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IMPERIAL 5054; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

The music capital of planet earth is New Orleans, Louisiana.

Of this there can be no real debate. As both the birthplace of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll it is the source of the two most influential musical styles in the world and considering that the city also was a booming port in which countless slaves were brought to this country, stripped of all human rights and sold as property you could reasonably say that it was the starting point for the ordeals which led to the birth of the blues as well. The rest of the world combined can’t claim even 1/100th of that musical lineage.

Yet in spite of their impact in unleashing these sounds on the world which would define the Twentieth Century and beyond, New Orleans lagged behind all of the other major music centers during this time in one very critical regard… they were largely without viable record labels to codify their presence through the years.

Thus it was left to other record companies from across the country to swoop in and grab what they could, often distilling the sound as they saw fit, mining it for all it was worth and then discarding it when they felt it no longer suited their needs.
 

 

Left Me All Alone
DeLuxe Records became the first label to make inroads into the burgeoning rock scene when they signed bandleader Paul Gayten and his female vocal star Annie Laurie in early 1947, scoring a hit apiece in the process that summer, though both records were in the pop idiom. It was at that same time however that they also landed Roy Brown and with his arrival launched rock ‘n’ roll itself with his debut Good Rocking Tonight. Other local acts flocked to their doors, Smiley Lewis, Dave Bartholomew, Chubby Newsom, Eddie Gorman… but soon the more financially solvent King Records grabbed DeLuxe when its New Jersey based owners David and Jules Braun were having financial difficulties and purchased half the company before forcing the Brauns out. The spurned Brauns, bitter at what they viewed as a cold takeover of their hard work, then started Regal Records and took a number of those New Orleans acts with them.

DeLuxe Records, now being overseen by King’s crusty owner Syd Nathan, wasn’t happy about losing Gayten and Laurie, nor could he have been pleased when Gayten brought another New Orleans act Larry Darnell, possessor of two massive hits as we speak, to Regal as well, but he was thrilled to have his hooks in Brown who was arguably the most popular rock act of them all at this time. Yet in spite of getting consistent returns on Brown’s output Nathan not only didn’t venture down to New Orleans to snatch up more up and coming talent, but he also let one of the names he DID acquire in the takeover of DeLuxe slip through his fingers after scoring a huge hit with him last summer with Country Boy.

That of course would be Dave Bartholomew, and while his own recording career wouldn’t result in any more national hits despite some great records over the next decade, his ultimate value came as a songwriter, bandleader and producer… not for DeLuxe, nor for Regal Records either, but rather for Imperial Records, the struggling Los Angeles company that over the next decade would do as much as any label to sell New Orleans music to the world at large.
 


 

Just Two Miles From Town
In late summer 1949 when Bartholomew was enjoying the fruits of his breakthrough hit, surely thinking that this was the start of a long and fruitful career as an artist, a different opportunity suddenly presented itself when he met Lew Chudd who was relaxing in a Houston club and taking in the show where Bartholomew was playing that night.

Chudd owned Imperial Records, a struggling Los Angeles company that was named for the state’s Imperial Valley with its high concentration of Latinos which was the primary market for his line of records, something which showed him to have a shrewd sense of business as he smartly focused on a neglected demographic. But while cutting Spanish language renditions of American hits might not have much competition in the late 1940’s it also didn’t have that high of a commercial ceiling and so he began to have thoughts of turning his attention to another market.

So Chudd was in Texas still trying to “sell records to Mexicans” in Bartholomew’s telling of the story, when he found himself at The Bronze Peacock run by Don Robey, someone who’d soon become a record label owner himself and one of Chudd’s main competitors throughout the next decade. Had Robey been just a little quicker in realizing his own ambitions – he’d start his label, Peacock, just a short time later – it might’ve been him, not Chudd, who’d secure the services of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest producers.

Then again, knowing Robey’s hard-ass, even violent, ways it’s highly doubtful the proud and fiercely intelligent Bartholomew would’ve stood for any ritualistic mistreatment and would’ve left sooner rather than later anyway.

