Sammy Ridgley. Though the last name is familiar to New Orleans R&B buffs, the first name might not well be. Separated by 18 years, Sammy Ridgley is the youngest brother of the late Tommy Ridgely and carries on the R&B tradition of his older brother. He still leads Tommy’s old band, the Untouchables, and hopefully his 2010 Ponderosa Stomp performance will lead to deservedly wider recognition.
Born Aug. 6, 1943, Sammy was raised on Andover Street in the Shrewsbury section of Jefferson Parish. “When I was growing up, Tommy had left home but was living around the corner,” recalled Ridgley in the fall of 1998. “I grew up singing gospel, and I was a good football player. I was an amateur boxer and won all but one fight. A policeman wanted to train me to box professionally, but my mother wouldn’t go for it.”
As an adolescent, Ridgley soon found out that there were certain perks to being the brother of a successful recording artist. “Every time my brother went out of town, he’d bring me back a shirt, a pair of shoes, or a new suit,” laughed Ridgley. “I had 20 pairs of shoes and 13 suits. Also, I could get into all the dances free by telling the guy at the door that I was Tommy Ridgley’s brother.”
As he grew older, Ridgley often traveled to nearby towns with his brother and helped handle the band’s equipment. As he grew older, Ridgley got to see the likes of Gatemouth Brown, Guitar Slim and Smiley Lewis when they performed at the Harlem Gym in Shrewsbury.
“I used to enjoy going to the Municipal Auditorium too and seeing the gospel shows. I remember seeing Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. I also remember seeing Archie Brown Lee and the Five Blind Boys – he was devastating.”
Eventually Joe Tex became Ridgley’s biggest influence. “Joe Tex played the Dew Drop in the late 1950s. This was before he had any hit records. It was the most exciting thing I ever saw. He did all those James Brown dance steps that became famous and he could really pop that mike stand. I remember leaving the Dew Drop one night thinking how great it would be to be a singer and be able to put on a show like that.”
In 1962, Ridgley got the chance. “Kelly Jones was a saxophonist in my neighborhood that played with O.W. Scott and the Magnificents,” said Ridgley. “He heard I could sing and invited me to join the band. We mostly played white frat gigs and made good money. I made more money in one night than an entire week at my day job (at a funeral parlor).”
Tommy arranged for his brother to record at Cosimo’s in 1965, but “The Hully Gully” never saw the light of day. Sammy also did a session with the Magnificents at WYLD’s studio on Tulane Avenue that also went unissued.
“The Magnificents did well until the Beatles came along,” said Ridgley. “Then we had to compete with all the Beatle and guitar bands. Guys kept dropping out of the group (the Magnificents) and finally it dissolved.
“Around 1968, I started my own band, Operation Plus. That was the best little boogie-woogie band I ever heard. That was my style – that uptempo sound. We had the same weekend gig at the Young Man’s Night Club on Causeway (Boulevard) for 24 years.”
In 1972, Ridgley signed on with Elijah Walker, who ran a production/promotion company with a parcel of very successful up-and-coming New Orleans R&B talent, including King Floyd, Jean Knight, and C. P. Love, to name a few. A largely overlooked figure in the overall history of local R&B, Walker was very much responsible for the brief resurgence of the New Orleans sound in the early 1970s. The former longshoreman knew the value of hard work, connections and especially money. “Walker didn’t get kicked in the ass – Walker did the ass kicking,” according to C.P. Love.
Walker produced Ridgley’s first single “I’ve Heard That Story Before” – a cover of his brother’s song – and “Shake A Shake Sue.” The single was arranged by Wardell Quezergue and released on King’s Row. The same team worked on “I’m Dreaming”/”Locked Up,” which started to make some noise in New Orleans.
“‘I’m Dreaming’ started to get some airplay on WBOK and WYLD, but it cost money to get a record played then,” said Ridgley. “I know because I put $250 in a jock’s hand. The jock told me that for another $250, he’d wear the label off the motherfucker.
“ABC-Paramount was interest in leasing ‘I’m Dreaming’ and doing an album. They offered $5,000, but Walker wanted $10,000. They thought that was too much and nothing happened.”
Walker’s unexpected death in 1973 stalled Ridgley’s recording career, but he stayed busy with Operation Plus and occasionally opening his brother’s shows with the Untouchables.
In the late 1990s, Ridgley was approached by guitarist/label owner Ernie Vincent – an association that resulted in the very good, but unfortunately out-of-print, “Midnight Rendezvous” CD.
After Tommy’s death in 1999, Sammy assumed the role of bandleader with the Untouchables. Sammy and the band mostly work private functions in Jefferson Parish. His appearance before the Ponderosa Stomp’s knowledgeable and appreciative audience will surely make many more people aware of his talent.
Sammy Ridgley – I Heard That Story Before