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MERCURY 5764; NOVEMBER 1951

 
 

 

Since their breakthrough at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll in the fall of 1947 The Ravens have been the one rock act who’ve enjoyed a degree of success as a pop act as well.

Not on the charts, where their voluminous pop offerings (usually on the slip side of their rock efforts) have met with universal disinterest by the public, but at least when it comes to the realm of live dates and record company interest they’ve managed to somehow capitalize on their versatility as performers by targeting the older moneyed crowd who wouldn’t be caught dead shaking their asses at a dance to The Ravens’ better musical offerings.

Here the group puts that appeal to the test and the wheels promptly fall off their previously thriving career.
 

 

Carry Me Over The Hill
Why do they do this?

Unfortunately that’s a recurring recurring question in the early 1950’s when it comes to the bewildering decisions of record companies who find themselves with a successful rock act and promptly view the consistent sales and adoration of a loyal fan base to be somehow worthless and instead try to renovate their musical identity in order to be… passively ignored by the larger market?

Yup, that’s about the size of it.

We’ll say it again, the record industry was made up of idiots across the board and when The Ravens signed with Mercury Records, a major label in search of gaining access to the so-called smaller “niche” markets like rock, they were unable and unwilling to comprehend what made that music so vibrant in the black community and instead tried imposing their own cultural standards onto them, feeling that it’d be more than enough to have Jimmy Ricks moaning words that couldn’t possibly have any meaning to the audience they’d built up over the past few years.

Their lack of concern about remaining relevant to the group’s fan base reached its apex with the flip side of this single, the dreadful pop fluff of There’s No Use Pretending.

In case you were wondering how that title should end, try any of the following… “there’s no use pretending” a) we know what we’re doing anymore, b) you will buy this crap, c) we have any artistic integrity left, d) we’re not prostituting ourselves and besmirching our names and reputation in the hopes of earning mild respect from people who would gladly let us serve them dinner but would never let us eat it with them.

That side of the record is so bad, so inappropriate and so utterly laughable that it’s not worth reviewing because we don’t use zeroes in our scores… though to be honest, a zero would be about five points too high for it.

So by comparison Wagon Wheels must be an epic performance, right?

Wrong. It’s a song dating back to 1934 that didn’t even have relevance back then – what kind of wagons were in widespread use then outside of street vendors peddling vegetables in the city and kids playing in their driveways – and it sure as hell doesn’t have relevance to a 17 year old rock fan in 1951.

Of course that’s probably fine with Mercury Records who could care less if the group’s original fans are run over by the wheels of progress.
 

Wait For The Cotton To Load
Let’s start with the one modestly redeeming factor of this record.

Jimmy Ricks.

By now the potency of Ricky was regularly being used to prop up subpar material but Mercury seems intent on taking that to the extreme with this.

It starts off alright… not great mind you, but it’s clear the arranger at Mercury had at least HEARD a rock record, as this is lifted – albeit toned down considerably – from The Dominoes instant classic Sixty Minute Man.

The difference is that while that song featured sexually deviant lyrics that allowed bass signer Bill Brown to be as suggestive as he liked, here Jimmy Ricks is being asked to sing rapturously about taking cotton to market.

Hmm, isn’t that just like Mercury to put these uppity Negroes in their place by reminding them of what they still could forced to do if they step out of line.

Ricky gives it his all, injecting as much soulfulness as possible into this transparent ode to indentured servitude while the rest of the group is lively in support. But even if you were to change the lyrics – and I have a few ideas about armed insurrection that I could scribble down if you want a quick re-write – the entire structure of the song is woefully out of date.

There’s no thumping rhythm on Wagon Wheels, no sax solos, no wild histrionics in either the musical backing or the group vocals and certainly no relevant plot to follow – and so there’s really no reason to pay this any mind other than to use it as blackmail against Ricks and company for having absolutely no self-respect.

The thing is, THIS is the kind of culturally insulting song they were surely singing at their live dates at Café Society which featured them as headliners in the weeks after this came out. Yeah, it was a classy venue, the likes of which they’d be happy to have attained enough of a reputation to play, and maybe they even got paid in actual dollars (although just how much of those dollars they received after the group’s promoter Ben Bart took his share is uncertain) but if you have to demean yourself and your entire race to get those crumpled bills then it’s not worth it.

This record makes The Ravens, once the most unapologetically black rock vocal group around, look like obedient slaves who weren’t above embodying the offensive caricatures their masters had of them to ease their load around the plantation.
 


 

A Pasture At The End Of The Road
One of the things we’re constantly trying to get across with these reviews is the context in which they were made.

For many who don’t understand how that works, or who intentionally take the point of view of the majority class who did not make these records rather than putting themselves in the shoes of the artists and audiences for these songs at the time, they’ll use that context to excuse questionable material, saying it was a different time and surely no offense was meant as people didn’t take these things literally back then.

But that’s intentionally misreading the landscape. The powerless have to grin and bear it because they have little choice in the matter. Should The Ravens protest being asked to sing garbage like this they’d likely be branded troublemakers and agitators and see their opportunities dry up altogether and so they swallowed their pride and went along with it.

Maybe you feel we’re making too much of this if you’re someone who never has faced racial discrimination in your life and had no interest in lyrics to begin with – and there are plenty of those people I’m sure who will find Wagon Wheels perfectly acceptable, even moderately appealing for the lead vocals alone – but music is not just something being made for momentary entertainment, because when it comes with an artist’s name attached to it the records are going to become a part of their identity and lasting legacy.

This record is a black eye on The Ravens legacy, a shameful compromise of their integrity in order to not offend the major record company who employed them… a company who clearly did not mind offending them personally, nor did they seem to have any concern about offending their true audience.

But even if you want to be so culturally ignorant as to sidestep those weightier issues, this record is STILL a black eye on The Ravens legacy as musical artists because a song this vapid has no business being in their repertoire even had it actually been about methods of transportation to begin with.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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