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CORAL 65018; OCTOBER, 1949



Two years into rock ‘n’ roll and the ground rules have for the most part been firmly established. What began as a loosely connected aggregation of sounds which borrowed from existing styles without conforming to their standards has now become a unified and immediately identifiable genre which still has plenty of room for diversity within its boundaries. Honking saxophones have been joined by scintillating electric guitars. Exuberant holy-roller vocals sit side by side with achingly soulful crooning. Solo artists share the stage with both instrumental and vocal groups.

But what’s becoming increasingly rare these last few months are the obvious hybrid acts that had been much more common when rock was just starting out. Those artists with one foot planted firmly in an established genre, be it jazz, pop or blues, who tentatively made overtures to this new field of rock before sensing they weren’t quite at home and quickly pulling out before doing lasting damage to their reputations.

There will still be some who fit that description coming along over the coming years of course but they aren’t going to be nearly as prevalent now that rock has definitively established its own qualifications for acceptance as determined by their growing constituency.

Thus we’re meeting one of the last remnants of that “should we or shouldn’t we” mentality with a vocal group that had plenty of reasons for taking the plunge in rock ‘n’ roll but due to a confluence of circumstances were never going to be identified as wholehearted rockers with no strings attached.

Gone And Lost Her Head
Any questions as to why a group like The Beavers who were more suited to (and probably more comfortable in) pop music would make the decision to try and connect in rock ‘n’ roll can be answered two ways. The first of course is that in 1949 younger black vocal groups had been scoring fairly consistently in rock, a success rate that seemed increasingly unlikely to happen in the pop field which was still being ruled by older acts.

The other and maybe more pertinent reason in this case was they were signed as one of the first artists on Coral Records which was a new subsidiary of major label Decca Records whose forays into rock had – to this point at least – consisted of slightly older more hybrid artists that could be classified as something else should anyone object to the venerable company hosting such undesirables as were generally found in rock ‘n’ roll.

To be fair though that label had come up with two winners in Albennie Jones and Cousin Joe and had in pianist Sammy Price a totally qualified bandleader to back whatever rocker might slip through their doors. Unfortunately those records did not become hits and so Decca more or less got out of the rock sweepstakes for awhile, at least until they discovered it was far easier to score with a white act – Bill Haley & His Comets – than try cultivate a black audience that viewed any signs of artistic compromise with appropriate skepticism.

But that didn’t mean they were going to turn a blind eye towards a potential market altogether and so with the advent of Coral Records in 1949 they figured they had a new avenue to try and reach this elusive audience. But being tied to the corporate power of Decca meant they were also tied to their outdated views on what constituted acceptable artists and material so the label’s forays into the outskirts of rock were bound to be heavily conflicted.

The Beavers at least came to the table with a fairly blank slate as far as their career went. They’d only been formed in February and were the right age to be a fit in the rock era, but their formation seemed to come about as a means to an end for those guiding their careers rather than any deep seated personal affinity they themselves had for this style of music.

They’d gotten together through the efforts of Joe Thomas, former vocal coach for The Ravens who was now teaching voice at the music school where Raymond Johnson and Dick Palmer were students. Those two were soon paired up with two other appropriate candidates for this realm and dubbed The Beavers. Unlike most newly formed black vocal groups who had to settle for contracts with fly-by-night labels The Beavers were in the studio for RCA in June, though nothing came out of that date that was deemed releasable by that major label’s standards.

Their first quasi-breakthrough came in summer when they got the chance to back up black pop vocal star Herb Lance on two sides, one of which, a cover of the scalding hot Frankie Laine number That Lucky Old Sun, would crack the Top Ten on the Rhythm & Blues charts for Lance on the Sittin’ In With label.

You’d think maybe that caught Decca’s attention but it was far more likely that it was Joe Thomas’s friendship with the manager of The Delta Rhythm Boys whose brother was an A&R man for the label which got them in the door that fall. Once there the question would be what type of music to cut – something acceptable to Decca’s image or something that might give Coral Records a spot at the rock ‘n’ roll table. The only thing they couldn’t afford to do was try and hedge their bets and not make a firm decision either way.

Which of course is exactly what they did!

She Hangs Out With A Guy
Though it was their connection with Thomas that surely got them their contract, it was the presence of another Ravens-related figure, pianist/arranger Howard Biggs, who gave them an additional modicum of authenticity as rockers.

Biggs had recently left The Ravens at Thomas’s suggestion that he take on the same role for this new act. Why he would leave one of the two pillars of the rock vocal group scene for a totally untested outfit who’d shown no real aptitude for this style yet is beyond me. He and Thomas were friends, sure, but unless Joe had given him a kidney for a transplant or something then Biggs would’ve been better off sticking with the hit-makers and leaving The Beavers to fend for themselves.

But with songs co-written by Thomas and Biggs, plus the latter’s know-how when it came to arranging these songs to meet different stylistic criteria, The Beavers aren’t totally out of place in the rock world with I Gotta Do It.


The piano of Biggs and some shuffling drums kick this off before the Beavers come in with group vocals that add some rhythmic bounce to the track though it still remains behind the stylistic curve by a year or so. Granted there hasn’t been much outside of the aforementioned Ravens and Orioles records in the rock vocal group realm, but those others who have broken their grip on the style have done so in different ways that hint at future developments.

The Beavers on the other hand strongly suggest they’re grounded in the past with this. It doesn’t sound bad, just not quite “of the moment”.

