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NATIONAL 9098; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

There are few pop culture images as indelible as a character at the crossroads of life. Often in music lore this is presented quite literally, such as Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads one dark night.

As carrion birds you might expect The Ravens to be waiting for some poor unfortunate solitary figure to wander by and make a deal with Lucifer after which they might scavenge any remains.

But no, it’s The Ravens themselves who are the ones waiting here tonight, their own careers now at the crossroads as the Nineteen Forties are about to give way to a new decade and perhaps leave behind the group that had seemed so infallible just a short time ago.
 

 

Pecking Order
Few artists in rock’s first two years on the scene were as successful as The Ravens.

Though their résumé is hardly a secret by this point it’s worth re-stating in brief terms just to put their achievements in perspective: They were the founders of the rock vocal group style itself and featured the most identifiable voice in all of rock in Jimmy Ricks. They’d scored over a half dozen hits on the national charts to date (and even more on regional charts) and were that rare rock act who had both a measure of respect in the mainstream music industry and were at least modestly familiar to the broader public who wouldn’t otherwise deign to give rock ‘n’ roll a moment’s notice.

If you were shamelessly tacky you might even say the first of the bird groups ruled the roost.

But their success may have in fact precipitated their decline because unlike most other rock artists who were confined to this smaller market The Ravens had the potential to go beyond that realm and possibly have some pop appeal as well, which as we know spells trouble. In fact they’d just recently been on the cover of Billboard magazine for the second time, the only rock act to pull off that feat to date. Surely their eyes might be getting too big for their beaks when it came to what types of worms they were hoping to gobble up.

That they hadn’t actually done so as of yet by landing a pop hit – and spoiler alert, wouldn’t score one in the future either – didn’t seem to dampen their spirits when it came to frequently trying to cross over.

As a vocal group they’d been able to play in classier venues than most of their rock peers since they weren’t reliant on honking saxophones, pounding drums and wild arrangements to put their music across as so many rockers were. They could tailor their material and their vocal arrangements to suit the much stricter standards of decorum those nightclubs expected and reasonably be billed to patrons as stemming from a tradition in black popular music that encompassed The Ink Spots, Mills Brothers and occasional crossover acts like The 5 Red Caps and The Delta Rhythm Boys, who had been The Ravens primary inspiration when starting out.

We could even be so generous as to admit that since they technically pre-dated rock, having formed back in 1946, they’d had no alternative but to set their sights on the pop market initially, or at least the black pop market which used much the same musical approach as the white-pop acts did.

But where the argument for pursuing these so-called loftier aspirations starts to fall apart is when it wasn’t pop but rather rock ‘n’ roll with its far earthier deliveries which vaulted them into the realm of legitimate stardom in the black community, a fan base which revered them for not artificially masking their ethnicity as The Ink Spots largely had over the years. For a younger generation who were no longer willing to make such compromises as readily The Ravens success was galvanizing… to everybody but The Ravens at times it seemed.

Even after this breakthrough their releases had alternated between authentic rockers filled with leering vocals and lusty lyrical undercurrents which resulted in their actual hit records, and the types of mannered pop performances that frustrated those same listeners while at the same time hardly making up for that alienation with added sales from the pop world.

Thus while The Ravens were still a formidable group with a commercial track record to be envied and a vaunted reputation for delivering the goods when their focus was solidly on rock output, they’d given back too much of their goodwill and allowed themselves to be increasingly challenged for supremacy among the rock vocal group constituency. Though the field itself was still extremely limited, therefore maybe easing some of their concerns, the fact is right around the corner as the Nineteen-Fifties dawned a new wave of competitors would come storming into view and make the compromised loyalties of The Ravens an obstacle too big for them to fully overcome. As the new decade was about to dawn the crossroads is where they found themselves once again and which road they took would decide their future viability in this changing land.
 

Everything That Was In The Book
Maybe The Ravens finally got their hands on a road map and began wising up to the situation facing them. It shouldn’t be hard to take a closer look at their returns as of late which showed the pop sides they, or National Records, were intent on releasing in order to try and pull in a bigger (and presumably whiter) adult audience was having an adverse effect on their primary fan base.

Not only were these pop offerings failing to sell at the same rate as the rock sides, it was in turn making the rock fan less enthusiastic, or less trusting, of their subsequent rock efforts. Their two biggest hits remained their first two unquestioned rockers, Write Me A Letter from the fall of 1947 and its sequel from the following spring Send For Me If You Need Me.

So it’s hardly surprising that in an effort to right the floundering ship they returned to that prototype for what might not strictly qualify as another sequel in Get Wise Baby but which has all of the hallmarks of a third act of the play.

They’ve wisely chosen to cloak this attempt at regurgitating those earlier sides by sidestepping a title which leaves no doubt as to its connection, and it also eschews any overt mention of correspondence which had defined the first two chapters of this elongated tale.

But then again because this one DIDN’T score on the charts maybe that subtlety was unwise from a commercial point of view. Or it could be the fact National didn’t bother promoting this, first because they were busy pushing the re-release of last year’s two-sided Christmas record, and then a month from now would rush release a cover record of a new group that was getting rapid sales, which meant this record sort of slipped through the cracks.

That’s unfortunate because with this one they seem to be back on the right track more or less.
 


 
 

Right out of the gate Get Wise Baby features a rhythmic delivery with the type of vibrant back and forth exchange between the other Ravens and lead singer Jimmy Ricks that we’ve come to treasure. Of course it’s also familiar enough where we don’t have to think hard to be reminded of the similarities to their aforementioned two biggest hits, which is hardy an accident. This one is slightly faster, which helps to give it enough of a wrinkle to let us feel we’re not being handed recycled goods, but the basic feel of it is the same and showcases their vocal interplay in ways we miss on their more sedate pop-styled songs.

