Tags

No tags :(

Share it

NATIONAL 9059; OCTOBER, 1948

 
 

 

There are a lot of phrases used for breaking even in life. What comes up must come down. One step forward and one step back. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Even an eye for an eye probably qualifies in a grisly sort of way.

My guess is all of these colloquialisms were designed to deal with the frustration found at the heart of the concept itself… that of never getting anywhere, of spinning your wheels and getting stuck in the mud.

In music there wasn’t necessarily a term for this form of career ping-pong but whatever you called it nobody seemed to embody this up and down trend early on better than The Ravens. For each ahead of its time rock song that featured sublime harmonies and charismatic leads there seemed to be a reversion to the pop standards of an era that was rapidly losing favor. It’s as if they were bound and determined to prove the edict For Every Action There Is An Equal And Opposite Reaction.

But rock ‘n’ roll was not a zero sum game and so The Ravens found themselves being pulled in two directions at once which always had the risk for tearing them apart altogether… or more likely tearing the group away from the fans who’d made them rock’s first celebrated act.

Even now, a year after they vaulted rock onto the charts for the first time, they’re still not any closer to deciding on which direction they wanted to head.

Pop or rock. The past or the future. Irrelevance or immortality.
 

 

You Never Seem To Want My Romancing
We’ve trod this same ground numerous times already – and will continue to do so for much of the rest of their careers – so finding new ways to debate their choices is kind of difficult.

Though the basic dilemma remains the same – whether to follow more established pop musical forms in an attempt at crossover success and (presumably) long-term relevance, or to toss the accepted musical decorum aside in an effort to define this newer style called rock ‘n’ roll which may or may not have any lasting value – their hesitancy to fully commit is becoming more of an issue as time goes on and rock is starting to make serious inroads, both commercially and culturally.

But in 1948 that recent trend seemed rather dubious to a record industry which had twenty years of verifiable proof that showed pop music was the most consistently reliable seller of any style and had the broadest market with the deepest pockets. Because of this black audiences had always been treated as merely a secondary market, one without many resources devoted toward cultivating it and invariably the first to be dropped by record labels when the industry was faced with upheaval. Whether the Great Depression of the 1930’s which saw record sales fall off the cliff leading companies to drop most so-called niche styles and focus on the broadest pop appeal, or the war related shellac shortage of the 1940’s causing the limited resources needed for the physical production of the records themselves to be devoted almost entirely to white styles, there was never any doubt as to what the industry considered its primary target and which was seen as an afterthought.

Even when black musical styles took off in the mainstream when jazz hit like a house afire in the 1920’s and 30’s record companies systematically favored white imitators because they felt they were more easily marketable, thereby reducing opportunity for crossover success to only the elite black bands of the day.

But society as a whole was so discriminatory during this era that there were still many black artists who viewed the modest gains music afforded them in this system to be heaven sent bastions of opportunity. So while statistically speaking the number of acts granted mainstream pop acceptance was limited to just a few, such as The Ink Spots, the number of black artists naively trying for such acclaim remained virtually unlimited.

That’s what made The Ravens success to date so transformative. They’d scored not by trying to tone down their unique identity in their songs in a stab for pop airplay but rather they played UP their distinctive cultural traits and found an eager homegrown audience anxiously waiting for such an affirmation that their tastes, their dollars, their lives mattered.

Yet The Ravens still managed to conform to the old beliefs every time they made another ill-fated stab for pop acceptance.

Early on this might’ve been understandable, if not entirely forgivable, simply because there wasn’t much of a track record to prove that the burgeoning rock market would support them in their bolder efforts each time out, but as time went on the returns were becoming quite clear. When they stuck with rock the audience responded with adulation, yet when they steered into pop crooning territory they stayed away.

Yet here they are with the appropriately named I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do once again trying to curry favor with a constituency who couldn’t have cared less about them.
 

The Only Time You Hold Me
There was no question The Ravens could sing these genteel standards with a particular flair thanks to the sonorous tones of lead vocalist Jimmy Ricks. Yet increasingly their reliance on the gravity of Ricks’s bass voice to try and delude their core fan base into believing these songs, and these moldy arrangements, were a lot more soulful than they really were was not just deceptive but condescending.

It’s as if they felt that they needed to only throw crumbs to the rock peasants so they’d think they were enjoying a feast, all while they were pandering to sit at the table of the industry’s kings and queens by adhering to the accepted pop approaches in every other way.

I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do was another of these ancient standards, this one dating back to 1931 when artists like Wayne King (sounding like a ineffectual cartoon character in his brief vocal turn) and Russ Columbo (whose flowery sincerity and foppish sentimentality take center stage throughout) each scored big with it.

Since that time it had been done by a wide array of artists from The Andrews Sisters to Frank Sinatra, all of whom brought to it the same tone of dreamy resignation and hopelessness that the song called for and which was a hallmark of a lot of pop music in the days before adults would admit to having more carnal desires than the detached wistful longing these types of songs reflected.

The thing is though the one area of music which had absolutely no qualms about revealing such urges was rock ‘n’ roll, even by this point it had been a ticket for success for such perpetually horny deviants as Wynonie Harris, Crown Prince Waterford and even The Ravens themselves who had a fair amount of lecherousness embedded in their delivery.

So any time you asked the group, and Ricks in particular, to scale back on that more worldly viewpoint you ran into problems. He just wasn’t going to be able to convince you that he was somebody to whom an occasional peck on the cheek was all he had in the way of romantic experience.

