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NATIONAL 9053; JULY, 1948

 
 

 

For those of us who came of age recently it’s hard to conceive of a music industry that wasn’t dictated by the tastes and buying habits of teenagers and those barely past those years. Though there are always a handful of artists on the singles charts who appeal to those past twenty-five or (gasp!) thirty years old, for the most part in order to get hits and really define the era you need to connect with the dominant marketplace which is, and has been for more than a half century, the 13-24 year old crowd.

Rock ‘n’ roll of course is the reason for this. It’s music designed for young sensibilities and since that age group has an overriding interest in music and the time and money to invest in that music, then it should come as no surprise when THAT music reaps the benefits of that appeal.

But once upon a time the music industry was based almost exclusively on adult markets. Households in the 1940’s had one record player (phonographs as they were known then) and they were large bulky pieces of furniture that sat in the living room and were controlled by parents who were the only ones who could possibly afford to buy these contraptions and thus were the ones buying the bulk of the records that would be played on them.

Keep in mind it was also an era in which records weren’t even the primary outlet for hearing music. The radio played records but radio too was controlled entirely by adults with decidedly mature tastes who looked down upon anything that might be deemed off-color, as rock surely was. Furthermore there were sponsors to think about who dictated the type of material that would be played on radio shows based on their target demographics and they sure didn’t want to try and sell their vacuum cleaners and denture cream to 15 year olds who dug rock ‘n’ roll (let alone black audiences which in the 1947-1953 era made up the dominant rock marketplace).

So for artists the purpose of making records was largely a way to promote their live shows where they really earned their living, and those venues were catering exclusively to the adult audience. You played in nightclubs where you had to be over 21 to get in. The ritzier it was, the better pay the entertainers presumably got. That meant upscale clientele, older established people with full time well-paying jobs, people with musical tastes belonging to another more sedate era.

Rock ‘n’ roll changed this but the change was slow in taking hold. At this point those changes seemed unlikely to ever occur so the earlier mindset still held true – to make it big you needed to have some crossover appeal. Now for artists with no chance of reaching those upper class venues, the Crown Prince Waterfords and the Wynonie Harrises who specialized in tunes celebrating booze-drenched sex orgies (wait until THIS review is finished before you go scampering to the Master Index to look up their records, will you please?), you had nothing to fear if you were a rock fan. They were incapable of turning elsewhere without being locked up on general suspicion just for wandering into a classier neighborhood.

But for artists who had slightly more refined styles, who were adaptable to what the mainstream were most comfortable with – artists like The Ravens – then you had reason to worry.

For these birds the choicest worms might STILL wind up being found in the pop garden.

Though Someone Else May Be Nearer Your Heart
But as big fat worms go, this one isn’t bad. Certainly far better than the tripe of September Song on the other side, which was one of their most blatant stabs at pop respectability to date and something that had you ready to give up on them altogether as it appeared they were abandoning you for another more “respectable” listener.

Upon closer inspection it’s becoming rather obvious that National Records were alternating releases with two different audiences in mind. Last October you had Write Me A Letter which was the first rock song to hit the charts, a game changer in so many ways, from commercial viability to stylistic construction. Then they slapped you in the face with a two-sided pop travesty their next time out. But immediately after that, the same month in fact, they made it up to you with the brilliant rocker Be I Bumble Bee Or Not (of course, they were hedging their bets with the adult crowd all the same by having “For You” on the flip side, pop dreck of the highest order). We gave them the benefit of the doubt with the pop-inclined Together, reviewing it here with some reservations circa March 1948, but then were at least glad to see them returning to the rock fold wholeheartedly with Send For Me If You Need Me in May.

Now this. September Song was 100% pop. Jimmy Ricks might offer a few moments to try and sway your interest but in the end you knew you were being forsaken for someone else and didn’t fall for it in the least.

However the other side won’t be quite so easy to resist.

Oh, make no mistake about it, Once In A While is intended for pop consumption too, but at least it’s done in a way that won’t have you angry that you wasted your money on it, and perhaps… if you just give it a chance… it’s even something that you may not feel quite as embarrassed to play in front of fellow rock enthusiasts.
 

 

Contented With Yesterday’s Memories
There’s going to be a lot of criticizing of mainstream pop music over the years here on Spontaneous Lunacy but rest assured it’s not the quality of the songs themselves that’s going to draw our ire as much as it is the saccharine nature of the arrangements designed to connect it with the dominant adult pop marketplace that we’ll have an issue with.

Even more specifically how that approach conflicts with rock’s primary approach which generally speaking sets out to trample all over the cultured tastes of the adult pop listener.

It’s a simple struggle for dominance. The closer to mainstream pop tastes rock veers the less distinctive rock becomes and consequently the less vital it is to defining a specific culture and audience that needs it most. After all if the rock audience’s tastes eventually conforms to the standards of the pop world then what’s the need for rock ‘n’ roll to begin with?

But the songs themselves that make up the pop marketplace can be perfectly decent compositions. Once In A While has a fine pedigree. In 1937 Tommy Dorsey scored a #1 hit with his version of the tune. Lots of artists subsequently covered it, drawn to its solid melody and a storyline designed to pull on the heartstrings. It’s not a bad song.

