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Journeymen singers probably have no illusions about their lot in life. They’re good enough to earn a marginal living as a performer, yet not talented enough to have realistic hopes of ever becoming a star.

But in the singles era of rock ‘n’ roll there were plenty of struggling independent record companies in need of artists capable of cutting a few sides that could pass muster with audiences allowing both of them – artists and labels alike – to cling to the fleeting hope that one of these songs might improve their standing just enough to climb one small step higher on the ladder of success.

Because of this these artists were often caught in a bind of sorts… do you try something creative, knowing the ratio of success to failure in those instances was often not very good? Or do you hedge your bets and just try exhibiting run of the mill competence, knowing all the while it won’t have any real chance of making an impression on anyone but relying on the fact that by doing so there wasn’t much risk in bombing completely thereby keeping open the chance that someone else might give you another shot down the road?


On This Sunday Morning
In case you still weren’t sure which direction LaVerne Ray chose with this release, the answer is he took the safe route… and yes, he did get more opportunities along the way, so maybe it was the smart bet after all.

A year ago, back in April 1949, we delved deeply into the saga of Deacon Jones, one of the more colorful fictitious characters of recent musical memory who first appeared on the scene in 1945 when Wynonie Harris (then fronting Lucky Millinder’s band) first sang about the drunken, lying, deceitful pillar of the church. Harris’s replacement in Millinder’s crew, Bull Moose Jackson, was then called upon to deliver both sequels to the story, all of which sold well and gave some hints as to what was around the corner with rock ‘n’ roll.

When The Orioles took the third part of that trilogy and cut one of their few uptempo efforts to date it ensured the audience that hadn’t been hip to the ribald tale from the pre-rock era was brought up to date on the notorious goings-on and thus opened it up for more rock ‘n’ rollers to explore.

LaVerne Ray takes a rather unusual approach to it though with Yes He Did, keeping the skeletal frame of the final installment in place (the music and the familiar characters) but coming up with a new story that’s somewhat removed from the earlier plot, while curiously using a title that makes no reference to the widely known Deacon Jones to draw in listeners who may have been curious to hear more about their favorite ne’er do well.

In other words he eliminates the aspects most likely to draw cursory interest, thus getting no commercial boost from the enduringly popular topic, but then he tries getting creative in his interpretation which likely will never even be noticed because those who do manage to hear it will only be focusing on the elements that are more familiar.

Maybe that explains why LaVerne Ray was destined to be an afterthought in rock ‘n’ roll all along.

Shouting Everywhere
The higher riffing horns are slightly more reminiscent of the Millinder model rather than The Orioles, though they’ve been modernized enough to remove some of the refinement even though they’re not exactly taking on the more ribald image the horns of most rock songs utilize. As such it starts off as something which has its feet in two distinct eras, quite natural for the theme maybe, but hardly promising for appealing to an audience firmly in the current era.

But as Ray starts to sing in a strong voice as the rhythm section churns underneath you can see it hurtle into the future… err, the present that is… and it starts taking on the appearance of a full-bodied rocker in a way that even Harris hadn’t been able to convey even though he used the same rhythmic device of hand-claps to establish the backbeat (of course Harris cut it with Millinder way back in 1944 before Mr. Rock and Ms. Roll had even been introduced, so this is hardly surprising).

Because Ray is facing no such conceptual obstacles Yes He Did has the right musical attitude and Ray seems confident in his steering this towards something we’re going to like. That he’s using an older model car to get us there is hardly a detriment, provided of course he doesn’t fall back on some of the outdated aspects of it.

For the most part he avoids that trap, the song contains a discreet boogie guitar by bandleader René Hall, an insistently repetitive piano and those revival meeting hand-claps never let up, all of which create a reasonable rocking image. Even the tenor sax solos, though brief and without any show-stopping inclinations, have the right idea, giving us a raw husky tone and sticking to shorter and more emphatic notes to keep hammering away at that rhythm.

So the sound of the record is appropriate for rock ‘n’ roll in 1950… not ahead of the curve by any means, but not really behind it either. You may even start to think as it plays out that perhaps LaVerne Ray had the right idea after all in overhauling this sordid affair from days gone by… maybe he even might come away with something that bests all three parts in the context of their era.

Then again maybe not, for he seems to have overlooked one very crucial component the others thrived on… he forgot to give it a really colorful and sensible story!

Eye To Eye
The Deacon Jones saga as delivered by Millinder and his vocalists over the span of four years had been like a stage play or a film script in their structure – memorable characters, a plot with plenty of twists, lots of humor and scandalous behavior to keep you hanging on every word.

Act one – Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well – was the set up to the story, kicking off with the alarming revelation that somebody in the congregation in an effort to hide their drinking tossed the evidence in the most convenient spot they could find – the well – which in turn led to some innocent parties, among them the Deacon, getting soused when they went for a drink of water.

The second act – as in all good plays – was the conflict, as more details come to light in I Know Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well that cast doubt on the explanations and excuses offered earlier. The Deacon starts tossing around accusations, turning one member of the congregation against another, but Jones seems more intent on shifting the blame away from himself which is only natural since he’s the one who was caught drunk in the first place.

Finally the conclusion to the story in Act Three – Fare Thee Well, Deacon Jones – gives us the most enjoyable chapter of the trilogy, faster paced and getting more outrageous with each line, as the Deacon is the real culprit, a unrepentant souse whose drunken exploits are the most entertaining moments of the entire affair.

The KEY to all of this working so well was that the picture they painted had sharp-eyed details that made it believable, actually building each of the main characters personalities as they went along. You felt like you knew Elder Brown and Sister Lucy as if they were members of your own community and so their actions made sense within the songs and didn’t require much explanation, letting the humor take center stage.

But on Yes He Did we get little of that. Ray is using the names from earlier renditions, probably hoping that’ll be enough to get us up to speed, but he’s eliminated the entire drinking angle which formed the basis of not just the earlier plots, but also the most notable character traits. Now we have to re-orient ourselves and figure out the narrative without being given anything substantial to go on. Instead all he gives us is the traditional set-up and some faint skulduggery involving the Deacon trying to swipe ten bucks that missed the collection plate and landed on the floor.

But while you could argue it’s keeping in character, it’s really just a scene not a story. He’s spotted trying to palm the money, confronted over it and tries using his standing in the church as a defense, but there’s no real set up, no humor to be found, no escalating back and forth to build anticipation and to top it off there’s no satisfying pay-off to the story. Though it sounds relatively good because of the familiar structure and a few recognizable character names, ultimately it’s little more than an empty vessel hoping it can serve as a short-cut to a hit.

He Couldn’t Jive Her
Well, I guess this was to be expected, otherwise the name LaVerne Ray would be as well known as Mssrs. Millinder, Harris, Jackson and The Orioles… not to mention Deacon Jones, Elder Brown and the rest of the regulars at this decidedly un-righteous church.

For all of its shortcomings though, Ray did at least have a good idea… which was to use somebody else’s idea to try and glom off the lingering familiarity enough to get noticed himself. Maybe he would have had a better chance at accomplishing that however if he’d come up with a more entertaining plot and a more obvious title than the vague Yes He Did, but then again if he’d been capable of doing those things from the start he probably wouldn’t have needed to try and resuscitate the body of Deacon Jones to get noticed in the first place.

Like a lot of belated sequels there are aspects of this that make catching up with these characters enjoyable enough not to mind its shortcomings when simply heard in passing, but when assessing a record more thoroughly you have to insist upon something a lot more fresh and innovative than this if you’re going to be expected to drop your own ten dollars – or even just your 79 cents – in the collection plate.


(Visit the Artist page of LaVerne Ray for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)