But he tries his best here, we have to give him that much I suppose, acting as sincere as he’s able without turning it into a farce that will find him cracking up over the sheer ludicrous nature of it all. He slows this down to a crawl, perhaps hoping a fair amount of emotional uncertainty and lack of personal confidence the narrator must show will be conveyed by the tentative delivery itself.

He’s fortunate however to have the other Ravens around to provide occasional light harmonies just to offset the snail’s pace of his lead. We can’t question their vocal abilities either, especially when they take their lines in unison which showcases their blend, all of which sounds just fine sonically speaking.

Aesthetically speaking however is another matter entirely.
 


 
 

You Don’t Know Why?… Here’s Why
The context of this record might place it in a better light and we owe it to The Ravens to at least consider the full circumstances involved before we dismiss this entirely.

In 1946 I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do saw a revival in popularity. The aforementioned Sinatra version hit the charts, as did his old bandleader Tommy Dorsey (now featuring Stuart Foster on vocals) and Skinnay Ennis. That’s also when The Andrews Sisters took their shot at it, as did Eddie Heywood, Tony Martin, Georgie Auld… there was even a French version done by Charles Trenet that year. So it’s not surprising that other artists, even a year later, would still be seeking to interpret in in their own way while the song itself was still familiar to listeners.

That’s when The Ravens cut theirs, in September 1947, the same month rock itself appeared and a month before their own initial rock release, Write Me A Letter, hit the streets. Obviously they were cutting this without the knowledge that the musical landscape was about to be turned upside down and thus we can’t expect them to see into the future and realize how how out of date this would sound before long.

We also have to take into account the fact that there was a recording ban which hit as 1948 rang in, and which was still underway when this was released ten months later, though of course The Ravens had already violated that ban to get out a rushed version of It’s Too Soon To Know just a month ago. You can certainly argue that National Records would’ve been far better served to let the rock releases that were scoring for the group have the stage to themselves a little longer without issuing yet another single a month later (and just weeks before their planned Christmas record was set to be put out) to compete with those and potentially draw away sales, let alone confuse listeners who were now hoping The Ravens were unapologetic rockers.
 


 

All of that is true, but the I’m sure National Records looked at it with more of a bottom-line mentality which told them that since these songs were already recorded and paid for and since the group itself was hot AND since the union’s strike against new recordings was in the process of winding down thus making songs done back in late 1947 more at risk for sounding even more outdated the longer they held onto them once everyone was back in the studio cutting new tracks, why not release this now and hope for a few sales?

Okay, fine, fair enough. I’ll buy all of that… but what I won’t buy is the record itself… not if I’m a rock fan who’s come to view The Ravens as embodying everything I want in an artist. Their radical arrangements putting the bass voice up front and letting him revel in his blackness on record is a source of cultural pride that wasn’t available anyplace else in mainstream entertainment. Radio and movies largely kept black performers in menial roles and wouldn’t dare depict them as having any deeper human emotions. Yet The Ravens had boldly showcased their desires and emphasized an erotic sensuality that was daring for ANY performer, white or black, to reveal on record. That far more realistic, three-dimensional image of black America was a cultural milestone that would come to define rock ‘n’ roll and it had been The Ravens as much as anyone who’d embodied that early on, making them icons of the community.

But with records such as I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do we were being asked to return to the thinking that we were trying to break away from (even more so on the sickeningly mawkish pop of the reverse, How Could I Know with Maithe Marshall’s overly delicate lead acting as a form of vocal castration).

To that audience it didn’t matter WHEN this song was recorded, or what the thinking had been in the days before rock broke loose that may have justified it… who knew those behind the scenes details anyway? What mattered was in October 1948 when it was released it showed just how tenuous the recent advances still were for all involved.

Who was to say that once this recording ban ended that the major labels wouldn’t clamp down on the competition and try and snuff out the independent labels that gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll, maybe by insidiously signing up a handful of black artists like The Ravens who were stirring the loins of the younger generation and then steer them further into the pop realm, shorning them of their greatest attributes and promoting them as acceptable artists? By giving away a few more token handouts with the lure of mainstream appeal it could undermine the entire rock movement, convincing more up and coming potential rock stars to switch their allegiance back to the styles and values of yesteryear in the hopes they too might get a chance to take their place alongside The Ink Spots and Mills Brothers.

Once that happened rock as we know it might be over.
 


 

Fly Away
You can certainly admit that any time The Ravens opened their beaks to sing they always did something to catch your ear, even if it was with outdated material while using a delivery that wasn’t best suited for their unique strengths. If at times you find yourself lulled into a sense of placid serenity listening to them croon an old standard like I Don’t Know Why I Love Like I Do then you might even ask what harm can come of it?

Plenty.

The one rule of power has always been that those who have it never voluntarily cede it to those coming along to displace them. If the up and coming generation truly wants revolution then making concessions to placate the outgoing leadership as either a gesture of goodwill or because you aren’t quite sure you can afford to alienate the old guard entirely is only an invitation for prolonged conflict.

Pop music was seeing its grip on the increasingly diverse and independent nation loosening and while they wouldn’t relinquish their hold entirely for years to come, they were weakening with each and every unapologetic rocker that connected with listeners… listeners, it should be added, whose opinions had never been afforded any respect whatsoever by the pop world.

Why then should we offer them and their antiquated standards any respect in return?

Until The Ravens learned this and threw in with rock ‘n’ roll wholeheartedly each and every time out then their spot on the perch was never going to be a sure thing.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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