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When the first rock vocal group who’d always harbored simultaneous dreams of pop acceptance decamped at stuffy major label Columbia Records after ruling the roost at independent National Records, you feared the worst.

Surely Mitch Miller, Columbia’s erudite producer who had no love of rock, was going to steer them firmly in a pop direction and then wonder why their popularity fell off even though they were on more well-heeled label.

Well, their popularity DID indeed drop once they got to Columbia and it was surely in part their own fault – flooding the market with releases, then not promoting any of them – but while their music did begin to get compromised thanks to Miller’s meddling, The Ravens were still independent minded enough to bring their own songs to the table and sing them in a fashion that not even Mitch could ruin.


Why Can’t I Lose?
The failure of The Ravens to maintain their commercial success upon arriving at a much bigger record label was the kind of thing that the major companies couldn’t figure out for the life of them.

They felt they had better facilities, better producers, access to better musicians and better material along with more money, a broader network of distributors and a healthy “partnership” with radio and nightclubs, all of which meant that plugging ANY competent artist into their system was bound to result in bigger sales, more exposure and wider acclaim.

Yet they failed miserably with rock acts in late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

They’d ignored the tastes of young Black America for so long they didn’t have the structure in place to get the records of the few rock acts they DID start to sign into the areas where they’d do the most good. Even if they could manage to do so, the distinctive red and gold Columbia label had no cache in the Black community because of the company’s total disregard for this culture over the years so most would pass it by without even looking at the artist’s name.

Now add to the fact that the people they employed, starting with Miller didn’t know what made this music appealing and had no respect for those qualities when they did find out, meant that even when they cut legitimately good songs like Midnight Blues with strong appeal to their core audience, The Ravens found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place because they’d thrown their fate in with the oldest and most conservative of record companies.


Where You Want Me
Any time Jimmy Ricks was at the controls, both as a singer and a songwriter, you at least knew the mindset behind the record was going to be right. Whether that meant they were in for a smoth ride was another thing altogether.

While the group would consistently pursue pop directions when tenor Maithe Marshall was on lead – including the flip side of this one, the insipid You Don’t Have To Drop A Heart To Break It – the fact is none of their pop sides ever found success. Though some may be exquisitely sung (while others are mawkish and artificial), the simple fact is The Ravens wouldn’t have left any mark on music history if they pursued that direction exclusively.

As rockers on the other hand they left a veritable crater in launching the entire rock vocal group style and in how they utilized Ricky’s bass voice out in front with a string of faster paced records that were suggestive without being obscene, playful without veering into novelty and as well sung as anything on the market.

All of that is evident on Midnight Blues, an uptempo lament about Ricky’s late night problems which center around him losing his girl who predictably left on the midnight train (to Georgia perhaps?). Apparently he’s okay during the day but starts to unravel as the moon comes up – though I’m sure you can guess at least one other reason for his despair over being alone between dusk and dawn – but no matter the cause he’s pretty dejected over it.

Or at least that’s what he claims, because he delivers the song with such verve that if he told you he was looking forward to getting lucky after the clock struck twelve you’d fully believe that too.

Though the lines themselves never contradict one another and the story makes sense in theory, it’s obvious they’re merely a plot device… a vivid setting utilizing a good title for its hook… to give Ricky the room to run wild. His vocals here are as engaging as we’ve heard out of him, putting enough hurt in certain lines to give it depth, yet enough enthusiasm to forget your troubles – and his – while the song careens along at a gallop.

This is The Ravens we know and love.


More Than I Can Stand
…And this is the Columbia Records we loathe and despise.

Mitch Miller’s productions for pop records were innovative, if a little gimmicky, and successful from both an aesthetic and commercial standpoint. An accomplished oboe player himself, he was schooled in traditional orchestration and while he had no problems incorporating sound effects and creating cinematic productions to suit a song’s source, he seemed oblivious to how to produce a good rock record.

On Midnight Blues he shouldn’t need a road map to figure out where to go, yet he winds up in the weeds because he seems to think a clarinet is a suitable replacement for a tenor sax.

It. Is. Not.

Not then, not now, not ever.

The parts the clarinet are playing are ostensibly the right ones for a horn, but clarinets are for white jazz music on a bandstand, not black rock ‘n’ roll in a roadhouse. Put a Maxwell Davis in this spot and this record would be hard to beat.

As it is though you find yourself annoyed with the primary supporting instrument and while some of the arrangement – the pounding piano opening and some solid drumming – is pretty good, each time The Ravens stop singing you have that pesty clarinet intruding on the righteous mood their vocals have created.

To be honest though, even though the other Ravens sound good in the background, they’re mostly singing in a style that is… let’s say a little more refined than we’d want to hear out of them.

It’s not a pop singing style exactly, but more of a old school transitional form of harmony singing from the mid-40’s black jazz-pop styles with an over-emphasis on holding notes for show rather than for impact. Though the quality of their voices alone is enough to overlook the somewhat dated approach you could definitely see how The Ravens, especially stuck at a label without their finger on the pulse of the rock community, were bound to fall behind more recent arrivals like The Dominoes.

This record may hold off that inevitability a little longer, but as good as it is overall the sad truth for them is with a better producer on a more appropriate label it’d could’ve been a huge hit.

I Want To Be Free
In just a few months time Columbia Records, realizing they were completely unqualified to oversee rock ‘n’ roll, would reactivate a dormant subsidiary label and hire somebody who actually respected the music they were now trying to move in on in a belated attempt to right the ship.

By then however The Ravens would be struggling to stay together while the aforementioned Dominoes would make the jump from promising up and comers to the dominant act in the field while The Clovers, who hadn’t impressed at all when courting pop acceptance in their first release on Rainbow Records last fall, would take on a new direction upon signing with Atlantic and become the most consistent hitmakers in a much more modern style.

With all that to contend with The Ravens heyday, despite a handful of records equal to or slightly greater than Midnight Blues still on the horizon, was now more or less over.

Jumping to Columbia sped that process up, but it was inevitable no matter what company they ended up with. Time never stands still and while this is a really good later effort for the top group of their day, that day is rapidly approaching midnight.


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