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DECCA 48162; JUNE 1950



Any time a rock act signs with a major label in these early days of the musical wilderness the prospects for their future course becomes a lot more tenuous as the companies typically try and get them to conform to pre-existing aesthetics better left behind.

The one caveat to these deals with the devil however is that occasionally you find yourself culling material from unexpected sources.

It may not be enough of an incentive to basically toss aside your credibility with the hardcore rock constituency by signing with these hallowed stuffy labels in the first place, but if you have to be bound up by corporate red tape and compromised artistic goals it helps that every so often you’re allowed to deliver something unexpected that might satisfy both of the diametrically opposed audiences you’re trying to appease.


I Hear Music Divine
Since signing with Decca at the start of 1950 The Ray-O-Vacs had released two singles and three of the four sides charted in one form or another making this stab at upward mobility seem like a good move for all involved.

Their first record for the label, Sentimental Me, released back in March had made the regional Cash Box charts for New York just as their follow-up came out and bested that as both sides of this single went on to make the national charts in Billboard giving them the biggest hit of their career.

To call this unexpected would be an understatement as they were hardly the most typical of rock acts to begin with… a group of thirty year old veteran club performers with a mellow bent and nothing dynamic about them, they were always going to be at risk for being confined to a category of one no matter what outfit they recorded for.

Maybe they figured the move to Decca would at least ensure them of widespread distribution and – one can hope – some honest accounting should they sell enough to earn some royalties. But what it also wound up giving them was a few instances where in search of suitable songs they wound up drawing from a broader palette than they might have otherwise tried at a smaller indie label.

Bésame Mucho was one of the biggest hits to come out of Mexico after being written by Consuelo Velázquez in 1941, reportedly when she 16. Though this was the widely promoted tale, with all accounts at the time giving her birth date as 1924, she was actually born in 1916 taking a little of the magical innocence out of it perhaps, but she maintained that the story behind the song with its translated title “Kiss Me Much”, was accurate and that she herself had yet to be kissed when she composed it.

If that’s true however she certainly understood the sensuality of the act of kissing as the bolero rhythm she affixed to her lyrics has such an intoxicating melody, dark and mysterious and seething with desire which made it a natural song to cross the border into America when U.S. artists were constantly in search of something they could pass off as exotic due to its origins.

With this tune it wasn’t only the place of its birth which made it so alluring, there was an erotic feel to it that most English language compositions seemed forbidden to explore and as many different competing versions shot up the U.S. Pop Charts in 1944 the song suddenly belonged to the world.

Each Little Dream Will Take Wing
Though by 1950 it had become something of a standard the song wasn’t exactly at the forefront of anyone’s mind, least of all those attempting to court the rock audience, which is what made The Ray-O-Vacs appropriation of it so ingenious.

It’s fair to say that the group was essentially very limited in what types of songs they could tackle, as they were far too musically docile to be comfortable attempting anything brash and aggressive, yet due to Lester Harris’s weary vocal delivery he wasn’t quite cut out for more traditional swooning ballads either.

Bésame Mucho sits somewhere in the middle – squarely in his comfort zone – as its theme certainly adheres to the romantic dreams found at the core of most ballads, yet it also had an undercurrent of confident swagger that would endear him to the rock crowd… provided of course they didn’t shortchange that attitude in a misguided attempt for pure pop acceptance.

Thankfully they don’t fall into that trap, something no doubt helped by the fact that the group themselves also were the musicians playing on their own records rather than leaving it up to the producers to drag in fancy orchestras to dress it up as the company no doubt would’ve preferred in most instances, rock aspirations or not.

The mood of the record is set by Chink Kinney’s saxophone, especially the shimmering quality he adds to the opening which pulls you in, establishing a slinky vibe with that mesmerizing tone he creates. Joe Crump throws in some ringing notes on piano while Lester Harris doubles up on the drums playing a soft shuffle pattern that sounds like a lethargic tap-dancer scuffling on sand covered cement down by the boardwalk.

