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Review: The Ad Libs, “The Complete Blue Cat Recordings”

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Ooh-wah, ooh-wah, cool, cool kitty!  Tell us about the boy from New York City…

And indeed, much of America listened to the Ad Libs tell of that kinda tall, really fine guy in his mohair suit.  The Top 10 hit turned radio’s attention from Swinging London back to New York City for a brief moment, but the group was never able to repeat the song’s success.  It wasn’t for lack of trying, though, as Real Gone Music’s The Complete Blue Cat Recordings (Real Gone RGM-0500, 2012) proves.  Though the Ad Libs’ released output at Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner’s Blue Cat Records consisted of just four singles (eight sides), the Real Goners have added a wealth of unreleased material to create the definitive portrait of the vocal group.

Blue Cat, an imprint of Leiber, Stoller and Goldner’s Red Bird label, boasted its own cool kitty, a blue, horn-playing feline on each of its records.  “The Boy From New York City” was the group’s first A-side for Blue Cat.  And how could the song, written by John Taylor, have gone wrong, with Leiber and Stoller producing, future Philly soul legend Leon Huff on piano, Artie Butler arranging, and Phil Ramone engineering the session at New York’s Mira Sound studio?  In his introduction to the liner notes here, Tim Hauser of The Manhattan Transfer states most accurately and succinctly that the 1964 song was a “’60s Brill Building version of classic street-corner doo-wop,” and that mix, indeed, marks the small but enjoyable crop of music recorded at Blue Cat by the Ad Libs.  The group was born from the remains of Bayonne, New Jersey’s The Arabians and The Creators, and initially signed by Red Bird/Blue Cat as The Cheerios!  Taylor, too, was residing in Bayonne when he wrote “The Boy From New York City.”

Like contemporaries The Essex (“Easier Said Than Done”) and Ruby and the Romantics (“Our Day Will Come”), The Ad Libs were distinguished by the presence of a female vocalist, Mary Ann Thomas.  Spotted in Hoboken, Thomas filled out the quintet also including Hughie Harris, Danny Austin, Dave Watt and Norman Donegan.  John Taylor had been providing them with material since 1962, but George Goldner knew that “The Boy From New York City” was the song with the most hit potential when The Ad Libs offered an a cappella performance of it at an audition.

Hit the jump for more!

The other material here is strong if not quite as memorable.  The best of the songs is Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s “He Ain’t No Angel,” the follow-up to “The Boy.”  Unfortunately, internal troubles between Blue Cat’s founders would derail it from commercial success.  The B-side of “He Ain’t No Angel,” “Ask Anybody,” offers another different spin on doo-wop.  Rather than taking the street corner sound in a pop direction, the recording of a song by Rudy (“Good Lovin’”) Clark has jazz and swing overtones.  Still on display, however, are those perfect harmonies and “shoop shoops,” “ooh wahs,” “dip dips” and other examples of doo-wop jargon.

“Angel” was followed by John Linde and Pete Antell’s breakneck, Motown-style “On the Corner,” backed with another John Taylor composition.  Taylor’s laid-back “Oo-We Oh Me Oh My” (no relation to Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” of a few years later!) adds light folk and even tropical touches in its arrangement, but the song sounds jarringly out-of-place with the rest of the group’s urban repertoire.  Taylor got both the A and the B-sides of what would turn out to be The Ad Libs’ final Blue Cat single, “I’m Just a Down Home Girl” b/w “Johnny, My Boy.”  Though “Down Home Girl” sounds like an overt attempt to recapture the magic of “The Boy From New York City,” it, too, met with little success, and before long, the group would be off to greener pastures.  (They later recorded for Detroit’s Karen Records, Philips, Chips Moman’s AGP label in Memphis and Van McCoy’s Share Records, with personnel changes along the way.)

The group did, however, complete two more songs, neither of which was issued at the time.  One was their sole attempt at a Leiber and Stoller song, “The Slime.”  It wasn’t a top-drawer effort from the team, however, with a kooky dance-craze lyric (“Get down in the gutter…then melt like butter!”)  melded to background vocals similar to those of “Boy From New York City” imploring “Do it, do it, do it!”  The other unissued master (which makes its debut here) is by the “Under the Boardwalk” team of Arthur Resnick and Kenny Young.  Their “You’ll Always Be in Style” is another song with a dance theme, name-checking the Monkey and the Jerk.  Its ambitious arrangement blends a Detroit groove with Drifters-esque, Latin flourishes, and one thinks it would have been more commercial than “The Slime,” though it met the same fate!

The real revelations are seven unreleased vocal demos, all recorded on October 27, 1964 and appended as bonus tracks.  Along with four songs that weren’t re-recorded, the demos include early stabs at “The Boy From New York City,” its eventual B-side “Kicked Around” and “Oo-Wee Oh Me Oh My.”  The Ad Libs fill in the parts that would later be taken by instruments, and their vocals here will be manna for lovers of doo-wop or just great singing.  These tracks come much closer to a jazz style than the eventual recordings would, and could offer a lesson to many of today’s Auto-tuned crop of singers!  Of the songs that weren’t attempted again at Blue Cat, “Strange Things” would have made a fine candidate for a full recording, as would have the holiday-themed “Santa’s on the Way,” with a sweet, classic-styled doo-wop vocal arrangement.

Compilation producers Ron Furmanek and Ash Wells have also added alternate takes of five of the eight singles and one backing track (whew!) plus nearly 20 minutes of studio chatter over seven tracks.  The studio talk might not make for ideal repeat listening, but it’s a fascinating window into the group’s process as they try out harmonies and experiment with arrangements on songs like “The Slime,” “Ask Anybody” and “He Ain’t No Angel.”

Furmanek has notably mixed all but one of the released singles into stereo, most for the very first time.  The producer/mastering and remix engineer has worked with these recordings since first mixing some into stereo for Taragon’s 1988 release The Very Best of Red Bird/Blue Cat Records.  More recently, Real Gone issued The Red Bird Girls, an essential companion piece to the Ad Libs’ collection.  James Moniz offers an essay in the colorful booklet, and the digipak includes the disc (with the original Blue Cat logo, of course!) in its own protective sleeve.  The Ad Libs’ The Complete Blue Cat Recordings proves that time hasn’t dulled the coolness of these kitties.

Written by Joe Marchese

May 10, 2012 at 11:27

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