Things improve when Freddy Hamilton comes in to deliver the story. He’s the group’s lead tenor (John Wilson, their baritone, takes the lead on the pop flip) so his voice doesn’t strike any comparisons to either of the Ravens leads, profundo bass Jimmy Ricks, or ethereal high tenor Maithe Marshall, even though the backing of the others fits more in The Ravens bag, as would be expected considering the pedigrees of Thomas and Biggs with that group.

But Hamilton is also totally different than Orioles heartthrob lead tenor Sonny Til whose fervent emotional commitment on many of their songs is what set them apart. Hamilton by contrast is relatively laid back, mellow without being particularly soulful, as Til or an Amos Milburn specialized in. Though he’s got a good voice it’s a fairly non-distinct one and so more of the weight falls to the lyrics and melody than rests on Hamilton’s shoulders. But as long as he carries off his job with a reasonable amount of aptitude – and he does, particularly when the others drop out and he adds more syncopation to his delivery to convey added urgency – then he merely becomes the mode of transportation for the song to get where it needs to and connect with listeners.

Don’t Know Where
So here’s where the experience of Joe Thomas and Howard Biggs should make all the difference. We have a pretty inexperienced group who does their job without much flash but with enough aptitude for us to appreciate. We have an arrangement that is hardly pushing the limits of what we’ve seen to date in rock, yet in spite of its simplicity it retains enough structural competency to suffice. So surely they’re going to impart the other aspects with the requisite components to push this to loftier heights… right?

Mmm, not quite.

Let’s start with the melody. Like the arrangement that frames it this aspect is also pretty straightforward and contains no unexpected thrills, quirky key changes or sudden shifts in its pacing. I Gotta Do It is strictly medium tempo with a lightly head-bobbing quality to it which allows Hamilton to coast on that melody rather than really ride it hard. The fact that it is somewhat generic is what makes it more effective than it would be otherwise… that sense you’re familiar with it already gives it an accessibility on first listen that helps mask its lack of any adventurism.

Lyrically it’s much the same, a basic plot with no surprises. Hamilton is portraying an average Joe who’s stuck somewhere between being completely hen-pecked and just suffering from a lack of experience with an attractive girl. He lays out the backstory in efficient fashion, telling us when they got together in whatever small hick town they came from he was the one in control of the relationship, probably because he was in an environment he felt comfortable in and she had no better prospects than this hard working shlub.

But once he moves to a bustling city where there’s no shortage of guys who have a worldliness he can’t hope to match he’s startled to find she wants to hit the town and – most likely – find a suitable replacement for him. Rather than address his own deficiencies in the social department he instead cries about it to his friends, his sad sack demeanor only corroborating the girl’s entirely justified urge to look elsewhere for a man who isn’t so hapless. He’s insisting he’s going to get rid of her, pack her bags and throw her out, but we don’t really believe it because he’s already established that he’s not that forceful a guy to begin with.

In other words he’s acting as tough as he can for his friends while knowing all along when she comes home – missing some articles of clothing no less (hmm, I wonder which ones?) – he’ll meekly accept her arrival in silence in the hope she eventually runs out of clothes to wear in these nightly jaunts on the town with other men so she’ll stay in and cook him dinner and pretend she’s satisfied with his love.

All of the pieces to this story fit well enough so we can’t fault its construct, but we CAN question who exactly it’s designed to appeal to. If rock has shown one thing to date it’s that weakness of character is a fatal flaw in this new frontier. It’s one thing to have your heart broken because of a girl’s duplicity and cry in anguish over it, but it’s another thing entirely if your own passive outlook on life is at fault for your being dumped.

By comparison in the pre-rock era of black music, particularly styles that veered towards pop, this emasculation of the characters was often seen as a necessary concession so as to counter the image of the predatory sexual stud of black folklore. By adhering to that outdated philosophical viewpoint The Beavers wind up being their own worst enemy here when it comes to their validity as rockers, even if they pull off their roles with as much dignity as they can muster.

Everything I Said
The attempts of groups like this – and highfalutin record companies for that matter – to infiltrate the rock club with slightly compromised efforts that make enough concessions to the modern marketplace to be accepted yet which retain certain dated elements that make audiences suspicious of their motives will never fully go away. Rock’s commercial potential has already gotten big enough for many to take the chance of being called fraudulent as long as the payoff for those who succeed in spite of those conflicted aims winds up being a hit record.

But whether they taste a morsel of success or not with these efforts it’s artists like The Beavers – or The Ray-O-Vacs and Big John Greer before them – who are resigned to sitting on the outskirts of the style, allowed in the door but always at risk for being shown the door at any moment. That’s the risk you take if your commitment isn’t entirely genuine.

I Gotta Do It winds up being an apt title for just such an attempt. In a way they DID have to take their chance in rock ‘n’ roll since these four guys wouldn’t have had any greater chance for success had they stuck to lighter pop fare and if anything would’ve probably been relegated to a career of singing back-up anonymously on the records of others, which as it will come to pass is where they’ll still wind up being heard most.

But in 1949 there were opportunities to be had for those who could convincingly mimic a rock act, especially for those labels who had no real desire to invest in the real thing, even to turn a quick buck.

That this record turns out as well as it does is a testament to the abilities of Thomas and Biggs, not to mention the group itself, but the fact it has no chance to surpass the modest aspirations it’s saddled with is what ultimately determined The Beavers fate as fairly nondescript also-rans.


(Visit the Artist page of The Beavers for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)