BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 


Rock’s first vocal group and the influential trendsetters for the next twenty or more years of group harmony vocals, as well as the first rock artists of any type to score an authentic hit on the Billboard charts, one of eleven they notched in a five year stretch at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.

The Ravens formed after World War Two in New York with leader Jimmy Ricks, the greatest bass singer in rock history. Whereas most groups, then and since, have a tenor lead with the bass singer only occasionally stepping outside of the group harmony bed, The Ravens – inspired in part by the pre-rock outfit The Delta Rhythm Boys with their profundo bass Lee Gaines – utilized Ricks warm, cavernous voice as their centerpiece and calling card.

Signed by talent agent Ben Bart whose Hub Records issued their first sides in 1946 which were largely unclassifiable to the standards of the era. Though the label didn’t have the power to promote them nationally they were very popular in New York and by December of that year they’d added Maithe Marshall whose high tenor would contrast well with Ricks’s unearthly bass, giving them another wrinkle to their signature sound.

By the spring of 1947 the foursome, also featuring Leonard “Zeke” Puzey and Warren Suttles, signed with the larger National Records cutting a revolutionary version of “Ol Man River” which defined their approach with Ricks bass sounding lecherous even singing something non-threatening while the others provided exquisite harmony.

When rock took hold in September they wasted no time in joining in since that was the style they were already leaning towards before it even existed and were clearly most at home in, bringing immeasurable soulfulness to everything they sung. Their first hits followed in rapid succession, forever altering the way vocal groups performed, even through numerous personnel changes but always anchored by the resonant bass voice of “Ricky”.

Over time they jumped from label to label, their popularity within their core audience keeping them commercially viable for years even with numerous defections among their members. Eventually an entirely new group of singers surrounded Ricks whose presence still ensured they had the distinctive sound that made them famous. When he finally left for an unsuccessful solo career in the mid-1950’s others carried on the Ravens name, but by this time the rock ‘n’ roll skies were full of “bird-groups” many of whom had chosen their names as an homage to the group that started it all.
 

THE RAVENS DISCOGRAPHY (Reviews To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
 
 
WRITE ME A LETTER
(National 9038; October, 1947)
The first rock hit sounds at least five years ahead of its time heralding a new day musically with Jimmy Ricks dominating the record, slyly imparting the lyrics with a hint of lecherous intent without toning anything down for an ill-fated attempt at crossover pop appeal. (8)

SUMMERTIME
(National 9038; October, 1947)
The Ravens play it close to the vest giving us their basic roll call of standard tricks, clearly built on the framework of their radical reinvention of “Ol’ Man River” without the inspired innovation of that earlier record, nor the personal investment to see it through. (5)

SEARCHING FOR LOVE
(National 9039; December 1947)
Not for the last time The Ravens take a stab at the broader pop market giving Maithe Marshall’s fragile tenor a spotlight to convey virginal desire but that mild approach won’t cut it in rock, especially when Ravens fans are already used to Jimmy Ricks’s earthy realism. (2)

BE I BUMBLE BEE OR NOT
(National 9040; January, 1948)
The Ravens change things up from their usual approach by having Leonard Puzey take the lead resulting in a near perfect record – beautifully sung, cleverly written and, for the most part exquisitely arranged; one of the strongest rock songs of 1947. (8)

TOGETHER
(National 9042; February, 1948)
An almost schizophrenic record with a modern group attempting to tackle a dated song and appeal to pop audiences while still trying to hold on to their rock fan-base with sadly predictable results. (3)

SEND FOR ME IF YOU NEED ME
(National 9045; June, 1948)
A big hit-sequel to “Write Me A Letter” that while sounding good makes no attempt at being creative, content instead to be merely serviceable, offering nothing more than a needless recap of past events from a better record. (5)

UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG
(National 9045; June, 1948)
Another standard re-done Ravens style, two-thirds of a great record done in by an out of place extended coda, yet still probably the best version of the song that had been done by 1948. (6)

ONCE IN AWHILE
(National 9053; July, 1948)
Another unfortunate attempt at pop respectability but thanks to Jimmy Ricks’s erotic delivery one with subtexts galore, making it sound as if this is a perverse form of seduction to win back a departed love rather than simply a mild plea to be recalled fondly. (4)

IT’S TOO SOON TO KNOW
(National 9056; September, 1948)
Hastily recorded cover version of The breaking hit by The Orioles fails to come close to the original, as The Ravens alter the melody slightly to avoid merely serving up a direct imitation but they also fail to deliver the sincerity that Sonny Til had embodied so perfectly on the first go-round. (3)

BE ON YOUR MERRY WAY
(National 9056; September, 1948)
A song that reflects The Ravens style as well as any in their canon, written by group members and pulled off with understated class, as Jimmy Ricks’ weary mellifluous tones are carried away on a tranquil bed of harmony. (7)

WHITE CHRISTMAS
(National 9062; November, 1948)
The first rock Christmas record daringly re-invents a modern classic. Whereas Bing Crosby’s solemn recent standard looked back wistfully finding comfort in the past’s idyllic purity, The Ravens look ahead convinced the best is yet to come. (7)

SILENT NIGHT
(National 9062; November, 1948)
Tackling a far older and even more venerated Christmas hymn The Ravens show they are more than up to the task for delivering a respectful, yet soulful, work of art topped by some of the most exquisite harmony singing found on record. (8)

ALWAYS
(National 9064; December, 1948)
The Ravens take yet another ill-advised stab at a standard but when they utilize their own strengths rather than conform to a pre-existing pop approach they were always capable of delivering more than expected, which for the most part they do here. (5)

ROOSTER
(National 9064; December, 1948)
Advertised as a ‘folk-novelty’ this has disaster written all over it, and critics at the time and in the years since have been harsh on it, but the group wrote it themselves as a lark and clearly enjoyed doing it and truth be told it’s even kinda funny, so what’s the harm? (5)

LEAVE MY GAL ALONE
(National 9065; February, 1949)
Compromised effort that has Jimmy Ricks wonderfully playing up a stereotypical rock image but the way they frame it intentionally undercuts that to assure pop audiences that they’re treating it in a lighthearted manner and thus is not to be taken seriously. (6)

RICKY’S BLUES
(National 9073; May, 1949)
A throwback sound reminiscent of their previous successes coming at a time when their divergent aims in trying to also reach a white pop audience were eroding their support within the black rock community, making this a welcome return to what they did best, but a tenuous one. (6)

CARELESS LOVE
(National 9085; July, 1949)
Overly reliant on Jimmy Ricks to carry this, he does his usual stellar job by adding rays of optimism to the pessimistic outlook but the other Ravens are given little to add and the song itself is stripped down lyrically which divests it of deeper meaning. (6)

SOMEDAY
(National 9089; September, 1949)
Another misguided attempt to hop a cover song bandwagon, The Ravens manage to add some distinctive attributes of their own but pull their punches too much with their delivery in an effort to maintain pop appeal, thus making potentially alienating their fans hardly worth the risk. (4)

IF YOU DIDN’T MEAN IT
(National 9089; September, 1949)
An original composition meant to sound like a pop tune starts off with low expectations but Jimmy Ricks digs deep to convey the emotional undercurrents of the song and transforms it into something noteworthy, almost in spite of itself. (6)