Tracking down Mr. Blues

Radioman helped get the popular music on the air.

By: Al Wicklund
   MONROE — Harold Ladell was surprised at the response to his first 15-minute rhythm and blues radio broadcast as Mr. Blues in 1949.
   He was surprised again, 50 years later, at the number of people who remembered his radio persona following an interview on the Rutgers University student radio station.
   Mr. Ladell, now a resident of The Ponds, said that, some five decades ago, he was 20 and the lone sales representative for Essex Record Distributors, a small Newark company consisting of an owner father, two sons and Mr. Ladell.
   "We handled country and western, ethnic music, some classical and rhythm and blues. There was no market for R&B at the time except for mail orders we sold down South," Mr. Ladell said.
   As the company’s lone sale representative, Mr. Ladell was assigned to try to find a market for the R&B records, folk-based popular music with a strong beat that was performed mostly by black musicians, most successfully in the Southern states.
   "There was a radio station in Newark, WHBI, that played 24 hours of gospel music one day a week, from midnight Saturday to midnight Sunday. I bought 15 minutes of air time, 11:15 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday. I played five R&B records and let the audience know that the records were available at our two retail stores.
   "When I came to work at 9 o’clock Monday morning, it was a mob scene. At first, the owners and I thought there had been a fire or some other disaster. But, it was just people waiting to buy those records. We sold out our rhythm and blues records in 15 minutes. The other music stores in the area also sold out whatever they had," Mr. Ladell said.
   He said the orders for R&B records from the Essex company came in for hundreds and then thousands of records from towns in various parts of the state.
   "It was madness," he said.
   He said the Mr. Blues program went on WNJR, the Newark News radio station, for 90-minute programs three times a week.
   "We were doing it at the right time. We became part of an R&B explosion," Mr. Ladell said.
   In the next 19 years, Mr. Blues introduced little-known performers who became major performers and worked with many of the biggest names in popular music such as Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.
   The company produced records on its own labels.
   "We were consistently at the top of the charts. Often of the top 100 R&B records, our labels would be on 95 of them," he said..
   Then, in 1969, Mr. Ladell got out of the music business.
   "I had really enjoyed it. I liked the people I worked with and I’ve always loved music, but things changed. It wasn’t fun any more," he said.
   He went into wholesale marketing, a field he still works in. He moved to The Ponds in 1995 and, two years later, started The Ponds Dance Band.
   But, his past came alive again in 1998 when he was contacted by WRSU, the Rutgers University student radio station, and invited to be a guest on a student-run rhythm-and-blues program.
   "They played records and we talked. It went on for three hours. I heard from a number of people after the program. Then, someone distributed tapes of parts of the program. Some went to collectors in Europe and then to other parts of the world.
   "I was amazed at the wide interest in R&B and the people who knew of and remembered Mr. Blues," he said.
   He said a colleague he had worked with for years learned that Harold Ladell was Mr. Blues.
   "He got very excited. Called his mother and insisted that I talk to her. He told me he knew there was something familiar about my voice that he hadn’t been able to place. When I spoke to his mother, she immediately said, ‘You’re Mr. Blues,’ " Mr. Ladell said.
   Mr. Ladell will return to music as a performer May 22 when The Ponds Dance Band has its fourth annual concert at Monroe Township High School. He will conduct the 22-piece band and play drums. The concert is a presentation of The Monroe Township Cultural Arts Commission.