But Chudd was a different sort of character. Quieter, content to be an observer rather than needing to be the center of attention to assert his authority, a smart businessman who knew enough to let talented people alone to do their jobs without interference, Chudd may have already made the decision to turn away from the foreign market and his scuffling attempts at jazz and focus on the suddenly limitless black market, namely rock ‘n’ roll, but until this point he wasn’t quite sure how to begin. Now upon seeing Bartholomew in action he believed he’d found the right artist with which to make the transition.

Bartholomew’s band was tight and professional and put on a show that was both highly disciplined and yet packed with musical excitement and above all else brimming with originality. After they finished playing he introduced himself to their trumpet playing leader, telling Bartholomew – whose contract with DeLuxe had, or was about to, lapse – that he would be in New Orleans in a few weeks and would like to discuss a deal.

Dave had heard that kind of thing before and might not have given much credence to the promises, but sure enough in the fall Lew Chudd showed up at his door eager to get started and thanks to their ensuing partnership rock ‘n’ roll was about to make another big leap forward.
 

Where All All You City Men Go
Chudd was unfamiliar with the New Orleans scene and was relying on Bartholomew to recruit potential artists for them to get started with and get this endeavor off the ground. Of the three initial artists Bartholomew got signed to Imperial during this time Tommy Ridgley was the least successful commercially, in fact the only one not to score a national hit for the company, but he was the first one he brought in and that is meaningful unto itself.

Ridgley was 24 years old, a World War Two veteran, an aspiring piano player who started singing locally after getting up the nerve to enter The Dew Drop Inn’s daunting weekly talent contest where he won first prize. Soon he was entrenched in The Starlight Club in Gerttown… the same Girt Town that Dave Bartholomew had sung about back in the spring.

Bartholomew never lacked for confidence in his own abilities but he knew he needed talented singers if he wanted to impress Chudd in the role of producer, or A&R man, or whatever official term was affixed to his contract. Maybe he also had the sense that if he were to find newcomers, those who hadn’t gotten an opportunity yet, they’d be more malleable to taking instruction from him and since they’d have no prior stamp of approval from another record man, if they were to succeed it’d be Bartholomew who’d get full credit for their discovery and drawing out their talent.

Thus Tommy Ridgley was the perfect project for him to start with. The third of seventeen children he was surely going to be agreeable to letting someone with experience guide his efforts if it might mean a way out of a lifetime of manual labor that surely what would be waiting for him unless he made something out of this opportunity.

The songs cut at the first session overseen by Bartholomew for Imperial therefore represent the stories of two hopeful candidates for stardom. Bartholomew, a cool customer if ever there was one, probably didn’t let his anxiety show upon entering the control room at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios at the end of November. He’d been in studios before, he even nominally produced Chubby Newsom’s sides, including New Orleans Lover Man, for DeLuxe last spring, but this was his chance to make his case for a role that few artists, let alone black artists, ever achieved.

Total control over the finished product.

For Ridgley of course this was his shot at the brass ring and so for the occasion he penned a song about his hometown of Shrewsbury, Louisiana, giving him something familiar he could use to try and define himself out of the gate with. But far from being a quaint portrait of a sleepy town fit for a postcard to be sold at the local drug store to any tourists who wandered in for a cream soda one hot afternoon, Shrewsbury Blues is actually a tale of sin, corruption and vice fit for the pages of Confidential magazine.

…Okay, it’s about sex. C’mon, seriously, like you didn’t know that? I mean, what else would a racy rock song be about?
 


 
 

Really Knows Just What To Do
Actually the horns that kick this off are pretty old fashioned so you’d be forgiven for thinking there was something far more mundane waiting for you within. But once Ridgley enters the picture and lays out the plot for us it’d be kind of hard to deny the implications to the fine art of sneaking around with someone other than your wife.

Of course Ridgley isn’t bragging about it, or salaciously waxing poetic about it, in fact he’s broken up over the situation because it seems the girl he likes in Shrewsbury, his hometown remember, is being seduced by some philanderer. Or at least I think that’s what he’s driving at. Then again he says that he himself has other girls, one in New Orleans proper, one in Kenner, Louisiana, but the one from Shrewsbury is who he really cares for and she’s left. Maybe with someone else, or maybe just to avoid him and the venereal disease he may be carrying if he’s boinking all of these other ladies on the side.

