In the early 1960s New Orleans was rightfully considered to be a centre of excellence for R&B and its fast-rising offshoot that became known as soul. The few studios in the city were kept busy day and night by the owners of a clutch of independent labels, eager to put their new artists on wax and in the public eye. Local DJs and record distributors owned the most important of the labels in question: Joe Banashak and Larry McKinley had Minit, Joe Assunto had Watch, while Assunto’s brother-in-law Joe Ruffino ran two labels, named after his two boys, out of a small office on Baronne Street.
Starting in 1959, Ruffino’s Ric and Ron labels released around 70 singles over a span of roughly five years. Only one became an important national hit – Joe Jones’ ‘You Talk Too Much’ – but a roster that featured Tommy Ridgeley, Eddie Bo, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, Chris Kenner, Johnny Adams, Robert Parker and Jones sold enough records locally to keep Ruffino on top of his game until he died, unexpectedly, in 1962. Many of those artists made either their first or most significant records for Ric or Ron, and you’ll still hear two of Ruffino’s biggest selling releases – Professor Longhair’s ‘Go To the Mardi Gras’ and Al Johnson’s ‘Carnival Time’ – all over the Crescent City when February rolls around and New Orleans dives headlong into its Mardi Gras celebrations.
Ruffino may not have recorded as often as some of his peers in the independent R&B label business, but he always recorded wisely and always came up with high quality end product. He used the best musicians the city had to offer and, shortly before he died, he entrusted his A&R to the young Mac Rebennack, who became Dr John The Night Tripper. Ruffino’s singers had an edge on many of their peers in that they actually could sing, and for these reasons Ric and Ron 45s sound just as great today.
Apart from ‘Carnival Time’ and Eddie Bo’s ‘Every Dog Has Its Day’ you won’t find any of Ruffino’s greatest hits in this special, limited edition box set. Here is, for the most part, a fascinating collection of ‘ones that got away’ – audition versions of Ruffino’s R&B classics, great finished masters that somehow evaded issue at the time, including the debut recordings of18 year old future soul legend Barbara Lynn. 18 of the 20 featured tracks have never been issued in this form. That’s the kind of statistic that will have lovers of vintage New Orleans R&B and soul salivating in their jambalaya from now to the next Fat Tuesday.
The discovery of these tracks will surely be a cause of celebration among those who still worship at the shrine of vinyl. The ten 45s in the Ric & Ron box are every bit as legitimate as those that were issued between 1959 and 1964, and they more than hold their own with Ric and Ron releases from back in the day.
By Tony Rounce