The Ad Libs: The Complete Blue Cat Recordings

Astonishing stereo re-masters and demos of Brill-era vocal group

Blue Cat was a subsidiary of the Red Bird label started in 1964 by legendary Brill Building songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The parent label cashed in on the girl group craze with the Dixie Cups and Shangri-Las, but Blue Cat also cracked the Top 10 with the label’s second single, “The Boy from New York City.” Written by saxophonist John T. Taylor, the song had a jazzy swing that gave the then-recently rechristened Ad Libs a distinct sound. The New Jersey quintet featured Mary Ann Thomas singing lead and a smooth male quartet providing backing vocals. A second single, “He Ain’t No Angel,” was penned by Red Bird’s house team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (and previously waxed by the Lovejoys for Tiger), but label turmoil stalled the single on the bottom rungs of the Top 100. Two more singles, “On the Corner” and “I’m Just a Down Home Girl,” fared even worse and led to the group’s departure from Blue Cat.

Judging solely by the charts, the Ad Libs were a four-single, one-hit wonder; but as this twenty-three track collection shows, there was a lot more to their catalog than found broad public acclaim. In addition to the group’s four A’s and B’s, Real Gone’s gathered a clutch of unreleased tracks, alternate versions and a cappella demos that give full testimony to the group’s vocal talent and their production team’s ability to craft memorable melodic and instrumental hooks. The B-sides are anything but throwaways, with “Kicked Around” sporting an incredible jazz bass line, sly organ bed and maddeningly memorable triangle figure behind Thomas’ thirsty flower vocal. “Ask Anybody” is a dance tune touched by doo-wop, blues and gospel, and the male leads on “Oo-Wee Oh Me Oh My” and “Johnny My Boy” show the group had more than one vocalist capable of holding the spotlight.

The finished track “The Slime” went unreleased, and, sadly, was deprived of the opportunity to ignite a worldwide dance craze based on melting like butter down in the gutter. The set’s other unreleased master, “You’ll Always Be in Style,” adds a touch of Latin soul. The set’s most arresting find, however, are seven mono a cappella demos that starkly highlight the group’s melding of doo-wop and vocal jazz. In addition to demos of singles sides (including a take on “The Boy from New York City” that shows the hit single’s more relaxed tempo to have been the right choice), four additional titles are featured, including the holiday-themed “Santa’s on His Way.” The five alternate takes include a version of “The Boy from New York City” with a distractingly present trumpet riff, and the disc is filled out with seven tracking sessions that provide a rare peak inside the studio.

Reissue producer Ron Furmanek has re-mastered many of these tracks (1-4, 6-9, 18-30) in stereo from the original 3- and 4-track master session tapes. At times, particularly on the singles, the separation and clarity of the vocals and instruments is disconcerting to ears trained by original mono singles heard through AM radio. That said, even with handclaps and backing vocals panned hard left and right, the soundstage still hangs together reasonably well, even when individual elements (such as the honking saxophone on “He Ain’t No Angel”) stand a bit forward. The tracking sessions are interesting, but fresh re-masters of the original mono singles would have been a more long-lasting treat. Real Gone’s four-panel slipcase includes a 12-page booklet with lengthy liner notes and an introduction by the Manhattan Transfer’s Tim Hauser. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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