The rapid fire piano intro, guitar accents and even the steady ticking of the drummer’s brushes on the snare during the verses keeps this moving along at a steady clip. The group itself doesn’t get quite enough to do outside of harmonizing on the title line and a few moments at the edge of the spotlight in the bridge where they sort of echo Jimmy Ricks, but at least they’re audible in the background singing in an animated way that can’t help but feel reassuring after so much bland crooning, such as the kind they exhibit once again on the flip side, I’m Afraid Of You, a fitting title for some of their recent decisions, at least if you were a rock fan.

But not here, where mercifully they revert to form, step on the gas and hand this over to Jimmy Ricks who seems freed by the opportunity to cut loose and let his musical mojo have full reign over his delivery once again.

Ricks is a revelation vocally on songs like this and maybe it’s no surprise that he also wrote the song because he knows this is what he does best. It’d be hard to argue that point as he injects so much feeling into each line that you’re prone to letting his emotional urgency overwhelm you. His shouts, cries and moans are all judiciously timed, altering the mood with a device that might seem cheap and exploitative coming from anyone else but when done by Ricky it merely comes off as a natural form of expression. It’s great hearing him unbound by convention again, exhibiting the attributes that separated rock singing from other forms of music from the very start.

Which is why it’s such a shame that WHAT he’s saying is so meaningless and contrived.
 

 

Come Back Home To Me
As already stated the general idea, or at least the overall perspective shown in the story here, is pretty solid. If you want to take this as the de facto third part of the saga of Jimmy and his beloved then it holds up in that regard fairly well.

In Write Me A Letter he was horny for a specific girl he had some history with. Apparently she ended the relationship at some point, though presumably not over anything major, and he asked for a reprieve so they could see if the sparks that still existed could turn into an inferno again.

I guess the answer to that question was yes because in Send For Me If You Need Me – which today’s record has the most in common with structurally – the girl in question replied that “she’s been lonesome too”. The two were about to reconnect as it unfolded and naturally Jimmy was grinning over the fact his chestnuts will soon be warmed in her fire, or something along those lines. He wasn’t quite gloating about this and coming off as a cad, but he definitely was exhibiting the kind of confidence that was probably a major factor in her reconsidering their arrangement in the first place.

Yet on Get Wise Baby we see that there’s a thin line between confidence, which is appealing, and arrogance, which is not and so he’s been dumped again. Now the fact he doesn’t say for sure this is the same girl and there’s no explicit references to the earlier songs means we have to play dumb and dismiss any incongruities in the plots. That’s okay, the concept works even without the back story those other records gave us. Whether the same girl or a different one Ricks simply is chiding the girl who dumped him “for a guy named Burt” and then had her heart broken in the bargain when he turned out to be no great shakes as a boyfriend either. But while he’s criticizing her decisions he’s also essentially begging her to take HIM back so they can be together.

That’s a tough balance to strike in life in general, and in relationships – or potential relationships – it’s a death knell. Nobody wants a partner who feels the need to belittle them while at the same time thinking that their desire for them makes that condescension excusable. It’s a form of aggressive insecurity designed to transfer your own self-doubt to your partner and that does neither party any good.

If that were the song’s only shortcoming, for as unappealing as it may be it’s at least a common and thus believable human attribute, we could overlook it to a degree. But what really sinks this is the fact that the story particulars themselves are so flimsy and unremarkable.

Take for instance this other fella. Burt (or Bert… your choice). Why does he deserve a name dropping you ask? Why that’s so they can rhyme it with the revelation that “all that you got was your feelings hurt” of course!. Telegraphing the punchline so artificially is never a good idea and sadly that’s emblematic of the rest of the song as well.

Even the best lines from a standalone perspective, ”You got your head whipped, your money took after doing everything that was in the book!” don’t make any sense, nor do they have any real connection to the larger storyline.

He wants her back, says it’s her fault for leaving him, yet he tries acting as if she needs him just as much as he needs her. Truthfully if she’s as flawed in interpersonal relations as he is then both of these characters should remain celibate. We don’t care about Ricky’s fate because he hasn’t given us any reason to sympathize with him. He’s beginning to sound like the guy who you steer clear of on the street because of his pitiful conceit and that’s hardly someone we want to be reminded about even if he does sing as well as he does here.
 


 

It’s Too Late
Any time a really good rock artist strays from what they should be focused on it’s cause for concern, especially at this stage of the game when rock as a whole can afford no dissension from its top acts.

When that act then seems to see the error of their ways and makes a course adjustment stylistically, as The Ravens do here, then we’re grateful that they seem to have a grasp on the problem and a desire to make things right and reconfirm their commitment to rock.

The fact that Get Wise Baby sounds so good in passing makes its ultimate let down as a composition all the more distressful.

Listeners aren’t impartial observers and when a group like this sees the light and sheds their loftier aims and attempts to reconnect with rock listeners we WANT them to do so with a song we can feel comfortable promoting, something which gives them the greatest chance to succeed and thus prove to them that this is where they should concentrate all of their efforts in the future. But this record isn’t strong enough to guarantee that response and if it fails because of that it might have an adverse effect on their direction going forward, thinking it was the style not the content which doomed it.

This is a much better performance than a song yet as we know it’s both the performance AND the song which need to combine to make for a great record and so it can’t help but fall a bit short. It still makes for a nice listen and a welcome reversion to their earlier goals, but it’s not quite enough to win you back completely.

So here they are, back at the crossroads once more, waiting for the next bus to come along to see where it takes them.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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