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DECCA 48221; JULY 1951



For much of their time on the scene The Ray-O-Vacs have frankly been… well, kinda boring.

Oh, they’ve had a few nice records along the way, but when they all take on the same sparse lethargic sound to match the downbeat perspectives you can hardly get very excited about seeing their next record popping up.

But this one is a little different… not so much in the performance itself unfortunately, but rather the source of the material and the influence it had on a growing region just starting to pick up on rock ‘n’ roll.

Maybe for those who prefer something a little more rousing the record will still be seen as being a little boring, but for once the story surrounding it is at least a little more interesting.


Gone Away From Me
Admittedly what’s so unusual about this might not be apparent listening to The Ray-O-Vacs version, but it’s where this song came from that makes it a rather unusual selection for a pop-leaning rock act on a major label with absolutely no interest in – and perhaps no awareness of – the blues.

Now to be fair once upon a time Decca did have some blues credibility as back in the 1930’s they’d been the label of Kokomo Arnold, Roosevelt Sykes, Cow Cow Davenport, Trixie Smith and Peetie Wheatstraw among others, but as the 1940’s progressed they completely shed pure blues in favor of a more refined uptown style of Jay McShann, the big-band derived Buddy Johnson outfit and the gospel-blues of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Their biggest star was Louis Jordan who came from a jazz background and got them enormous crossover hits as well as dominating the black charts and so that became their primary goal as they looked for more of the same, which is in part how they came to sign The Ray-O-Vacs, a group with rock credentials who weren’t exactly fully committed to it.

By 1951 the electric blues that was growing in popularity was alien to the company which is why it’s surprising that they’d hop on board with a cover of B.B. King’s My Baby’s Gone which was released in March on the RPM label and made no real ripples in the market. In fact, King was still waiting for his first national hit – which would come at the very end of this year – though at least he’d stirred some regional interest by the time The Ray-O-Vacs cover was released.

The reason why this song was picked up though wasn’t because of its blues credentials at all, but rather it was because King was toying with a rhumba style which had some verifiable mainstream appeal that appealed to Decca. His was a sparse record – great drumming, some piano and a sax solo, but no guitar until the first break – with King singing uncharacteristically soft, not helped by Sam Phillips’ shaky mix and it was just a B-side anyway.

Two years later he’d retool the song under the title Woke Up This Morning, taken from this song’s first line, and have a huge hit with it. That one has a much more forceful vocal, his trademark guitar prominent in the arrangement and shifts from the rhumba beat during the verses to become a blaring horn drenched stomper during the chorus with Bill Harvey’s sax in out front of a bank of horns. A better record, at least a more commercial one, but arguably a less effective performance, certainly less charming anyway.

Which brings us back to The Ray-O-Vacs looking for something adaptable for their low key style for which this seemed to fit the bill, but as was their habit, their adaption from the original concept went too far until it became all but indistinguishable from their usual output.


Ain’t Got Nobody
Our most frequent complaint about ANY artist is being musically repetitive… the unfortunate condition where no record strays far from the basic template they’ve already established.

The Ray-O-Vacs may not have been the only ones guilty of this but they’re surely the most egregious in their monotony as the group basically just establishes a smoky club vibe every time out with Joe Crump’s piano tinkling away in the corner like a drunk who can’t find the men’s room and saxophonist Chink Kinney plays with a sandpapery texture on every song, while Lester Harris sings in a way that teeters between lethargic and disinterested. Though competently done, the routine has a tendency to wear thin the more you hear it.

My Baby’s Gone at least gives them a chance to add different elements to their increasingly tired formula if they so choose. But the problem is they can’t quite make up their mind whether to take advantage of that opportunity.

The biggest change is giving Lester Harris more to do on the drums than just use faint brushes as it’s his job to deliver the rhumba beat. But while he is more active here he doesn’t really lay into it the way he should, the quirkiness of the rhythm is missing, robbing the song of a crucial atmospheric touch.

Meanwhile Kinney’s sax playing an unnecessary repetitive five note riff behind Harris’s vocals which is far too distracting even though it’s about the only thing providing a scant melodic thread. B.B.’s version eschewed the sax during the verses altogether, giving the piano the job of filling in the cracks which in turn allowed the drumming to be more prominent while ensuring the arrangement had more room to breathe. But The Ray-O-Vacs aren’t musically astute enough to deviate from their usual approach and feel that Kinney has to contribute something here like he always does and it promptly ruins the vibe the song needs to be distinctive.

But it’s not all the arrangement’s fault, it’s also Harris’s weary vocals which are getting tiresome on every tune they do. He’s got nowhere near as pliable a voice as King does but he needs to try something new besides wheezing like an asthmatic after taking too much Nembutal. The emotions the lyrics tell us he’s feeling are completely absent here, he sounds less like a man worried about losing his girl and more like a guy brushing off his girlfriend’s request to take out the trash with another, “Yeah, inna minute”, while not budging from the couch.


What’s Gonna Happen To Me?
It’s not ALL bad though, the song itself is still decent even if they strip it of its most unique characteristics, and Kinney’s sax solo gives him room to stretch out. Of course it’d work better had his two solos been the only times we heard from him. Truthfully the first time around he’s still playing in too detached a manner, and while the second solo is marginally better it’s still lacking anything truly gripping and provides yet another example of how timid they were in trying something new.

After a dozen sides or so I think it’s safe to say that they suffer from a complete lack of confidence about their ability to draw in new listeners and so they just keep churning out the same thing that brought them their original audience. This was a song that should’ve been their test case to break out of that mold, instead they forced a unique song to fit into the same old box, much to its detriment.

Yet in spite of these shortcomings their version of My Baby’s Gone DID find a receptive audience, albeit not in the United States.

Jamaica was beginning to pick up on American rock thanks to their sound system culture and this record, not the far better King original, was picked up on there, something which might be due to Decca having a bigger presence on the island (as evidenced by the Jamaican pressings of the record) than a West Coast independent label.

In any event, this was a record that was played a lot in that environment so if nothing else it helped bridge the cultural divide, though whatever musical inspiration they took from it when they began to play ska, their own version of rock, is pretty negligible.

Yet in the end, though the evolution of the song from American blues to quasi-rock to Jamaican roots music is fascinating, the weak link in that progression is unquestionably The Ray-O-Vacs rendition.

Their unwillingness to ever break from their dependency on a single idea has made them increasingly irrelevant as rock moves forward. What once provided an unusual diversion from the more raucous sounds of the day, now has become merely tedious.


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