When Lester starts singing the vaguely exotic feel that’s been imparted by the others doesn’t break as he delivers his lines with that same sleepy feel, his warm tattered vocal chords projecting a sense of world-weary comfort.

He slips up slightly during the first bridge, unable to settle on the right pace, but the rest of the time he’s in complete control, lagging behind a half step during the verses and then stepping it up heading into the breaks. By the second half he’s so at ease that you swear the lyrics are just seeping from his pores rather than coming from his mouth in the usual fashion, embodying the song in a way that nobody prior to this seemed able to do.

This Joy Is Something New
Because this title is one of the most recorded songs in history, done in countless styles and languages over the years, it’s virtually impossible to isolate any one version as if it were a standalone record, pretending none of those others ever existed.

Certainly in 1950 almost nobody who came across The Ray-O-Vacs recording of Bésame Mucho were unaware of the song unless they were in the absolute youngest demographic of rock fan who missed the versions that caused such a commotion six years earlier.

So for those who DID know the prior renditions that exposure was probably going to shape their initial reaction to hearing it done in a decidedly different musical context and which makes The Ray-O-Vacs version stand out more in retrospect than it would without those comparisons.

The original Spanish language hit in Mexico was done by Emilio Tuero and is dramatic to the hilt, swirling strings framing the theatrical performance in which he effortlessly slides up and down the scale with plenty of flamboyant pauses scattered throughout for effect. It’s a staged production through and through and thanks to the beauty of the melody and his stellar voice it works in spite of – or because of (take your pick) – the extreme nature of the presentation.

After it was Americanized by lyricist Sunny Skyler (born Selig Shaftel) it was Jimmy Dorsey’s rendition which first propelled it to universal fame in this country. The split lead vocals gives it a different feel with Bob Eberly’s lines seeming far more stilted than Kitty Kallen’s, but even she gives in to the hammy nature of the arrangement, making it less melodramatic than Tuero’s original, but also oddly enough less convincing as well.

Andy Russell notched a Top Ten hit of his own with it in 1944 for Capitol Records, probably the best of the hit versions of the 1940’s as Russell sings part of it in a passable Spanish and the accompaniment is classy but somewhat restrained. He later re-cut it for RCA, lopping off thirty seconds in the process, on which – about 40 seconds in – you can hear where they emphasized a faint passage on his original which sounds a lot like John Barry’s opening for The James Bond Theme.

Xavier Cugat recorded the song countless times over the years as an instrumental which as a result might be the one that audiences in 1950 were most familiar with, his 1945 hit being a faithful orchestral version with good percussion that highlights the exquisite melody with overlapping instrumental parts that seems to suggest technicolor vistas as it plays.

So when The Ray-O-Vacs came along and played up the slinkiness of Bésame Mucho with its ambient saxophone and Lester Harris’s slightly lecherous delivery it seemed to transform the song from a romantic wish to a more devious proposition and that in turn is what made it so good, especially in an era that usually discouraged such thoughts.

But more importantly for their long term reputation it’s also what made this their best attempt at embodying the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll that sometimes eluded them.


It’s You I Adore
Because The Ray-O-Vacs version was so unlike any other record at the time, certainly in rock circles, it couldn’t help but get noticed and yet because it came out on a major label and was a familiar title that had a long history of appealing to middle of the road listeners you’re not really sure who specifically was responsible for its sales.

But while pop audiences may have aided in its initial popularity there’s little doubt as to who picked up on the somewhat menacing aura of their version of Bésame Mucho based on where its influence spread down the road.

Between 1958 when Richard Berry cut a sultry yearning version and 1962 when Jet Harris delivered a particularly ominous take on it, the song became ripe for re-invention within rock and both The Flamingos and The Coasters turned in defining performances of the song in 1960.

Though all of them improved upon this template it’s clearly The Ray-O-Vacs take on the song that they were drawn to initially making this a much more influential record than even its sales at the time would suggest. While the group would be largely forgotten over the course of the rest of their sometimes compromised output, this one novel experiment would ensure they’d live on in one form or another long after the effects of the initial kiss wore off.


(Visit the Artist page of The Ray-O-Vacs for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)