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NATIONAL 9089; SEPTEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Having just gotten done expressing more resigned disappointment in The Ravens decision to tackle a currently popular record in an effort to score a piggy-back hit to pull them out of their commercial doldrums on Someday, what are the chances that we’re going to find any merit in an even more sedate ballad that adorns the B-side?

Slim meet None. Shake hands, fellas.

Honestly, are we nearing the point where we’re going to have to collectively decide that The Ravens – once the shining light of rock ‘n’ roll when it was emerging from the womb back in late 1947 and early 1948 – have now, just over a year later, turned their back on rock ‘n’ roll entirely and thus should be jettisoned from the roster by the time we reach the 1950’s so we can purge the genre heading into a new decade?

Well, the fact that they’re here for this release tells you they’ve escaped that ignominious fate for now. As for the quality of this side of their latest record… umm… well, to be perfectly upfront about it, we’re happy to report that there might actually be more here than meets the eye for those who want to stick with them – and with us – as we delve into The Ravens latest stylistic balancing act.
 

 

You Could’ve Saved Me Heartache For Many A Year
This constant straddling the line between genres is a precarious position to put yourself in as a rock vocal group in the late 1940’s. For while the wild degenerate saxophonists, the clamorous guitar slingers starting to spring up to create civil unrest with their playing and the wailing vocal reprobates hollering about wine, women and wild sex, all have no viable options other than mass exorcism to rid themselves of their musical demons, vocal groups have shown there’s a relatively safe alternate route to take to still secure hits without landing in jail for your crimes against humanity.

Pop music had long offered black vocal groups at least a modicum of respect and success, provided you toed the line and kept your natural inclinations to a minimum. The Ink Spots and Mills Brothers had acquiesced to this cultural cleansing years ago and were reaping the rewards of pop acceptance – major label contracts with ample promotion (no word on whether they received royalties… or had to clean the corporate bathrooms after hours as part of their deal). Other groups we’ve met, The Four Tunes most notably, have tried to follow their lead with some success, but when rock ‘n’ roll came along offering groups an alternative to selling your soul for musical relevance it seemed like a good move to stick with something more authentic.

Or did it?

There’s an allure to something out of reach that will never cease to pull otherwise intelligent sensible people in. The mere fact that it’s not easily available is what makes gaining access to it such an enticing challenge. Or as Mark Twain wrote, ”In order to make a man covet a thing it is only necessary to make that thing difficult to attain”.

For multiple generations of black artists that “thing” was pop acceptance.

It was the reason why in the late 1950’s after forsaking gospel for rock stardom Sam Cooke released as a single The Love Song From Houseboat (yes, that’s the song’s actual TITLE! Catchy, ain’t it?). It’s why Berry Gordy had The Supremes cut an album of show tunes at the peak of their takeover of the rock ‘n’ roll airwaves in the mid-1960’s. It’s even why a few years later James Brown… The Godfather Of Soul!!!!… The Minister Of The New New Super Heavy Funk!!!… The greatest solo rock artist of the entire 1960’s!!!… opened his shows by sitting on a stool crooning Tony Bennett’s I Wanna Be Around or If I Ruled The World, a treacly standard designed for supper clubs where nobody listened to you because they were already drowning in martinis.

But the fact is James Brown ALREADY ruled the world, or at least was in the process of actively changing it and its outdated terminology by declaring Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud), so he could damn well do as he pleased without anyone getting nervous he was thinking of a major career change.

Yet the siren call of adult pop acceptance was too powerful to resist for even Butane James, the closest thing to a rock ‘n’ roll superhero we likely will ever see.

Twenty years before that the pull of respectable pop audiences was even more potent since rock ‘n’ roll didn’t yet have two decades of huge sales, huge headlines and huge acclaim to point to as reasons why pop music was not worth the time or effort to explore any longer.

The Ravens were thus standing on that fault line from the very beginning, finding their biggest success by catering to the young emerging rock fan who were proving they were a larger and more bankable audience than anyone had anticipated, yet at the same time the artists themselves were still looking back over their shoulder at the classy joints that beckoned them with whispers of respectability and long term viability.

Would they play it safe even though the true odds for making it in pop as a black group were still a million to one at best, or would they dive into the rock ‘n’ roll orgy without regret, being celebrated for the very reason they’d be ostracized for elsewhere?

Or would they hedge their bets and try doing both until it tore them apart?
 
 

 

I Thought From The Start That You Meant What I Heard You Say
The longer The Ravens took the latter approach and tried playing both sides against the middle the more impatient committed rock fans get. Though admittedly their singing itself didn’t suffer much from inappropriate material and conflicted aims, the fact of the matter is their reservoir of goodwill was in danger of being drained… at least by the ones who most fervently believed in them when they were establishing the entire rock vocal group blueprint single-handedly.

I know there are many out there today – presumably who all came of age well after this era was current – who looking back actually LIKE the pop sides best of all because they’re solid compositions that are well sung and just different enough from the moldy pop acts to stand out (and, it should be said, because it is ALSO different from whatever later form of rock ‘n’ roll they feel is – and I’m quoting the usual outraged Youtube commentator here – “utter garbage, total crap and not even music”). Hmmph!

