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APOLLO 437; APRIL 1952



Cconsidering the heights they reached at their best and the esteem with which they’re held by rock vocal group fan in the years since, it’s almost hard to believe that we’re about to reach the end of the line with The Larks – the first edition of the group anyway – as an active recording group, just a year and a half after their debut.

Though brilliant singers and strong songwriters who could tackle many different stylistic variations, The Larks only scored hits with their blues-based material which for a tight harmony vocal group was about as unexpected as you could get.

When everything else fell flat and the group were struggling to make ends meet with low paying live appearances, by the spring of 1952 they packed it in.

So maybe it’s fitting that here they revert back to their unique origins with a jubilee styled performance that is so far outside of the standard rock approach that it was almost as if they were thumbing their noses at the genre that had disavowed them.


If You Want To Learn A Lesson
When trying to figure out the reason for the failure of The Larks to find consistent commercial success there are a few obvious places to start.

Apollo Records, though an established label with loads of success in gospel music, were not attuned to the rock market and may have had trouble trouble cultivating relationships with distributors who specialized in the secular music world. They also may have also been hindered if they weren’t sure how to entice jukebox operators who could give the group a much needed boost in exposure if they put their singles in the boxes.

Another theory – that we offered with the flip side – was that The Larks were so diverse in their material that a fan of one song, say a sterling tight harmony ballad like My Reverie, would be utterly baffled when a few months later they came out with the bluesy Eyesight To The Blind.

It didn’t sound like the same style of music, let alone the same group, so it stands to reason that if you didn’t know what you were going to get from them each time out you might steer clear of them. Adding to the problem for those who would be willing to risk 80 cents to find out, was the fact Apollo issued their records on two separate lines, the black label and blue label, which could make it harder for someone perusing the racks for their latest release on sight.

But while those may be perfectly legitimate excuses and explain the obstacles facing them, The Larks did have one notable thing that no other rock vocal group could claim and that was they’d made an appearance on national television on The Perry Como Show, a 15 minute show three nights a week hosted by the biggest male pop crooner of the era, someone who certainly wasn’t hip to black rock ‘n’ roll in 1951, so how The Larks came to their attention is anyone’s guess.


On that program, which is one of the few examples of an actual rock act of that time preserved on film (it’s on YouTube and is a must see) they performed Lucy Brown and absolutely slayed it with a spirited performance that only featured group member Allen Bunn’s guitar accompaniment and a few hand claps by lead Gene Mumford (who also wrote it) to re-orient the beat.

Yet for some reason it took six weeks to have them record the song by which time anyone seeing the show had forgotten about it. Then, just to prove how stupid they were in case you still had reason to doubt it, Apollo waited more than a year to actually release the record.

On top of that interminable delay, those who happened to somehow remember the broadcast would’ve been disappointed to find the studio version featured a different lead singer and wasn’t nearly as exciting as the live rendition had been.


Full Of Life
Yeah, this is another one that had little chance of being a hit, at least in the way they approached it in the studio, reverting back to their jubilee style with Bunn’s guitar essentially serving as rhythm rather than melody, something which sounds so old fashioned by the early 1950’s (even gospel had long since transitioned to a more emotionally unrestrained “hard gospel” style) that this was surely going to fall flat.

Any thought that Apollo, still primarily a gospel label who’d bring the Larks back in next month for one last session where they backed legendary Mahalia Jackson on some songs, uncredited – might be able to gear this record towards that market instead was made impossible because of the subject matter, as they sing the praises not of the Lord, but of Lucy Brown, a gal who it seems was a lot more fun than some guy in sandals ruining every party he went to by preaching all the time.

Their singing is as impressive as ever, fast paced with intertwining parts behind Thermon Ruth’s lead. The nonsense syllables that are thrown in are silly of course, but fairly rousing all the same and you gotta love the high pitched “LUUUCEEE” exclamation, possibly inspired by Ricky Ricardo calling out to his wife on the biggest show in the universe at the time, I Love Lucy, while the bass interjection by David McNeil is really nice as well (sad to say that on the Como Show they didn’t capture him singing the line on camera, as they’d zoomed in on Mumford prior to that, robbing McNeil of his moment of glory).

As enjoyable as their singing is, and as fun as it’d be to try and imitate it with your buddies who were sure to find it far more complex than it seemed at first glance, the backing doesn’t help its cause when it comes to fitting in the current rock landscape. Bunn’s guitar isn’t as aggressive as it probably should be and is largely secondary during the instrumental break.

Unfortunately it’s not taking a back seat to a saxophone which might’ve brought this into the second half of the Twentieth Century, but rather we get a piano interlude that goes on for far too long. If anything this flowery excursion almost kills the momentum because it can’t decide on whether adding melody or rhythm is his primary objective so he half-heartedly offers both rather than emphasizing one or the other.

But maybe that’s fitting in a way, because while The Larks certainly had what it took to help bring rock vocal groups into the future, they too often were looking backwards – albeit in much different ways than the usual pop-standard devoted acts around them who were guilty of this – and so rather than build to a stylistic peak as they near the end of the line, showing the rock world what they were missing, they instead remind them of what they’d all forgotten from years before.

I guess this is what they call dying on your shield.


Ain’t No Girl Around This Town
This isn’t the last single of The Larks, but by the time their final release comes out in summer the group will have broken up.

Allen Bunn, who already had solo efforts on Apollo, would start his own career which eventually would pay off down the line, while Raymond Barnes quit music altogether and Thermon Ruth, the lead singer here, would become a gospel disc jockey back down South.

But there’s still time to get into all of that… the real story here is that while interesting to hear, Lucy Brown was not at all what they needed to keep their career going at this point.

Now to be fair Apollo might not have realized they on the verge of splitting, but part of being a good label is taking an active interest in their artists, getting to know them as people and thus be able to read their mood without having to wait until the artists got the nerve up to confront the owner over money.

When they’d do that Bess Berman would give them some cash to tide them over, proving they were earning her something, but the occasional handout wouldn’t be enough and without a more consistent sound, better promotion and more astute production to take advantage of the vocal group boom they should rightly have been a major part of, The Larks would soon fly away.


(Visit the Artist page of The Larks for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)