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Some things just seem to go together, like peanut butter and jelly. Other things, like jelly and mustard, are more of an acquired taste for a sandwich.

In music you can have two distinct styles, each perfectly acceptable on its own, which when combined leaves you with a strange taste in your mouth. They’re not going to make you sick or anything but it’s just they seem a little bit incompatible when they’re both on your plate together.

The Ravens on Columbia Records were just such a combination because The Ravens at their best were lusty rock singers and Columbia were straitlaced pop defenders.

How well your taste buds adjusted to this combination would go a long way in determining whether the offerings from one of the most revered groups of rock in its first three years was something you still wanted to see on the menu as time went on.


I Found A Note Pinned To My Door
The fear going into The Ravens stint with Columbia Records, the oldest and most conservative of the major record labels, was that producer Mitch Miller, who detested rock and all it represented, would seek to overhaul the group’s entire sound in order to conform to the company’s prim and proper image.

At first blush it appeared this was going to be the case as they split Jimmy Ricks off from the group to guest on some Benny Goodman records and while Goodman himself was a progressive musician in his day, that day was two decades in the rear view mirror by now.

But then they cut their first group sessions and things improved… somewhat. They still were splitting their material between stodgy pop and more authentic rock as they had n National Records as well, but at least the vocals were not being tampered with for the most part in an attempt to make them more respectable. The problem was they found themselves suddenly being supported by… and I don’t quite know how to say this… good musicians.

Not that the guys backing them before on National Records weren’t good, but they were good in a different way. These musicians today however weren’t bad enough to sound good for what The Ravens were trying to do on songs like My Baby’s Gone.

That’s the thin line rock vocal groups need to walk each time out. How to provide a musical backdrop that doesn’t undercut the vocal urgency and soulfulness by being too “technically good” rather than good for a roadhouse at 1AM on a Friday night, playing louder to drown out the sirens that are getting closer and promising to shut the joint down and haul everybody away.


All Night And All Day
Going into this record with some skepticism we get a good sign right away from just looking at the label itself and seeing the song was written by Jimmy Ricks and Bill Sanford, the group’s musical director who’d replaced Howard Biggs when the latter went to Regal Records last year.

Though not generally widely acclaimed as a songwriter, Ricky was actually the author of some of their better sides… and most importantly some of their most unambiguously rockin’ sides… and so it’s a relief to find that Columbia wasn’t telling them not to bother submitting their own material because they’d find them “more acceptable” tunes to cut… like say the flip side of this, I’m So Crazy For Love which sounds as it they’re singing from inside gilded cage. Maithe Marshall’s voice on that is exquisite but it’s devoid of the kind of emotional agony the song desperately calls for and the others being reduced to little more than window dressing sure doesn’t help.

But the same can’t be said for My Baby’s Gone which finds Ricky out in front with the rest of the group chiming in more emphatically, harmonizing brilliantly on extended group lines showing off their blend, their sense of dynamics and their versatility.

The thematic content may be somewhat predictable and there’s too few lines to sink our teeth into, but what’s there is still is fairly well told as Ricky is in despair over his girl leaving him and it manages to paint a more colorful picture than most of these songs do, not so much in explaining why she left (they never do, probably because they’d be incriminating themselves), but showing a good eye for detail that helps to bring it to life.

Better still is how Ricky is fully committed to revealing just how shaken up he is over this beyond merely reciting the usual platitudes. He wails at times here like he’s rarely shown in the past, going to the brink of breaking down while still sounding as captivating as ever as he peerless voice glides and resonates like few can, making you feel his pain is authentic which gives it far more of a connection to listeners who demand conviction from rock acts in a way that pop stars rarely were asked to reveal.

Which is why the way Mitch Miller frames this comes across as all wrong, even if somehow he manages not to fully trip them up in the process.

Why Do You Treat Me This Way?
Melodically speaking this is pretty catchy… for that we’ll credit Bill Stafford for coming up with the basic music. Rhythmically it’s okay, certainly not devoid of rhythm even if it’s accentuated rather questionably at times.

But where My Baby’s Gone fails aesthetically is in its arrangement, the instrumental choices and the basic concept of making records that may be fine if you were dealing with Doris Day and Vaughn Monroe, but not if you were making rock records with a group like The Ravens.

Let’s start by handing out some credit to Miller before taking it right back again. Considering the musicians he called in for this session he does about as good of a job as you can with making sure their individual parts contribute to the basic mood of the record. They aren’t playing anything that – as written – is woefully out of place in other words.

But it’s just that he’s chosen the wrong musicians. Not just because of their instruments themselves (the vibes and clarinet being the most obvious missteps) but also wrong in that they’re not comfortable in this setting. Put somebody who is used to wearing shorts all day in a suit and watch them fidget. Put musicians who are used to playing for demure pop and jazz singers behind a rock outfit like The Ravens instead and they just aren’t at ease.

I don’t mean they’re playing badly, but they know, just as The Ravens do, that they aren’t meshing. There’s a stiffness to the arrangement, a forced quality, that can’t help but be noticeable. Where you should have a driving rhythm you have a swinging one, where there should be a wailing tenor you get a fluttering clarinet, where you should have a heavy bottom you have a mushy middle.

It’s the concept of what “good music” is that Miller believed in so adamantly that is at fault here. A sax that was straining to stay in tune but playing with unabashed fervor would sound wrong to him, even if it added tremendous atmosphere to the record.

Conversely to a rock fan a pop-jazz arrangement can’t help but sound out of place behind The Ravens bitching about being deserted by a woman. Some things need to be treated for what they are, not what someone wishes they were, and this is trying to serve two masters. Though it may never clash (Miller was not ever going to permit that to happen on his watch), they also never connect and that may be an even greater sin.


I’m All Alone
The Ravens might not have cared less about this, for the record on the surface sounds pretty good… it’s a polished performance in every way. It was on a major label and produced by the biggest name in the industry and it absolutely didn’t hurt their bookings any. If anything this partnership opened even more doors for them.

But what doors was it at risk for closing?

Rock fans were always being told, directly or simply by being widely ignored, that their tastes didn’t matter, their money was no good, their business wasn’t necessary for labels like Columbia to thrive and so they became very defensive, as well as very territorial when it came to the stars they created.

Stars like The Ravens, who while they might have the versatility and faint sense of novelty about them to make them welcome in classier venues and on more storied record labels, but who without their core audience their stature was tenuous at best.

My Baby’s Gone may appease their primary fans to a degree because it IS a good vocal performance in the style they’ve come to love, but it’s also not fulfilling their highest expectations in those regards because of the compromises forced on them by Columbia Records.

As such this is a record that sounds good while sounding just a little bit too “off” at the same time and as long as that goes unresolved then the group itself and their new label shouldn’t get too comfortable with this direction.


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