Okay, all well and good, but we’ve asked this rhetorical question before – If The Ravens hadn’t scored with rock cuts like Write Me A Letter which introduced an entirely new concept, but instead had their biggest hits with pop offerings like For You or September Song, would there even BE rock ‘n’ roll to wax poetic about in 2018?

The truth of the matter is that without the rock sides The Ravens would be long forgotten simply because that’s what stood them apart from the pack, that’s what had decades of influence on a far bigger musical style than mannered pop which lost relevance as the result of rock’s precipitous rise, It’s just common sense, Elvis Presley scoring a one-off hit with Love Me Tender doesn’t change the world. For that he needed to snarl, swivel his hips, curl his lips and perform raunchy rock ‘n’ roll as if he were the demon seed of Beelzebub and Aphrodite.

So too with The Ravens. Songs like If You Didn’t Mean It with such measured honesty and tentative declarations of love, all taken at a snail’s pace, are on the surface an anathema to the best rock ‘n’ roll. It was a side I wasn’t even planning on including upon first listen and when I eventually reconsidered in part to get more songs in the 1940’s roll call I was still pretty certain I’d use the review to pluck The Ravens feathers one by one for their questionable career decisions.

Then it began working on me. Slowly maybe, but with devious ruthless precision.
 


 
 

Why Didn’t You Tell Me?
Howard Biggs, their musical arranger and pianist and frequent writer, would be gone from the group by the time this was released, but when it was cut back in June he was still around and he immediately makes his presence known in regrettable fashion with his dainty opening that sounds starkly naked without anything to buttress it with for ten whole seconds.

Because of that there’s no easing into the song as we might expect, as Jimmy Ricks is the first voice we hear, almost sounding tentative as he approaches the microphone to pour his heart out.

He’s given quick support by the other Ravens who contribute a wordless harmony bed behind him which provides a soothing sound if nothing else. It’s clear the song has a very good melody with a lilting quality to it that gets it quickly embedded into your brain. But until Ricks starts to open up we know this isn’t the main course, just the appetizer and as such he’s not really giving you much to sink your teeth into.

It’s a pop song at this point, not only in concept but also in how it’s delivered. Slow and dreamy, just the kind of song that’d fit right in pouring out of a floor model radio in the corner of the family living room.

But then something happens… something discreet… something internal really, both for Ricks and the rock fan listening to it. Instead of this coming across as so many pop songs had a tendency to do as stilted and artificial, Ricks becomes fully invested in the emotional undercurrents of the lyrics.

This shouldn’t be as much of a surprise as I’m making it out to be simply because Ricks himself co-wrote the song. Yeah, that’s right, instead of being a hijacked pop standard this is an authentic Ravens original. One firmly in the “Don’t Rock The Musical Boat” category perhaps, something designed not to alarm whatever near comatose citizens they were targeting with their pop aspirations, but as we all know whenever Jimmy Ricks starts to really feel the lyrics and sing them as if his own life and happiness depended on him connecting to the subject of the song, then he’s hard to beat.
 

I Was Sincere
That’s what happens here. His inflections change as he goes along, the pathos he projects becomes real, he’s on the verge of heartbreak throughout this but is holding it together with every ounce of his strength

He starts to really ache over this girl’s heartless playing him for a fool. When the pace picks up ever so noticeably in the second stanza the natural swing to his voice comes out and though the sentiments themselves don’t brighten, the emotional resiliency that lies beneath his maudlin exterior starts to show.

When the others take the bridge he joins in with them, their voices lending him the moral support that will see him through this ordeal. By the time he drops back down into his final plea, it’s not done with the hopes of convincing her to call him and least explain her actions, if not take him back, but rather is done as a cathartic exercise in grief.

He’s hurting, he’s confused, he’s questioning himself more than anything, almost as if he were wondering why he couldn’t have seen this coming and shielded himself from bearing the full brunt of this heartache, but at the same time its his openness that makes him human… and which makes the the song itself so appealing.
 

 
If You Didn’t Mean It is constantly flirting with pop but never gives itself over to those urges. Though Biggs’s piano remains a hindrance in its detached sonic embellishments and there’s not much of a beat to firmly latch on to, the song manages to flow despite its crawling pace. Jimmy Ricks drips sincerity here in a way that’s completely disarming. Whatever shape your own love life is in while listening to this, you’ll end up sympathizing with him and sharing in his pain.

No, as a rock song standing alone as an example of all the style had to offer to show its greatest and most distinctive attributes, this definitely won’t cut it and for that reason, and that reason alone, it has to be downgraded slightly. But as a peak into a great artist’s soul, and as an example of the understated qualities of a great group, If You Didn’t Mean It stands out.

There was a reason why the rock audience never completely gave up on them no matter how often they sang Mahzel or some such dreck that had no business being in their repitoire, and that reason was because when they sang this pretty you were helpless to resist.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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