THE AD LIBS
The Boy from New York City
John Taylor, a saxophonist with a big band background, was on the lookout for talent in the early 1960s. He discovered a doo wop quintet that had been singing on street corners in Bayonne, New Jersey, a stone's throw from New York City, since the mid-'50s, first as The Arabians and more recently as The Creators. The group's members at that time were leaders Hughie Harris and Danny Austin with James Wright, John Alan and bass singer Chris Coles. Through his connections Taylor got them into a studio where they recorded a doo wop ballad, "I'll Never Never Do it Again," released in 1962 on the T-Kay label.
Within months the Creators had a second release, this time on major label Philips. Hopes were high for "Yeah, He's Got It," a more contemporary sounding call-and-response dance tune backed with "Boy, He's Got It," an instrumental version of the same song, but it got lost in the shuffle. They recorded a seasonal song, "I'll Be Home (New Years Eve)," '50s style again, but it faltered as well. Wright, Alan and Coles left to pursue other interests, leaving Harris and Austin who were determined to keep it going, adding Norman Donegan and Dave Watt soon afterwards. It was the addition of a fifth member, though, the secret weapon key to their success, that made the difference: a young woman with a terrific singing voice, Mary Ann Thomas. Hey, Bobby Freeman had already cut a record a few years earlier with her full name as the title! So didn't it seem logical that a real person with that name could have a career in the music biz?
As it turned out, the stars aligned for this version of the group. First, Taylor decided to drop the Creators name, improvising a new but not-so-accurate moniker, The Ad Libs. In 1964 they made a demo recording of his song "The Boy from New York City," figuring the title alone might spark someone's interest on Broadway in Manhattan where so many of the big and not-so-big record companies did their business. But the song itself was what did the trick; the demo, a tight, finger-snappin' a cappella recording of the guys' doo wop backing with Mary Ann's overdubbed lead vocal, impressed Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who signed the group to their red-hot, not-so-long-in-existence Red Bird Records. A session was held at the Mira Sound studio with a top-flight lineup of session musicians, though the emphasis remained on the quintet's strong vocals. It was hard to resist the catchy 'Ooh-wah-ooo-wah, cool, cool kitty...' with Mary Ann's references to 'the finest penthouse I've ever seen' and a guy who's 'cute in his mohair suit' and 'keeps his pockets full of spending loot!' Released as the second single on Red Bird's new subsidiary label, Blue Cat, it hit the national charts in January 1965 and was a top ten hit by the end of February.
The Ad Libs, at Leiber and Stoller's suggestion, tried a number of different gimmicks. The hit's flip side, "Kicked Around," is a kick in itself with another great Thomas vocal, persistent organ and some of the tightest triangle clanging you'll ever hear. "Ooo-Wee Oh Me Oh My" (lead vocal by Hughie Harris) has a Hawaiian feel complete with steel guitar. "Johnny My Boy" (Hughie again), "On the Corner" (with Mary Ann's lead) and other Blue Cat tracks are solid soul shots. This group had it goin' on. The Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich song "He Ain't No Angel," released as the Ad Libs' second single, is also very good but may have been the wrong choice for a follow-up as it sounded more like "Boy from NYC" than anything else they'd done, which may explain its measly number 100 peak a few months later. It was the group's only other Blue Cat single to hit the charts.
The group resurfaced in 1966 on the A.G.P. label with "New York in the Dark," conspicuously missing Mary Ann, who had left by that time. Taylor continued managing them, hiring Irene Baker with the hope of rekindling the magic of just a year earlier; she sang lead on "Every Boy and Girl," the B side of "Think of Me" on the Karen label. The group returned to Philips where the Creators had cut their teeth, but only one single, "Don't Ever Leave Me," was released. Later they popped up on the small Share record label with "Giving Up," a remake of Gladys Knight and the Pips' top 40 hit from '64; Van McCoy, the song's composer, produced the record with the group's latest lead vocalist, Linda Goodson (Baker was still around and for a time they had two female singers). In contrast to the title, the fact they hadn't given up finally paid off when the song spent several weeks on the R&B chart in the spring of 1969. Fast-forward to 1981: "The Boy from New York City" was revived and became a hit for Big Apple-based group The Manhattan Transfer. Meanwhile, The Ad Libs were still at it, though with an ever-changing roster, performing live and making records under John Taylor's watchful guidance.