The reason we’re not entirely sure about the particulars here is because as a songwriter Ridgley is a little inexperienced in establishing a clear plot and story arc. He starts off lightly critiquing the “married men” who use Shrewsbury as a convenient port of call for their extramarital activities, but then seems to implicate himself in it as well, though he’s presented as single by contrast and thus presumably unencumbered by marital vows.

That much I suppose we can accept story-wise, but he also doesn’t quite give us a resolution to whatever his particular problem is. He ends things by wailing about how he’s going to lose his mind if he doesn’t get her back but we never do find out what the extent of their relationship was to really feel much sympathy for him.

If they were a longstanding couple and she went somewhere with a new suitor… well, if she did I can’t say I’d blame her with him having two other girlfriends competing for his attention, but then – selfish though it may be on his part – we’d at least see why he’s so distraught. But if he’s merely one of a half dozen guys she happens to be “entertaining” as it appears then we wouldn’t hesitate to give them all some helpful advice about monogamy, the cure to all of these self-inflicted ills.

But don’t let that criticism about the song’s vague plot lead you to think that Shrewsbury Blues is a jumbled mess not worthy of another thought. Nothing could be further from the truth and the reason it transcends its thematic confusion is almost entirely due to Ridgley’s compelling vocal performance which never fails to impress.
 


 

All Night Long
Right away, as soon as he opens his mouth, you know Ridgley is a vocalist to be reckoned with in how he holds the dramatic opening note to the point of breaking.

His voice is in the mold of Roy Brown, who not surprisingly wasn’t just a vocal model for him but who also provided Shrewsbury Blues with its musical source, as Ridgley admitted to being “creatively inspired” by Brown’s ‘Long About Midnight when writing this. Yup, once again rock music’s originator influences rock music’s evolution, another sign of how connected it all was.

Ridgley conveys the lyrics with a deep emotional commitment worthy of Brown’s most compelling attribute, wailing his heart out about his predicament. His voice rises and falls with unerring accuracy when it comes to delivering just what the lyrics call for. He’s never playing up the drama where it’s not called for, nor is he underselling the implications of his misery. As a result he’s definitely the most compelling aspect of the record, commanding your attention throughout while mostly overcoming the confusing plot and the slightly under-cooked musical gumbo that Bartholomew brings to the table.

To be fair, Dave had to juggle a few conflicting aims here and he does a decent enough job to keep them all in the air, but it can’t help but suffer slightly in comparison to songs with more narrowly focused goals. On one hand Bartholomew needs to be true to the song itself, to match the sorrow of Ridgley with music that suits that perspective, and he does that for the most part, eschewing the deep honking tenor sax for mournful higher range horns that work in tandem to suggest sort of a crying tone with what they play.

But he also has to be aware of what sells, which in rock is a little more driving than most of this arrangement, something he tries to compensate for with the more dramatic stop-time bridge but doesn’t take it quite far enough thanks to the horns, especially the alto sax solo which isn’t searing enough to provide the proper punch.

This is probably due to the last of his multitude of objectives, and the one which carried the most personal implications for him, namely his hesitancy to deliver something that may be deemed too shocking to Chudd, who remember was a novice in rock ‘n’ roll and in New Orleans music in general and thus might not be ready for a record that gave him heart palpitations. As a result of holding back ever so slightly in its framework Shrewsbury Blues is something of a minor entry musically in rock at this point, even if its accompanying extracurricular stories make it far more memorable historically.
 

 
But all stories have to start somewhere and just as with Brown’s own debut which kicked off rock music and New Orleans’ role in the evolving musical world in spite of a more reined in sound than what would follow, the first steps are still crucial for getting us headed in the right direction.

This is the next step in that journey… for Imperial Records, a new label on the scene finding a fertile home base from which to operate… for Dave Bartholomew taking his first step towards a more rewarding future… and for rock ‘n’ roll in general which now has a clearly defined path which will take us from the 1940’s into the new widescreen technicolor productions of the 1950’s just around the next bend.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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