No tags :(

Share it




On the top side of our last record we reviewed The X-Rays I’ll Always Be In Love With You, a big hit heading into the new year for a group that had been practically formed on the spot in the studio by Savoy Records, comprised of a lone singer with a bunch of instrumental mercenaries playing behind him.

Today we look at who they stole the record from… a group named after a brand of battery of all things that both sang and played the instruments themselves and would endure for years called The Ray-O-Vacs.

Déjà vu
Though the record business was churning out what passes for art it was always doing so for business, not artistic, reasons and as such their goal was to get hits, make money and stay solvent. Savoy’s owner Herman Lubinsky epitomized this approach as well as anybody.

He’s gone down in history as the stereotypical cigar-chomping cheapskate with no love or knowledge of music who nevertheless ran an important independent label which had a lot of hits and a lot of influence across the musical spectrum. While his type of attitude generally makes for less than glowing testimonials in later years there’s nothing particularly wrong with that relentless focus on the bottom-line… within limits (limits he always broke, but that’s another story for another time).

So it should’ve come as no surprise that when Lubinsky somehow got to hear The Ray-O-Vacs version of I’ll Always Be In Love With You cut for small Coleman Records, a fellow Newark, New Jersey based label started by gospel singers, he promptly rushed into the studio with an ad hoc group featuring hot as can be at the time Hal Singer on saxophone and cut a hasty – but effective – version to compete with it.

Nothing underhanded or unethical there at all, especially in 1948 when this type of practice of covering a potentially hot record with a variety of artists was commonplace across ALL musical styles. Bing Crosby, the most successful and respected name in pop, never let a record that sold 50 copies in Des Moines, Detroit or Dubuque go by without laying his own version down and cutting into the original’s potential sales.

The difference here was that Coleman Records, through its own lethargic impetus, was slow to release The Ray-O-Vacs original take on it and so The X-Rays got to market first and once it did they took that head start and ran with it, scoring the bigger hit. That’s not Lubinsky’s fault at all. If anything shame on Coleman for not being quicker on the draw.

In truth though could it really be called stealing when the song itself was twenty years old already and had been recorded by dozens of people during that time.

So what we’re left with are two records of the same arrangement of the same song released one after the other (Coleman rushed theirs out to avoid being caught with their pants completely down, both labels touting theirs as the original in the process) and may the better version win.

More Bliss In Someone Else’s Kiss
To start with it kicks off in more of a mellow haze than The X-Rays version, which had made sure to emphasize Hal Singer’s saxophone, the biggest star they had on their roster at the time and one of the leaders of the tenor sax movement that had swept the country throughout 1948, giving their intro an immediate rock feel that The Ray-O-Vacs simply can’t measure up to.

Yet that’s not to suggest what The Ray-O-Vacs do instead isn’t worthy in its own right. The atmosphere this version gives off, with the bass standing out nicely and a warm smoky sax – far less attention grabbing than Singer’s though it may be – adds a remorseful melancholia to the record. I guess if you just isolated the lead-ins without any knowledge of what was to follow and forced me to choose I’d go with The X-Rays but it wouldn’t be an easy choice at any rate.

Once the vocals come in though the choice becomes much easier and here’s where The Ray-O-Vacs take control of the song.

Harry Lester may not have been a dynamic singer by any measure but he shows right away that he’s got a good grasp on the material when it comes to matching the lyrics with an appropriate interpretation. His tone is warmly inviting, coming across as sincere, humble and hopeful, the three qualities whoever sings I’ll Always Be In Love With You needs to project to make the song work.

His one slight misstep comes in the bridge where he injects a few too many pauses, surely designed to add a measure of drama and anticipation to the reading, but which don’t really fit and makes it sound a bit awkward and clumsy, not to mention taking away from the best attribute of the song itself as written which is the alluring melody that even the worst versions in the past kept at the forefront as their one redeeming feature.

But that’s a minor quibble, the rest of the time he’s spot on, soulful and yet still approachable. It’s a modest performance for sure, there’s no look-at-me moments he employs and one can even imagine him singing this with his eyes downcast on stage, avoiding making emotional contact with the audience. Yet that works as well because of the message he’s imparting.

If You Should Stray
The focus of the song is that of a man reminiscing long after his heart’s been broken and he’s left alone. Chances are he’s singing this to himself, almost like composing a letter he’ll never actually send to the girl who’s found someone new, and that makes his remorseful tone all the more effective. You feel for him in his plight which isn’t always easy when a guy is acting so dejected rather than going back out and grabbing himself a new gal to ease his pain.

The instrumental backing fits within this context fine, keeping the mood of I’ll Always Be In Love With You rooted in a wistfulness that adds to the atmosphere. It can’t help but pale in comparison to The X-Rays more spry version, which shouldn’t be surprising since The X-Rays were merely a name slapped on to a bunch of hot-shot session musicians who were there specifically to heat up the wax with their playing.

The Ray-O-Vacs, while solid musicians, weren’t in that league. Lester played drums in addition to singing, Flap McQueen was their bassist, Joe Crump played piano and Chink Kinney had the unenviable task of trying to measure up to Singer on the saxophone, which was a mismatch.

But because they cut theirs first the group takes their own approach rather than imitate another’s ideas and in that sense Kinney’s efforts are perfectly suitable within the framework they’ve chosen. He blows a steady reflective tone that meshes well with the story and the vocal and while it doesn’t stand out like Singer’s more frantic blowing it is more appropriate for the attributes of the song and so for that reason as well as Lester’s superior vocal turn, The Ray-O-Vacs are the ones who come away with the slight overall edge on their respective records.


I Thank You For Those Tender Memories
In the future (think mid-50’s at the peak of the white cover craze of black rock songs) we’ll have plenty to say, and plenty to criticize, about the duplicitous act of ripping off a record, but the practice was commonplace in every genre of music until the backlash over it in rock – with the added cultural theft of white pop acts swiping black rock records and erasing their distinctive attributes so as not to “offend” mainstream audiences – put a quick end to it, but I’ll Always Be In Love With You shows that even amongst fellow rock acts there was no honor among thieves from the very start.

The X-Rays were rewarded for their pilfering of The Ray-O-Vacs idea on the charts, theirs peaking at #3 while this version only got as high as #8 in Billboard’s national listings, although in Cash Box it was The Ray-O-Vacs who were more successful, particularly in the Northeast and along the Canadian border, whereas The X-Rays dominated Chicago and Florida.

But in the end I’m grateful we have both of these records, not just so we can delve into the seamier practices of the record business and get an added review out of it to boot, but also because each version has its own distinct merits that can be appreciated in their own right and the more rock music we can hear and make our own choices about the better off we all are.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
The X-Rays (December, 1948)