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NATIONAL 9056; SEPTEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

In rock’s first decade the “cover” record was a widespread and onerous fact of life for artists who regularly saw their records usurped in the marketplace by more established pop acts, at least once the commercial potential of this uncouth music became apparent to even the most snobbish producer.

As a result the term itself has taken on a stigma ever since, sticking to the perpetrators of such crimes against musical authenticity like the spray from a skunk, forever tainting the otherwise (let’s be fair about it) very successful careers of dozens of big-name stars from Georgia Gibbs and The Crew Cuts to the eternal poster boy for watered down interpretations, Pat Boone – all bland, clean-scrubbed white acts scoring questionable, if not undeserved, hits by bleaching the music made by black originators for sterile mass consumption. Of course it didn’t take a genius to see the inference in their taking on songs from “the other side of the tracks”, namely the belief that no respectable person would dare see fit to have such tawdry smut as the originals in their homes and needed it tamed down for the their condescending acceptance.

So it may come as quite a surprise to some that one of the first examples of the cover craze of rock records did not emanate from a lame polished white pop act at all, but rather from another black group whose reputation was – and would forever remain – unassailable in the rock community.
 

Can I STILL Believe Her?
The Orioles debut, It’s Too Soon To Know, hit like an atom bomb on the nascent rock community in the summer of 1948. In the midst of a recording ban with the competition still mostly releasing songs cut more than six months earlier, a lifetime in any ongoing creative progression, here came this unknown group cutting a game-changing song at an illegal clandestine session.

Whereas rock’s initial waves were made by vibrant shouters, honking saxmen, and tough ensembles cutting a deep rolling groove, or in the case of The Ravens, singing in a sly, almost leering fashion, here comes these kids tearing their hearts out and offering them up to a fan base who hadn’t known they were even craving such naked emotion, yet who embraced it wholeheartedly from the start.

The response was overwhelming. Just when rock needed it The Orioles injected an entirely new approach into the mix, giving the music an important flip-side to the rowdier stuff that was dominant to that point. Their youth and vocal vulnerability made the group instant idols, with lead singer Sonny Til becoming the first real rock sex symbol bringing in hordes of young female fans who wanted to alternately comfort him and to ravish him.

Suddenly the previous dominant rock vocal group, The Ravens, their seniors by only a few years, seemed almost old by comparison.

They weren’t of course, The Ravens still had plenty to offer, not just in terms of classic sides still to come but also by presenting a different facet to the vocal group persona that was far from played out. While Til and company offered yearning tender passion underlined by their seeming inexperience (in life itself, not just in recording, or at least that’s how it came across in their songs), Jimmy Ricks and The Ravens had most certainly been around the block (both in life and epitomized by their sound on record). One listen to them and it was obvious they knew the score and were letting listeners in on the ways of the world, sometimes with a lecherous wink and a smile.

Though connected throughout eternity, both as the originators of the vocal group style (or rather, two sides of the same coin in the early vocal group style), and also as the progenitors of the “bird group” phenomenon wherein many of their descendants would take on similar ornithological monikers as almost a tip of the beak to these two acts, The Ravens and Orioles were more dissimilar than alike in their approach.

Which is what makes this record all the more interesting.
 

 

Can’t Last Much Longer
The Ravens, as has been touched upon already, were incredibly diverse in their song selections, either by personal taste or by commercial design. At their best they were earthy and irreverent, at their worst they were sickeningly docile, so when a new song comes along – in the black vocal group idiom no less – and shows immediate appeal, well of course it was only natural for The Ravens to roust the other birds nest and try and make off with the choicest worms.

In high tenor Maithe Marshall, the brilliant contrasting voice to the deep bottom of Ricks’s bass vocals, The Ravens also had the key personnel to possibly make this work and by giving lead chores to Marshall, an identifiable voice by now but still in the shadow of Ricks in terms of instant recognizability and appeal, he finally got a chance to shine on his own in a rock setting, as too often he’d been given the task of veering into the pop kingdom when he took a lead prior to this.

The fact that the group themselves were already firmly established as rockers helped enormously as well. This was no outsider stepping in and trying to pull interest to another audience entirely, one with different aesthetic sensibilities who would have little or no interest in The Orioles version (though there WERE plenty of artists from other realms who did exactly that).

No, The Ravens were systematically trying to steal the thunder from these upstarts, in the process perhaps preventing them from breaking through and keeping the vocal group field to themselves. Yet because of their own well-established credibility with rock fans they’d surely be given a pass on their musical larceny.

Criticize The Crew Cuts and Pat Boone all you want – and we will in the future here on Spontaneous Lunacy – but to say that what The Ravens were doing here was significantly different than that type of action down the road would be merely splitting hairs… err, feathers(?). Inasmuch as you want to call the usual suspects from the mid-50’s “thieves”, The Ravens were no less guilty of the same crime in this instance.

