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DECCA 48260; NOVEMBER 1951



Choose your backhanded criticism of The Ray-O-Vacs carefully…

So close and yet so far.

Two steps forward and one step back.

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

I’m sure there are more – and probably more appropriate ones – that you can come up with if you think about it for awhile, but they all essentially come down to the same thing.

The Ray-O-Vacs had unique talents they never fully exploited, choosing instead to play it safe and hope that their bland approach would offend nobody thereby allowing them to survive on consistent mild consumer interest even as those taking risks in rock ‘n’ roll were scoring big at every turn.

But in music as in life, it’s far easier to consider “not failing” to be success when you lack the confidence to succeed on your own terms from the very start.


Though You Hushed Your Lips
We’ve reached the end of the Lester Harris era of The Ray-O-Vacs. The group’s lead singer from the start, as well as its drummer, Harris’s smoky tone, unhurried delivery and the forced stifling of his emotions were trademarks of the group and apparently convinced him – and Decca Records – that he was a viable pop star with those modest qualities and so he left for a solo career that tragically ended when he passed away within the year at the age of 32.

Stepping into the breach was Herb Millner whose smoky tone, unhurried delivery and the forced stifling of his emotions were oddly familiar to those who heard The Ray-O-Vacs over the years.

Whether this meant Harris had discernible influence over the way certain music was performed, or whether the primary job requirement for fronting The Ray-O-Vacs was to sound half comatose while warbling a song isn’t certain, but the similarity between the two voices is so uncanny that you’ll have to check and re-check the session logs just to be sure Harris wasn’t still around.

Surely this was hardly an accident as The Ray-O-Vacs had carved out a tiny niche for themselves as a self-contained pop-leaning rock group who had classier nightclub appeal without having quite enough drawing power in that regard to leave their rock touches behind.

But if ever there was a chance to find out if they could, then the first single with Millner might just present them with that opportunity to move elsewhere as they chose two established songs as their material including the standard Hands Across The Table, which gave notice as to their indifference when it came to remaining viable with rock audiences.

Imagine their surprise, both the rest of the group and Decca Records, when Millner deviated ever so slightly from that trademarked tired delivery he was hired to provide and showed just a little bit of urgency, in the process dragging the record tantalizingly close to being – dare we say – soulful.

Nah, it couldn’t be. Not these guys.

Tell Me All I Want To Know
The original version of this song was sung in French which I’m assuming most of you don’t speak – or sing. Luckily the same artist, Lucienne Boyer, reprised it in English soon after and that became quite a popular tune in America in the mid-1930’s.

Seeing as how we’re in the early 1950’s with our journey through music – and a far different kind of music to boot – it’s kind of hard to explain why the original had such appeal. Boyer has one of those theatrically artificial voices, pitched high and with a flowery delivery that calls attention to the fact that English is not her first language which is evident in her pronunciation.

It’s well done in that context maybe, but we’re going to tend to see it as almost a put-on, a record making fun of the very type of artist and song that’s being featured.

What’s not evident in her version however is why exactly the composition itself would draw so many interpretations of it over the years. The story is trite – Hands Across The Table being a sign that you are close to people – and the melody is kind of lurching and stilted. There’s no natural flow to it aside from the title line and even that is hardly very noteworthy.

In other words, it’s EXACTLY the kind of drab mundane song that was right up The Ray-O-Vacs alley!

Herb Millner’s voice, as stated, is aiming to conjure up that of his predecessor Harry Lester which may be wise if you want to fool the group’s dwindling fan base, but is hardly an admirable goal if you want to attract new fans. He’s got a stuffy tone and is a little lethargic sounding for much of this, but there are times – just enough of them to make a difference – when he digs a little deeper and shows genuine emotion, raising his voice with what is approaching passion and closing it out with something vaugely resembling soulfulness.

Granted it’s a low bar for this group, but while everything else about the record is standard issue for them – from the languid sax and the faint herky-jerky piano to the halting pace they seem resigned to repeating each time out – those moments where Millner lets himself go just a little gives some indication that, had they really wanted, they might’ve succeeded in establishing a slightly new image for themselves to take advantage of their new lead singer.

Naturally they did no such thing.


While The Lights Were Low
Success, even marginal success that was dwindling as we speak, is something few artists or labels were willing to trade in for something new and unproven. Yet the belief that because something in one style sold well once upon a time it will continue to be your best bet for future sales is creatively limiting and commercially self-defeating.

Would The Ray-O-Vacs have had a better career had they stretched out with grittier leads, riskier material and an updated image? Maybe marginally, though they were never going to compete with the likes of The Dominoes even if they did shake things up, but by sticking to their guns they were sure to be found lying face down in the street riddled with bullets as the more unrestrained brand of rock took over.

But narrowing our focus a little, would Hands Across The Table have benefited from accentuating the mild improvements Millner exhibited? Of course. That’s all that allows this to draw even a modicum of interest but without pushing things even further the writing was on the wall for The Ray-O-Vacs no matter who was behind the microphone.

The world they knew was one that was increasingly less viable, especially on record. Their work wasn’t going to attract any interest from the rock fan coming of age now, just their older siblings with whom they retained some faint name recognition, and while their club dates designed to appeal to even older clientele would keep them working it’d wind up being for less and less money without the requisite hits to back it up.

It’s inevitable that most artists, the cutting edge ones as well as the more routine performers, will face a similar crossroads at some point when even their far more groundbreaking past than these guys ever had no longer holds sway in a present that had long since absorbed those lessons.

The difference however is that The Ray-O-Vacs, by virtue of their conservative outlook from the very start, didn’t waste much time in the thriving part of their career and instead took a shortcut to the point where they descend into irrelevance.


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