The question though, as always, is just what a rock group will do with these songs (or TO them, if you’re a pop music guardian worried about the song’s morals and good name!).
 


 
 

Smoldering Ember
On the surface the aspirations are set quite low. The skeletal arrangement with Howard Biggs’s tinkly piano being the most notable accompaniment is delicate, dainty and as a result (in case you were hoping for something a bit more radical to set it apart from all of the versions that preceded it) fairly desultory. They aren’t doing much to distance it from what the pop world has already claimed for itself and thus you say with justified indignation – Why even bother? If all they’re going to do is try their hand at a pure pop recording what does that say about their opinion of US? Our tastes? Our money that we’ve already given them for their rock records or their appearances at places that will actually let us through the front doors?

But don’t give up on them… certainly by now you should know enough to never give up before hearing what Jimmy Ricks will bring to the party… and luckily that’s where this quickly begins to stand out as something a bit different, a bit better and a bit more in line with our needs.

Whether you’re a genuine fan of vintage pop such as (the original) Once In A While or not, nobody would be able to disagree that the lyrics to this are intended to be sappy. It offers up a guy who lost in love – why we don’t know, but I can take a guess and say that he’s got the anatomy of a Ken doll (IE. no balls) – and is so lacking in self-respect and confidence that he’s reduced to gently pleading with his ex, who is now with another man, to think fondly of him every so often because apparently that one brush with romance our narrator enjoyed will be the only time in his life that he manages to convince a woman to hold his hand, let alone do anything more… I’d say X-rated but this guy wouldn’t even get an R-rating for his fantasies, so I’ll be kind and say “anything more than would be allowed at a church picnic!”.

The Dorsey version – and those which followed it – aim squarely for sympathy on the part of the listener. Now I can’t for the life of me imagine men of 1938 finding any virtue in this sentiment, other than glee to discover that their competition for women includes such feeble guys as this sap, but I can at least envision old spinster women shedding a tear over the poor lad’s plight (well, not really, but I’m feeling generous).

In Dorsey’s hands the pleasant melody is emphasized and coming out of the bridge there’s a few moments of nice harmony that picks up the pace, but otherwise it’s exactly the kind of hazy sentimental sound we picture coming from a world immersed in a depression with the clouds of war on the horizon.

A decade later though the world has changed and here, most notably, the perspective of the singers have changed with it. While The Ravens don’t alter the words, nor even the pace, the mere difference of who they are, what they represent and where they’re from infuses this with a lot of underlying meanings that transform it rather notably.

To start with Jimmy Ricks can not possibly sound meek as the vocalists on earlier renditions all did. His vocal chords simply will not allow for him to come off as weak and ineffectual, so even though he’s singing the same words with the same sad hangdog expression there’s subtext galore that probably wasn’t intended but simply can’t be helped. You just KNOW he’s not the same inexperienced virgin that the other singers all were presented as and that changes the perception of this considerably.

It frankly makes Ricks sound as if he’s putting on an act, that this is almost a perverse form of seduction rather than timid submission.

He’s not alone in this devious plot either, as unlike on the flip where they subjugated themselves to the pop mannerisms being asked of them, here the rest of The Ravens are aiding and abetting his attempts with their wordless harmony bed. Maithe Marshall takes the bridge with less of a pop slant than we’ve seen out of him before, ending it with a nice down shift into what could be seen as a clever pull at the heartstrings.

In the process it’s clear that he and the others are accomplices in this grand plan. When they all join in at the finish they give the impression of embracing more pop sensibilities but that’s only so they can spring Ricks on you again with his honeyed tones of erotic suggestion.
 

 

The Spark Will Burn Again
All of this of course is only what I’m reading into it and there would’ve been many back then, including National Records and perhaps the group themselves, who would’ve likely disagreed with this interpretation. Like I said, I doubt it was an intentional subversion of the song or the message, but it’s there all the same. Real or imagined the result is that you hear Once In A While with a different image in your mind of the circumstances that led to all of this because of who they are and the way they impart it.

In my mind’s eye I see Ricks as the guy this girl really loved, who gave it to her like she always craved, but he probably spread his love around town and she found out thereby leaving her no chance but to dump him to spare her own self-respect and reputation. Yet he knows she still wants him and so he takes on the role of the humbled ex-boyfriend, hat in hand, head bowed, straining for sincerity in his plea, yet under that veneer he’s really thinking of just how long after hearing this it’ll take her to call him and after laying into him some more for show, there will be a series of demands, apologies, a little skepticism raised so she doesn’t give in too easily, and then – ultimately – forgiveness.

By midnight they’ll be back together, bed springs squeaking, walls rattling, and this type of mannered polite façade he had to put on to get her back will have been shed along with their clothes and it’s a sure bet that the music they’ll all be making will be a lot louder and more boisterous than this.

Feel free to think otherwise, but keep in mind that scenario embodies rock ‘n’ roll’s general attitude in life which states that occasionally you may need to make a few concessions for umm… loftier purposes… but that’s okay just as long as you remember what you are at your core.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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