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DECCA 48181; NOVEMBER 1950



Major labels like Decca Records had been lukewarm to rock’s potential from the beginning, allowing only a few older established artists who fit in with the new genre stylistically to head in that direction, probably without even being fully aware of what it was they were doing, but for the most part they hadn’t tried to seek out new artists to compete in this realm, considering it to be beneath contempt.

But booming sales proved hard to resist and now that they perceived it as a threat to their market dominance they started to seek out more “acceptable” artists to produce milder versions of the prevailing rock trends, hoping to remove the stigma the music carried with it in their elite circles while still expecting to get hits from this compromised output.

It was a hard sell but somehow Decca had managed to do just that with The Ray-O-Vacs this past spring and now, coming off their first hit for the company, the question was would that success embolden the group enough to head further down this path, or would it cause them to capitulate to Decca’s prevailing mindset and ease back on their efforts in an attempt to conform to the pop sensibilities the company desired.

The answer as it turns out is… kinda… neither?


No One Else Will Use Them
It was a thin line all of these quasi-rock artists had to walk when they signed with a major label. On the plus side they probably got paid what their contract called for unlike the indie labels who tended to write contracts in invisible ink, and of course the major labels afforded their artists better promotion which helped in terms of bookings in classier joints if nothing else.

The trade-off for this however was they risked alienating their primary constituency the more they adhered to the musical standards labels like Decca prided themselves on, making them less popular even while remaining more visible.

The Ray-O-Vacs may have had one thing going for them in that they were hardly pushing the limits with their stylistic approach even when they’d been recording for Coleman Records. They had a curious mix of soulfulness and stuffiness that theoretically could appeal to either – or both – audiences, pop and rock, but just as likely might’ve been rejected by both of them for leaning too far in one direction or the other for that audience’s tastes.

Got Two Arms (Waiting For Me) is definitely guilty of this in many ways, as it’s far too mysterious sounding for most pop listeners, yet is hardly edgy enough for rock fans to embrace wholeheartedly.

But for once these divergent views aren’t in conflict, but rather create an unusual and highly distinctive ambiance that allows it to almost exist in its own world, hinting at residency in both realms yet belonging exclusively to neither of them.

Waiting For Me
It’s a fair bet that had their initial record – I’ll Always Be In Love With You – not been so warmly received by rock audiences and spawned a simultaneous cover version by a make-shift group called The X-Rays which also charted, The Ray-O-Vacs might’ve never been afforded membership in the rock ‘n’ roll club.

But genuine hits for rockers, especially in late 1948, still was enough to put you in somewhat rarefied air and there was no way that they weren’t going to be let in the door even when their subsequent releases proved their natural instincts were far away from rock’s core values.

When they made the jump to Decca Records earlier this year the chances they’d become even more aligned with pop sensibilities was all but certain, yet instead they continued down the same path they’d been on, blending elements from each while adding a few distinguishing characteristics of their own that set them apart from anybody and everybody in either camp.

That slinky feel provided by the prominent bass and foggy saxophone along with Lester Harris’s vocals that were so laid-back you felt the need to check his pulse had resulted in a sizable two-sided hit for them with Besame Mucho being a legitimately good record in every way.

So it’s hardly surprising they’d take the same approach on Got Two Arms (Waiting For Me) and while the composition itself isn’t in the league with what Consuelo Velázquez gave the world, it’s got a very quirky vibe it’s giving off all the same.

Once More…
In many ways this song is almost a prequel to 1956’s immortal Richard Berry tune Louie Louie. In that tale Berry was on his way back from a long job out at sea and in his last stop before arriving home he confided to a bartender named Louie about misjudging the effect of spending so long away from his girl.

By contrast Harris’s character in Got Two Arms is just packing his bags for a similar trip and is trying to reassure somebody – maybe another bartender, maybe just himself – that he’s got nothing to worry about when it comes to his relationship while he’s gone.

But in spite of his outward demeanor there’s hints of concern in his mellow tones as he tries to put the thoughts of what she’ll do while he’s away out of his mind, assertively declaring that nobody will be held in his lady’s arms until he’s returned to her.

It’s a nice thought maybe but it doesn’t seem as if he’s convinced his band mates that this is going to pan out quite the way he hopes. In fact, it almost sounds like one or more of them are going to be moving in on her the second his ship sets sail and that of course is where your imagination starts to run wild.


Two Lips That Never Tell Lies
Though The Ray-O-Vacs have used similar arrangements throughout their career featuring a subtle, almost skeletal, backing featuring Joe Crump’s piano and Chink Kinney’s hazy sax lines as the primary accompaniment, the way they emphasize the lurking cryptic atmosphere on this brings an entirely new element to the record.

It’s fairly easy to discern that Harris’s confident statements are designed to act as something of a shield against his lingering doubts, but that’s something the listeners could let pass without notice in most circumstances. But not here.

Definitely not here.

The ominous feel the others contribute make Harris’s underlying concerns all the more real – to him and to us – giving Got Two Arms a sense that this story is heading for a much darker place.

That we don’t get to actually SEE that happen ourselves is a let down, the record ends with Harris still projecting that confident front in spite of his nagging reservations, but if we give equal credence to his partners who inject their own wordless commentary on his planned sojourn with their funereal musical touches, then this becomes more like a slow walk to the gallows for Harris. It sounds as if they’re bidding him a final goodbye rather than telling him they’ll see him when he gets back.

It’s that dichotomy that makes this work as well as it does. Kinney in particular gives the impression that he’s the fox in the hen house just waiting for Harris to set sail so that he can take his shot at the girl being left behind. The tension this creates and the way it all keeps you off balance turns what, on paper at least, had every indication of being a mild boast, barely pretentious enough to rankle even the most sensitive listener, into something far more insidious.

It might be hard to firmly categorize but it’s fairly impressive no matter where you feel it fits best.

Just Like A Leaf Caught In The Breeze
That last part of course is the problem with these kinds of records… and these kinds of artists on these types of labels… as they try straddling stylistic divides that make for relatively uneasy assessment of their merits.

It’d be unfair to call Got Two Arms (Waiting For Me) a great rock record, for it’s hardly laying into any of the accepted motifs rock was featuring in 1950. Yet it’d be equally unfair to penalize it too much for failing to live up to rock’s more aggressive and emotionally unbridled spirit, especially since it avoids the traditional pop music approach as well.

That leaves it in no man’s land more or less and in cases like that it’s hard not to accept it at face value without trying to get it to fully conform to something more recognizable.

So while this might be little more than an historical curiosity, you’ll be rewarded for giving in to that curiosity and maybe throw in your two cents as to whether or not this unnamed girl stuck around for Lester Harris’s boat to come in… or if she’s free for you to hit up next Saturday night.


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