The one difference I suppose was that The Ravens weren’t trying to discredit the originals very culture in the process, altering the DNA until it no longer showed any trace of its heritage. The Ravens shared in that heritage after all, as well as shared the same audience, and so they were attempting to connect on somewhat equal terms. Thus the contest between the two, such as it were, would come down to merely which group delivered it better.

The Orioles had the head start, releasing theirs more than two months earlier, but The Ravens had the name recognition and the more established label as well as the uniqueness of their group personnel that had listeners waiting in anticipation to see how Ricks’s presence would affect whatever material they tackled.

What they didn’t have though – at least in this particular case – was what made The Orioles original work so well. They didn’t have the heart.
 

Playing A Part
The Orioles version was, in essence, Sonny Til backed by barely audible wordless harmonies from the others, save the George Nelson sung bridge, with Sonny delivering this achingly heartfelt plea to a girl… or to be more accurate, to every girl who heard it… in his most sincere and forlorn manner. Til’s voice might not measure up to ANY of the individual Ravens as a mere vocal instrument, but his sincerity on the other hand was off the charts, or at least that’s how it came off to all who heard it.

By contrast Marshall’s crystalline voice merely conveys heartbreak via its fragile delivery, not any underlying emotional angst. Maybe not wanting to merely ape Til’s rendition Marshall speeds it up at key times, rushing the mood of it and thereby robbing it of the contemplative nature that made the lyrics seem so real when Sonny sang it, replete with pauses and hesitations, as if he was gnashing over the realities behind the sentiments as he went along.

With Til you felt as if he was pouring his heart out over this romantic agony, almost as if you were eavesdropping on him expressing these thoughts out loud for the very first time, whereas Marshall comes off as simply an actor playing the part, telling the story second-hand as it were, and for a song that is so delicately constructed, so reliant on convincing the listener that every detail was coming from personal experience, It’s Too Soon To Know simply couldn’t withstand even that slight alteration.
 

But that’s not the only change of course, not when you have Jimmy Ricks looming in the shadows like a mugger, ready to pounce out and hit you over the head like a ton of bricks. When he does enter the picture, following an ill-conceived – albeit brief – trilling harmony by the others, the gravity of his voice alone pulls the song back into the realm of believability.

Thus was the power of Ricks. He was not just the most impressive voice on the scene, but he knew how to use that voice for maximum impact.

Here he sounds positively broken-hearted, there’s none of the typical jauntiness in his tone and compared to the sincere, but somewhat amateurish baritone bridge of George Nelson with The Orioles, Ricks’s delivery carries with it great emotional weight… as long as he sticks to the melody.

But here’s where things fall apart again. It wasn’t just Marshall who veered off course with melodic ad-libs, Ricks does the same, inadvisably leading the others into a more (hold your breath …) “poppish” rendition.

Yeah, that’s right, much like the insufferable Crew Cuts down the road, who never met a song they wouldn’t show disdain for by their reworking the melody into something infinitely more stilted, The Ravens are guilty of the same charge here. Not quite as blatantly by any means, and I’ll still argue (maybe naïvely on my part) that they weren’t trying to disparage the original by taking this tact, but rather were determined NOT to simply follow the original to the letter and so they tried offering something slightly different, but the problem is the song doesn’t have the heft in its construction to allow for that change, something which becomes obvious when divorced from the precise reading that worked best.

In The Orioles far more successful take everything worked off the emotional commitment of Sonny Til. As soon as you deviate at all from that conviction it no longer sounds sincere. I highly doubt Sonny had his heart broken right before entering the studio to cut it but he sounded as if he had and more importantly the audience envisioned that he must have, simply by how authentically he came across. Their emotions were stirred by HIS emotions.

The Ravens on the other hand sound exactly like what they were – professional singers roped into covering a song that even they must’ve known was perfect already. It’s not like they didn’t have ears! Right away they had to know there was nothing they could do to make it better and so they settled for making it slightly different instead and it doesn’t work.
 

 

A One Sided Love
But The Ravens were stars and despite the recent influx of illicit recording sessions to get around the recording ban, which let newer ideas (such as the Orioles original) enter the marketplace, there still wasn’t quite as much variety to choose from as there would be down the road when it came to rock offerings and so The Ravens did in fact steal some of the thunder, and perhaps some sales as well.

But not much.

While The Ravens take on It’s Too Soon To Know did in fact crack the lower rungs of the Top 15, The Orioles original was rapidly climbing those same charts as this was released and by the end of November was the most played record on jukeboxes in the black community, selling SO well in fact that it’d be enough to break into the white dominated pop listings as well. The Ravens settled for an also-ran designation in the charts at the time and in the history books in the long run.

So let the record show that the first time a rock record was immediately covered the right version won out. It wouldn’t always be that way of course but at least we’re off to a good start in that regard.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
The Orioles (July, 1948)