keep from falling into a creative box, provided he’s allowed to pursue both equally that is.

Lastly, while this record didn’t achieve the type of concrete commercial reception that would indicate to those at the time that this was a major event, in reality it was part of a major event which only became evident down the road, a time when most of those involved were too busy celebrating the commercial returns on the records which followed this by other artists they signed for any of them to take a step back for a moment and remember where it was that they first got their legs under them.

Both sides of Tommy Ridgley’s debut therefore tend to get lost in the shuffle, but when both sides can legitimately say they’re better than average records for rock ‘n’ roll in the heady final days of 1949, then hit or not that still qualifies as a success any way you look at it.


(Visit the Artist page of Tommy Ridgley for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)