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DECCA 48141; MARCH 1950

 
 

 

In a different era it is plainly obvious that The Ray-O-Vacs would not have been welcome as part of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution – nor would they themselves have likely bothered to ask to join the party.

But when they appeared on the scene in late 1948 they not only were welcomed into the fold, but for a brief time they took a seat at the head of the table.

Now, a year and a half later, when so much of rock had sped past them both in terms of musical content and when it came to achieving broader acceptance, it seemed like they could be asked to give up that seat to someone more deserving at any minute.

Yet even while they’ve increasingly fallen further behind the curve as rock continues to progress at a rapid pace there was still a vital role for them to play that can’t be undersold.
 

 

I Want To Be Where You Are
It’s safe to say that The Ray-O-Vacs never intended to be rockers and were only included due to circumstance… a new group (on record anyway) with a hit debut consisting of an old song sung in a newer more soulful style that seemed to fit in with what other groups, such as The Ravens and Orioles, had recently done.

That they were far apart from either of those two outfits, starting with the fact that The Ray-O-Vacs never sang as a unit, though each member would take leads over the years, didn’t seem to matter. Rock music had gotten a foothold in the black community by the dawn of 1949 when their record began its climb and naturally the similarities to what had preceded it in that realm were emphasized rather than downplayed in people’s mind and so they squeezed in, uncomfortably maybe, but counted all the same.

That their subsequent records after that initial smash, I’ll Always Be In Love With You, failed to match it in both sales and aesthetic qualities meant that their moment in the sun was probably destined to be rather brief.

But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevancy… major label Decca, unable to deny the growing appeal of this music they considered beneath them, decided to jump on board in a half-hearted way and find an act that was plausibly legitimate as rockers, yet still far more acceptable than most of the rabble-rousers in the field.

The Ray-O-Vacs fit the bill. Slightly older experienced club performers who tended to prefer mellower ballads to uptempo ravers, Decca signed the group in December 1949 and then tried to find a way to straddle the fence with them between rock authenticity and pop acceptability.

That’s not an enviable task to have to carry out, yet for a couple of years they came pretty close in accomplishing just that.
 

No One Else Will Do…???
By any measure the top vocal group of 1950 wasn’t a rock outfit, but rather a straight pop group, The Ames Brothers, who back in the winter hit big with a huge version of the novelty Rag Mop, the flip side of which was a more traditional harmony song Sentimental Me, which would nearly match that on the charts come spring, hitting #3.

The first word in its title described the sound of the record itself perfectly. It was a stately ballad tinged with nostalgia thanks to the roller-rink organ that conjured up the image of distant summer nights and is told from a passive male perspective wherein romantic timidity, if not outright impotence, let one and all know nothing untoward is bound to happen between them and the girl they’re singing about.

Naturally that’s just the type of dippy sex-less love song that was ripe to be covered in the straitlaced days of 1950 and so pop acts from every company lined up to take a whack at it – Ray Anthony on Capitol, Steve Gibson on Mercury, while Steve Conway had the British release on the UK’s Columbia imprint. Al Morgan’s cover of it on Decca was the second biggest version, but the company decided to double down on their chances of scoring a hit with the song by also making it their first release by The Ray-O-Vacs and thereby target a different market than Morgan’s even frillier pop interpretation of it.

The surprising thing is… it actually worked. The Ray-O-Vacs Sentimental Me cracked the Cash Box regional chart for New York in early June, thereby validating the label’s approach with the group, pitting them halfway between the safe pop terrain the company was used to and a more soulful approach to stir some rock interest.

In terms of content of course the song was hardly fitting for most self-respecting rockers who wouldn’t be caught dead pining away like this and when placed against the records of their “competitors” in the rock field this sounded suspiciously like a pop act trying to convince you of their qualifications, hoping you’ll overlook the mild trappings its housed in.

