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Music Review: The Ad Libs – The Complete Blue Cat Recordings

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Hugh Harris, Danny Austin, Dave Watt, and Norman Donegan had a nice little career going for themselves as The Creators. Their early incarnation was a doo-wop type vocal group from Bayonne, New Jersey, who had become popular enough to attract the attention of several labels. While their single releases for the small, Brooklyn-based T-Kay label and the national Philips label were not commercially successful, they continued to be a popular local concert attraction.

Enter Mary Ann Thomas, who caught the group’s attention at a local talent show. They decided to radically change their musical approach and name by installing her as the lead singer. It proved to be a wise choice. They may not have changed the face of American music, but they did manage to produce one of the classic doo-wop type songs of the mid-1960s when “The Boy From New York City” became a huge national hit.

The memorable part of their career occurred when they were signed to the Blue Cat label, which was a subsidiary of Red Bird. Real Gone Music has now resurrected all 23 tracks they recorded for the label. It’s a welcome addition to the music history of the era, as The Ad Libs never released a true album. The music is taken from the original master tapes and includes five unreleased songs and nine alternate versions of released material.

Any discussion of the Ad Libs’ music begins with their big hit. “The Boy From New York City” is presented in all its cleaned up, pristine glory, which puts the focus squarely on their intricate vocal harmonies. In addition, three more unreleased alternate versions are included, highlighted by an a cappella demo performance.

They only had four official releases for the label and all eight sides of those four singles are included. “He Ain’t No Angel” was another vocal harmony piece but their third single, “On The Corner,” featured a driving beat and a sound closer to Detroit’s funk than Brooklyn’s street corner doo-wop. Their fourth single, “I’m Just A Down Home Girl,” closed out the most successful phase of their career. Red Bird/Blue Cat declared bankruptcy shortly afterward. The Ad Libs would continue to release singles for a variety of labels for the next quarter of a century with little success.

Harris, Watt, and Thomas have all passed away so there will be no reunions. On one hand, they will always be a memorable footnote in the history of 1960s music. However, The Complete Blue Cat Recordings shows that they were a fine vocal group whose quality of music was not just limited to one song. An essential listen for anyone interested in the history of American doo-wop or 1960s vocal groups.

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