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This is a review about perceptions.

More pointedly this is a review of two artists – two friends in fact – on two different records on the same label backed by the same band. One is a white, one is black, one will become a pop icon and one will become a rock legend, and yet both are equally compromised by their surroundings.

Though the band was black they were essentially “playing white” and yet because of the singer’s respective races they were slotted differently in the minds of the record company and the white singer never got the chance to try and make a go of it as a rocker while the black singer never got the chance to make a go of it as a pop act.

Maybe it was for the best in the end, but at this juncture you’d be excused if you couldn’t quite understand why.


Who Knows Where Love Begins… Or Where It Ends
Normally this isn’t how we do things around here. If a record qualifies as rock we review it, if not we don’t. We may mention a pop or blues or jazz-based flip side to a rock release and make a few passing comments on it, but that’s all and usually only make reference to another artist in another field if they’ve done the same song we’re covering.

But as we got further into 1951 there was an artist looming this year by the name of Johnnie Ray who HAD to be talked about someway, somehow, for in a few months he’d be the biggest name in all of music and much of what made him so unique he got from rock ‘n’ roll, even though he was definitely not a rock artist himself.

Johnnie Ray was a scrawny half-deaf kid from Oregon who got work in The Flame Bar, the most well-known black club in Detroit where he befriended LaVern Baker who schooled Ray in his delivery to harness that emotive voice. It was Baker who suggested Ray study Al Jolson and his theatrical displays – perhaps the ultimate irony seeing that Jolson had been the last great blackface singer and here was Ray, a white singer who sounded black and, to some on record, female as well.

When Columbia Records launched the OKeh label to house their rock aspirations all of the acts were black… with one exception, Johnnie Ray, whose self-penned Whiskey And Gin was potentially the first great white rock song that never came to be thanks largely to the black band from The Flame Bar, Maurice King & His Wolverines, who were enlisted to back him on record as they did Baker.

Throughout the record Ray is really good, pouring his heart out on a torch song with one of the choicest couplets about sex you can possibly find,

“Well she kisses me goodnight
She hugs and squeezes me tight
Oh Lord I love it so
And then she turns out the light
There ain’t a cloud in sight
She leads me to the river where the still waters flow”

As Ray’s emotional investment on that last line reaches a climax, King and company treat it all like a 6 PM dinner show and undercuts the impact with their trumpets, delicate piano and lack of any va-va-va-voom.

Yet Ray is so unique that it not got reviewed in the trade papers in the Rhythm & Blues section and not at all condescendingly either. Granted if it HAD gotten a more appropriate backing his reading might come off as a little more stilted, but there was no question he had something appealing about him and it’s hardly surprising that Columbia quickly called him up to the big leagues as it were and his next release would reign at #1 on both the Pop AND the R&B Charts (while the flip would hit #2 and #6 on those charts), making him the first white act in the rock era to legitimately find favor with black audiences.

Meanwhile the one who helped hone his act, the one who he gave public credit to and would remain his close friend for life, LaVern Baker had her own single Make It Good similarly done in by the heavy-handed accompaniment by King and yet, as good as SHE is, Columbia Records never considered moving her up in the world and promoting her as a pop act.

Of course while the reasons behind that decision are predictably onerous, sometimes that works to the advantage of those like us who don’t want to see someone of Baker’s talents intentionally diluted for mass appeal.

I’ve Got Some News For You
Like the arrangement Ray was saddled with, Baker also has to fight off King’s striving for pop acceptance (come to think of it, Columbia would’ve been better to put King on the parent label and let both Ray and Baker cut rock with a band that wasn’t ashamed of its sleazier reputation), but because of how the song is structured – dramatic to start with before sliding into a slinky, sultry vibe – King is forced to compliment it with a few touches that help it to connect, from brief piano triplets to a funky little horn riff after a vocal passage.

But for the most part the band is a hindrance, not a help, and Baker knows she’s got to capture your attention to compensate for it. Unlike Ray, whose vocals subsist on inner torment until they have no choice but to break free or make him keel over, Baker unleashes the pressure valve early and often which makes her quieter moments seem more in control.

The time each of them spend wailing away might be the same, but Baker’s the one harnessing that passion on Make It Good, whereas on his record the passion overwhelms Johnnie Ray, which frankly is what made it so shocking when unleashed to the white audience a few months later.

As good as Baker is, from her voice itself to her ability to instantly ramp up the intensity and scale it back down again, and above all else her awareness of just what to emphasize, she’s constantly hamstrung by King’s hammy arrangement. The fact that he too was such a good musician and bandleader allowed it not to clash, but what you wouldn’t give to her this same vocal backed by four pieces in a grungy studio rather than a full orchestra in an airport hangar.

As for the possibility of the story – or even just a few lyrics – rescuing it from the musical missteps, King doesn’t give us anything here either as it’s mostly a series of generalities on love, nothing insightful, memorable or distinctive in any way… any way that is but how powerfully Baker sells it.

But ultimately that’s all the record’s got, a towering talent surrounded by creative lethargy.


The Next Man I Get Will Love Me The Way He Should
When OKeh had been started up again in the spring of 1951 we heralded it as the first real sign any of the major labels was actually taking rock ‘n’ roll seriously… or maybe it’d be more apt to say “were taking the threat of rock ‘n’ roll seriously”… and their shifting Baker over from Columbia along with Chuck Willis and signing The Treniers, and yes, even Johnnie Ray, was something that might just pay off if they trusted in the music they were supposed to be recording.

So far though their track record is far more conservative than we’d have hoped – some good records and a few great artists – but still something you’d imagine as being closely related to Columbia Records, rather than an independent operation with its own separate market and artistic goals. Make It Good is no exception… nor for that matter is Ray’s Whiskey And Gin.

And that’s the problem with the record industry of the day, boys and girls. It’s run by old people without much – if any – musical talent who base their ideas of what to release today on what was acceptable yesterday, or even last decade.

When something came along that shook up that concept, such as Ray’s desperate choked voice that went way beyond what any white pop act of recent vintage would’ve done (since of course he was essentially imitating black singers with one’s permission and help) Columbia saw dollar signs because they viewed it as a gimmick to be exploited.

Maybe it was at that, although a good one because it was genuinely what Ray wanted to do, but you’ll notice that the even better singer who was also signed to their label was never viewed as being appropriate for anything but where they’d already slotted her.

Thankfully LaVern Baker wouldn’t be on Columbia or OKeh for long and while it still took her awhile to find a place where she could be free of these constraints – albeit only very briefly – she did play a significant role in helping her friend become a star and in the process giving white America a somewhat distorted glimpse into what awaited them around the bend when a music that already existed and was huge in another community and which thrived on unbridled emotion would come galloping down Main Street in a few years time.


(Visit the Artist page of LaVern Baker for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)