Yet if you line it up against any of the pop renditions on the market at the time then it takes on a much edgier vibe, making it the only version of the record that gives voice to the underlying emotional baggage the others either glossed over or completely buried so as not to admit that any of them had actual carnal feelings for the object of their affection.

When viewed in that light The Ray-O-Vacs might just be allowed in the rock banquet again after all.
 


 

Reaching For The Moon
Two things set their take on this lightweight song apart from everybody else… the first is that the group themselves were musicians who played their own instruments, thereby affording them the opportunity to dictate the arrangement which features solid contributions from tenor saxman Chink Kinney setting a very languid hazy after-hours feel that dramatically improves the ambiance it exists on.

The other attribute they possess to give Sentimental Me much much needed gravitas was lead vocalist Lester Harris’s slightly weather-beaten tone which implied he’d been up the last three nights drinking far too much while anguishing over his hoped-for love.

The odd thing about the song is the perspective… it’s clear the narrator has never gotten up the courage to tell this girl he likes her face to face and so he’s singing “to her” in the solitude of his bedroom… presumably with the windows shut and the door locked just to be safe.

But if Harris is also stowed away in his room at least he opens the window as he sees her walking down the sidewalk so she can hear him pour his heart out, giving himself a slightly better chance of actually connecting with her in some way.

He’s slightly more spry in his delivery than the pop acts, but not in a way that sounds upbeat and happy as much as just eager to unburden himself of this self-imposed torment. He strains with desire as he sings, his voice rising as he eagerly anticipates what might happen should she hear him singing about her in such a heartfelt manner and at one point squeezing the word “star” as if he might wring from it some magic that could get him what he craves.

What Harris intuitively understands that all the others failed to, is that love – even unrequited love – is meant to fill your heart with hope and joy. Whereas the others are melancholy because they know they’ll never be with this girl, Harris – while he sings at least – momentarily convinces himself they may somehow get together.

He’s so earnest in doing so that despite our own better judgement we even buy into it too.
 

Dreaming While I Live
If Lester Harris were fantasizing about this possibility alone we’d be less convinced of his chances and it’s doubtful he’d be so confident either, but the band is supporting him in this delusion and there’s strength in numbers, especially when one of them blows such soothing notes on his sax, calming Harris’s nerves and even allowing him to envision a scenario where this girl might be happy to see him approach her to ask her out.

All of the pop arrangements of Sentimental Me emphasize the dream-like qualities of the song… the organ backing the Ames Brothers, the strings and ghostly female choral singers on Russ Morgan’s take and the cheesy orchestration of Ray Anthony… and that only further removes the various singers from reality.

But The Ray-O-Vacs ground it in reality… not necessarily the kind of urgent “you better act fast” kick-in-the-ass kind of encouragement he really needs, but it’s at least nudging him towards the door.

They also give Harris his space when he needs to talk himself into overcoming his fears, as the piano and sax, with some faint drumming thrown in, mostly lay low while he pours his heart out, but when he stops to collect his thoughts that’s when Kinney steps into the breach and matches him with an aching solo that sounds – especially at the start – as if he was in just as much anguish as poor Lester is over this mysteriously unattainable girl.
 

Meant To Be
Okay, okay, I know what you’re saying, just give US her number and we’ll get an answer from her right away.

Surely most rock artists wouldn’t hesitate to knock on her door – or in Wynonie Harris’s case, knock DOWN her door – to see if she wanted to go out with them, but considering no other musical act got up the nerve to even call her up, you have to hand it to The Ray-O-Vacs for working up the courage to at least consider such a drastic move!

So in that regard what matters here is just how you choose to view Sentimental Me. As a rock record it is modestly pleasant at best, but certainly nothing to get worked up about.

However as something to show the mainstream just how stilted and unconvincing their traditional pop approaches sounded by comparison then this actually might’ve done the very thing that Decca Records hoped it would by making a pretty decent case for the added emotional resonance that rock ‘n’ roll was bringing to the table… a table that The Ray-O-Vacs were still welcome to sit at.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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