BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of the first self-contained (vocal and instrumental) groups in rock enjoyed decent commercial success and were among a handful of early rock acts deemed suitable for potential crossover appeal by the major labels. Ironically that blend of pop and rock is what likely did them in over time, as pop audiences had no interest in artists of their background while rock fans increasingly resisted the compromised intent of their records. As such they’ve been largely overlooked, or at least cast aside by historians who tend to view them as more of a hybrid act belonging to no specific genre.

Formed in Newark, New Jersey by Harry Lester, who changed his stage name to Lester Harris, singing lead and playing drums for the group, he was joined by bassist Flap McQueen, Joe Crump on piano and Chink Kinney on sax. In late 1948 they signed to a local label, Coleman, which was run by The Coleman Brothers gospel group, and cut a revised treatment of the mild pop standard “I’ll Always Be In Love With You”, adding some modernity to it by virtue of its arrangement and Harris’s laconic soulful vocal. He was the only voice heard on their records which took them out of the growing rock vocal group milieu in the process robbing them of a vital context that would’ve helped their long-term reputation. Though after his departure the others did sing leads they never attempted any vocal harmony styles.

Further hurting their standing from the very beginning was Coleman’s inexperience with the secular market, as they somehow allowed rival Newark record company Savoy, a much bigger and sharper organization, to hear the still un-pressed master for their debut song, “I’ll Always Be In Love With You”. Savoy’s Herman Lubinsky recognized a hit when he heard it and quickly organized a session comprised of an all-star instrumental lineup to back singer Tippy Larkin and rush-released their version before The Ray-O-Vacs record hit the streets. When The X-Rays (as he named the fictitious group) record started drawing raves Coleman hastily issued The Ray-O-Vacs in response but they couldn’t quite make up the ground lost by the delay. Both versions hit the Top Ten on Billboard’s national Race Charts, but The X-Rays was slightly more successful.

A few more releases followed on Coleman before the major labels came calling. First Decca, whom they recorded for over a two year period (1950-1951) and scored a double-sided hit in “Besame Mucho” and “You Gotta Love Me Baby Too”, but then Harris left the group and went to another major label in RCA recording solo before his sudden early death at age 32 in February 1953. The group had continued without him on Jubilee Records where despite some fine recordings – both with vocal sides and instrumentals – they scored no further hits with them or in brief stints on other solid independent labels – Atlantic and Chess.

The group’s reputation however was strong to the end, enjoying a decade as reliable draws on the club circuit where their versatility wasn’t a hindrance to their appeal as it might’ve been on the recording front, as they were fine musicians capable of playing smooth and classy for the uptown clubs or down and dirty for the joints across the tracks. More than just an afterthought in rock’s lineage, yet never truly stars even at their most popular, The Ray-O-Vacs nevertheless helped broaden the reach of rock in its formative years and left behind a diverse catalog of material.
 
 
THE RAY-O-VACS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
 
 
I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU
(Coleman 100; December, 1948)
Strong debut that got beaten off the line by The X-Rays cover version, yet became a hit anyway. Theirs has slightly more subdued instrumental support which while not as exciting is more appropriate for the theme, while lead signer Lester Harris delivers a more soulful vocal making this the slightly better overall record. (7)

GROOVIN’ LOW
(Coleman 100; December, 1948)
Though they have the right idea by using a sax led instrumental to give audiences a different impression of them for the flip of their debut the problem is it’s a lethargic one with some wheezy blowing at times, a supper club piano and no rhythm, all of which called their credentials as rockers into question. (2)

HAPPY AM I
(Coleman 105; April, 1949)
Modest intentions carried off reasonably well, as the group and this song both stick to the middle of the road at safe speeds which makes for a pleasant enough drive but one that doesn’t get you very far. (4)

WHY DID YOU BREAK MY HEART
(Coleman 105; April, 1949)
The group’s tepid response to a break-up not only forms the basis for the song itself but also explains why their position in rock would always be tenuous, they simply didn’t embody the attitude of the younger artists who were now setting the rules. (2)

I’M THE BABY NOW
(Coleman 112; July, 1949)
A pleasant sounding record with a decent story conveyed with sly vocals and a good sax solo to boot, all of which makes it enjoyable but not essential in the big scheme of things. (5)

HOT DOG
(Coleman 112; July, 1949)
A dreadful novelty with far too much pop blandness thrown in the mix for good measure, making this one dish you should skip at all costs. (1)