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DECCA 48141; MARCH 1950

 
 

 

I guess when it comes to the aspirations of major labels you can’t expect any less, but it’s interesting nevertheless that on the top side of this single, a cover record of a major pop hit, The Ray-O-Vacs managed to distance themselves just enough from those staid musical trappings to breathe some life into the song with a more soulful flavor, yet on this side, one without the same onerous baggage attached, they wind up sounding more reined in than many pop acts.

All of which goes to show that when it comes to stifling true expression in music to adhere to the sensibilities of the ruling class there’s nothing that can’t be easily homogenized for mainstream consumption.
 

 

You Changed Your Mind About Me
Even at their best The Ray-O-Vacs were never going to be mistaken for a more cutting edge rock act. Though rare in the fact they were a self-contained unit that sang and played instruments, they didn’t stand out in either realm, but rather were merely competent and well-meaning in their efforts.

Vocalist (and drummer) Lester Harris couldn’t hope to compete with Jimmy Ricks, Roy Brown or Sonny Til and had to be content to let his natural ragged tone convey as much pathos as the song would allow.

The others, who didn’t sing harmony behind him, though down the road would take a few leads, were hardly stellar musicians, but they weren’t asked to be. Of them only Chink Kinney on tenor sax was particularly prominent in the mix and he was efficient, though hardly flashy, lending an often languid vibe to their string of mid-tempo recordings with relatively mild storylines that weren’t designed to ruffle any feathers with their content.

So since Once Upon A Time fits the bill in all of those areas you’d think it’d be something they could pull off with relative ease.

But then again, if none of those elements are designed to be all that captivating on their own then it doesn’t take much for the entire production to fall short if they make one false move and with a song this weak and ineffectual that probably won’t take long to do.
 

Still I Think You’re Divine… (Actually I Think The Word Is Supine)
The opening sax has you hoping they might somehow beat the odds and come away with something at least tolerable in the end, as Kinney blows a stuttering line while Joe Crump’s piano fills in the blanks without resorting to anything too classy. Clearly the song isn’t going to be very challenging with this sort of lazy melody but it’s got a fair amount of charm.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the lyrics which turn this easy-going tune into a lesson in romantic servitude as Harry Lester comes along and delivers a sad-sack vocal about missing a girl who used to love him but apparently dumped him because… well, because he was such a wuss that he’d sing a song like this after a break-up.

Lester sounds absolutely pathetic as Once Upon A Time kicks off, his voice close to cracking as he chokes back tears. While you might argue that it’s merely an acting job done to impart just how broken up he is, the problem we’re faced with is We. Don’t. Care.

At all!

We’re expected to comfort a total stranger who’s been crying in public without any set-up. If you saw someone approach you looking the way he sounds you’d avoid all eye contact, duck into a store or hop on a bus headed in the opposite direction, you sure wouldn’t stop and ask what the matter is.

But he tells us anyway… which only makes it worse.

It seems this nameless girl was daft enough to give him a peck on the cheek once upon a time and tell him they’d never part (I’m guessing this was a pity move but I don’t want to pile on him too much because he’s clearly got other problems). He informs us she quickly changed her mind – gee, I wonder why? – and now he’s distraught.

Making this sob story even worse is the fact he’s given up hope of getting her back and is resigned to being alone and is torturing himself with the idea of someone else being with his beloved… who surely will be telling her new beau about her last sweetheart who wept uncontrollably whenever she left the room for a minute.

By this point it’s safe to say this song possesses absolutely none of the attitude rock ‘n’ roll thrived on which is a pretty big hurdle to overcome, yet as it goes on they manage to right the ship just enough to wonder what they might’ve done with better material.
 


 

Someone Else I Guess Will Find The Happiness
Though we can hardly criticize Lester’s mawkish opening enough, once he gets his feet under him there are moments when he actually shows what made him a decent – though by no means exceptional – vocalist who was adept at winning you over through dogged determination.

His voice strengthens by the second stanza, the phlegmy attributes he exhibited early on clearing out, and by the time he hits the chorus he’s fully under control and even modestly impressive the way in which he rises and falls at the end of the title line. It’s still nothing to write home about, but based on his delivery as we head into the second half of the record you’d certainly tolerate the morose plot just to hear how he might pull this off.

It doesn’t improve from there sadly, but nor does it revert back to the cringe-worthy performance he started with. He’s still far too passive a character to draw any sympathy but at least we’re no longer hoping he cracks up and ends up in a booby hatch somewhere for our perverse amusement.

As for the musical side of the equation we have much the same shifting reaction. Once Upon A Time started off with an overly simple, even cloying, melody but as Harris got more acclimated to the song, the foundation proved a little bit stronger than it did at first glance.

Much of this is thanks to Kinney’s understated saxophone work which never lets the arrangement sink into irrelevancy, providing just enough warm reassurance to get you to believe something will redeem things even more.

That redemption comes with the solo – typically low-key – but which is the best part of the record. It’s slow and seductive in a way the lyrical content of the song doesn’t really deserve, but which will get no complaints out of us for being slightly incongruous to the theme because his soft yet husky tone sounds so inviting. Kinney manages to elevate this a full point on his own and keep it from being utterly forgettable.
 

Vowed That We’d Never Part
If through luck and slight of hand this record somehow avoids the ignominious fate of being slapped with a big red number indicating total worthlessness, it also doesn’t come close to doing enough to justify holding out much hope that The Ray-O-Vacs might rebound significantly and figure a way to be a consistent niche taste on the more accessible end of the rock spectrum.

Let’s face it, now that they were recording for a major label who viewed mild pop as a legitimate form of artistic expressions chances are they’ll veer further in that unfortunate direction and wind up making you wonder why Once Upon A Time you held them in higher regard.

But since all forms of music need recognizable artists to patrol the boundaries on the outer edges of the genre then The Ray-O-Vacs are as good a choice for that role as anyone. They may never excite you, but they’ll rarely offend you completely.

You’ll know what to expect from them in other words and have to remain content with what little they give you rather than the promise of something bigger you once hoped for out of them.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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