The Group from Jersey Is More Than Just "The Boy from New York City"
For better or worse, the Ad Libs will always be known for “The Boy from New York City”. It was their one chart hit (topping out at No. 8) and, it must be said, remains a stone-cold classic single. So, like all one-hit wonders, the question hovering over a retrospective such as this is, “Does the band have anything worth hearing outside of their signature hit?” The Complete Blue Cat Recordings covers the entirety of their early career work from 1964 to 1965 for a label partially owned by songwriter legends Lieber & Stoller and, fortunately, it answers that question with a resounding “yes”.
As a group, the Ad Libs rose from the ashes of several northern New Jersey street doo wop ensembles including the Arabians and the Creators. However, it wasn’t until the group added jazz saxophonist John Taylor and then lead vocalist Mary Ann Thomas that they really took off. The Ad Libs took their doo wop background and threw in some mid-‘60s Brill Building pop, elements of the popular girl groups sound and some Motown horns. They came along just at the tail end of the New York-driven pop scene which, in 1965, didn’t realize that it was about to be overwhelmed and overcome by the tsunami of cultural and musical upheavals of the mid-to-late ‘60s. With a lineup of Hughie Harris, Danny Austin, Dave Watt and Norman Donegan on vocals, joined by Taylor and Thomas, the Ad Libs were a group more than a band, mostly reliant on studio musicians to make their music come alive which was soon to become a throwback setup indeed but gives their music a unique hybrid R&B/doo wop feeling.
Naturally, “The Boy from New York City” starts off the album with its catchy street corner vocal harmonizing with a Mary Ann Thomas’ arresting litany of infatuation with irresistible backing “yeah yeah”-s and short sax hits that allow the song to coast by on its tale of aspirational romance written by John Taylor while staring at the New York skyline from across the Hudson in New Jersey. Real Gone Music (who released the compilation) clearly knows where its bread is buttered and decided to include no less than four versions of the song. Two of these versions are fairly unimpressive, but the vocal demo of the song is a revelation, upping the tempo of the released version and showcasing that Harris, Austin, Watt and Donegan had the vocal chops to carry a song, complete with a lithe vocal bass component, sans any instrumental aid. It’s the kind of bonus track that justifies the whole tedious business of endless repackages and rereleases.
The ten songs following “The Boy from New York City” were all released during 1964 and 1965 and they reveal a group with a firm grounding in the pop tropes of their time. The b-side to “Boy”, “Kicked Around”, is a masterpiece, employing just a soft organ, scratch guitar and hyperactive triangle to back Thomas giving a clinic on how to sing happy songs about sad subjects and turning a litany of romantic woe into a hopeful preface to a new boyfriend. Though the recording here is unfortunately marred by some dodgy stereo tracking, the song is one of those gems that you’ll be delighted to surprise friends and mixtape recipients with for years to come. Other highlights include the wonderfully mid-century American pastiche of “Ask Anybody” (wherein Thomas tells her lover, behind some punchy horns, to inquire with everyone from her butcher to the police as to her devotion to him) and the catchy “Johnny My Boy”. “On The Corner” clearly sought to capitalize on both the burgeoning hippie trend and the Drifters urban oasis fantasies such as “Under the Boardwalk” and “Up On the Roof” and mostly succeeded. The Ad Libs even threw their hat into the ring of dance craze songs with “The Slime”, a tune notable for urging teens throbbing hormonally on the edge of the sexual revolution to “get down in the gutter / then melt like butter”.
Not all the originals are quite as strong, however, as their second single, a cover of “He Ain’t No Angel”, demonstrates in a satisfactory but unremarkable run-through. Although none of their music ever falls on its face, songs like “Oh Wee Oh Me Oh My” and “Just a Down Home Girl” sound like they could be any number of old R&B singles and find their way out of your head as soon as you’ve heard them.
The Complete Blue Cat Recordings certainly earns its moniker, padding the studio originals with bonus tracks. The most interesting of these are the vocal demos that the group used when auditioning with the label and include songs never given a full-band treatment such as “The Tide Has Turned”, “Strange Things” and the forgettable but charming Christmas cut “Santa’s Coming On His Way”. After these songs, however the listener is faced with a wall of utterly dispensable ephemera, of interest to only the hardest-core of Ad Libs fans including only slightly modified “alternate” versions of previously released songs, an instrumental version of “Boy” and over twenty minutes of “studio banter” that is unrevealing and mind-bendingly dull.
The Ad Libs were in the spotlight for only the briefest of moments but this collection of their early material proves that fate and musical trends had more to do with their demise than talent (not to mention label trouble at Blue Cat that prompted Lieber and Stoller themselves to bail). Amongst these 30 tracks are about 12 or 13 great tracks and a healthy amount of filler. But within those dozen tracks are the type of shoulda-been ‘60s hits whose discovery is increasingly rare in the age of instant electronic gratification. You should definitely give this album a listen – just don’t lose sight of that “skip” button.