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After a surprising start to their career in which their laid back musical persona provided a nice contrast to the more raucous acts of the late 1940’s rock scene, The Ray-O-Vacs have been consistently disappointing ever since.

The reason for this isn’t because they can’t capably perform the material they have to work with, but rather they perform it in the exact same way every time and it’s neither exciting nor very interesting.

In truth they were caught between genres, too mild mannered for rock ‘n’ roll stardom, yet slightly too rhythmic to be welcomed in pop circles, making them the perenially shunned stepchild of a movement that quickly became far too unwieldy for them to keep pace in.


What’s The Good Of Loving You?
We should start of by saying this marks the end of The Ray-O-Vacs in their original incarnation. Lead singer and drummer Lester Harris will be going solo after this final release and heading into an even more poppish direction on his own while the group will continue to try and carry on without anyone noticing his absence by hiring a soundalike and not altering their arrangements in any way.

But that’s a story for another day, right now we’re here to take one last look at the Harris-led Ray-O-Vacs and ponder what went wrong. How did a group that played their own instruments and scored a hit their first time out not manage to advance beyond that initial offering?

The answer is fairly boring – much like the group itself – in that I’ll Always Be In Love With You was a standard that they were able to imbue with a slightly more modern vibe that allowed it to fit into the rock landscape as 1949 dawned.

That same song and performance a few years later would be seen as being too tied to the past and thus wouldn’t elicit the same response. In other words, they initially benefitted from good timing, but as time moved on it became a hinderance, out of step before they realized what had happened.

Of course the more they tried repeating that original formula the more they suffered which is why I Still Love You, Baby offers a glimmer of hope, finally changing up their approach just a little and showing that had they concentrated on diversifying their output from the beginning they might’ve had a much more rewarding career.

With Harris on his way out the door though it’s a case of too little too late, but at least it’s not a bad way to send him off.

I Begged You Last Night To Stay And Treat Me Right
We start off with an all too familiar sound, Chink Kinney’s wheezy huffing saxophone backed by the plucked bass of the song’s writer, Flap McQueen… basically the same intro they’ve used from the very beginning.

But what follows breaks the mold… well, maybe “breaks” is an overstatement, let’s just say “cracks” the mold in that the tempo is incrementally quicker than usual. That’s hardly a radical reinvention, but it does open the song up just enough to let Lester Harris wake from his coma.

The song as written is centered around a pretty standard theme – that of a guy distressed over a girl not reciprocating his love – but when Harris asserts himself in the bridge using a double-time delivery you’re astonished… not that it’s something we haven’t heard frequently from other rock acts, but rather that The Ray-O-Vacs were the last group who seemed likely to jump on board that already crowded bandwagon.

Though this is far from cutting edge it does make I Still Love You, Baby sound reasonably modern and when Kinney proceeds to swing a bit in the sax solo with some genuinely gritty lines, his horn echoing nicely along the way, you think that maybe, just maybe, they might bounce back and close out Harris’s tenure with – dare we say – an average rock record for its day!

But no, these are The Ray-O-Vacs we’re talking about and while this is definitely an improvement over past efforts, they can’t help but revert back to the mundane trappings they’ve made their stock in trade. The longer the record goes on the more Harris begins to sound as if he’s resigned to being let down by the girl in question, just as we’re resigned to being let down by the group in question.

Their outlook as musicians, and surely their outlooks as human beings as well, were still stuck in the past – accommodating and deferential rather than insistent and confident – and so rock ‘n’ roll, a movement they were drafted into rather than enlisted voluntarily, was never quite a comfortable fit for them.

Some things never change, even if for a few moments we can let ourselves get carried away and hope that things will somehow be different from here on in.


You Played Around So Long
We usually have no problem taking aim at misguided record company executives seeking to replicate past hits, and certainly the fact they’re on Decca Records makes this explanation all the more likely.

But it’s clear that The Ray-O-Vacs shortcomings were entirely self-inflicted as evidenced by I Still Love You, Baby, a self-penned song they could’ve shaped however they wanted and which manages to give us thirty seconds of relevance by switching up their mindset. Yet rather than give themselves over to that creative evolution and take it a little further, or even just ride that same wave all the way in to shore, they treat it like a brief out of body experience.

That we’re getting so excited over what – to any other legitimate rock act – is pretty basic stuff shows just how low our expectations are for The Ray-O-Vacs, yet they DO pull those parts off with a casual ease which makes their unwillingness to expand their horizons so frustrating.

Sometimes the best and worst thing that can happen to someone is one in the same and so it was with these guys. Their debut hit gave them a steady recording career, yet it also put a limit on what they would be willing to serve you.

Then again, had that first offering failed it’s highly doubtful they’d have started to honk and wail in an attempt to get noticed, so while we can complain about their output all we want, in their minds they succeeded because here we are seven decades later writing about it.

With the departure of their leader however, we may soon be writing them off instead.


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