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In life we all know somebody who has an annoying habit that’s not quite enough to cause you to drop them from your circle of friends, but whose repeated failings in this one area causes you no small amount of frustration over time.

You can subtly hint at it or you can go so far as to have a sit-down with them and tell them it’s becoming too much to bear, but it’s not going to help. They might make excuses, try to explain, or they may even claim ignorance about the problem – whether they’re always late or never reciprocate an offer or if they borrow things and never give them back – but they won’t change, in spite of their own best intentions.

We are who we are and the more you accept that, the more likely you are to not let it affect your own well-being.

…At least that’s what we tell ourselves when facing such intractable people as… I dunno… The Ray-O-Vacs who continue to plague us with their consistent shortcomings time after time.


My Heart Never Will Thrill
If history remembers them at all it should be for the fact that The Ray-O-Vacs were rock’s first real self-contained group – vocals and instruments – who were billed as such on their labels, rather than a “so and so AND the (fill in the blank)”.

That’s hardly a big deal now, but at the time it was unique and since they could also write songs it theoretically gave them more of a say in the direction of their music than those artists who let the companies dictate their every release and arrangement. Which is why you wish they would’ve shown as much foresight in their musical choices… unless you believe that bucking the prevailing rock trends was in fact showing their independent thinking.

Oh, make no mistake about it, that’s exactly why Decca Records wanted the act to begin with… to them the group represented a “safe” gamble on rock ‘n’ roll, seeing as how they had a legitimate hit to their name but were older with a desire not to rock the boat too much and lose their existing adult-club audience which gave them a way to withstand the market fluctuation that beset all artists.

Yet in time their sales diminished to the point where they were no longer deemed a smart investment and with their long-time lead singer, Lester Harris, departing the group for a solo career on RCA, the company cut their losses and didn’t renew their contract when it came up, even as The Ray-O-Vacs found a new singer in Herb Miliner with the same parched vocal chords as his predecessor.

As a result they’ve landed at Jubilee Records, hardly the most forward-looking experimental independent label to begin with, and so it was a safe bet their trademarked sound would carry on uninterrupted to the satisfaction of no one, least of all rock fans who are growing weary of their half-hearted efforts.

So for them to now ask us to Start Lovin’ Me when we know that they aren’t likely to update their approach in the least, it raises the question of why on earth would we reconsider our opinion of them?

We wouldn’t… shouldn’t… couldn’t, not if we wanted to maintain our own credibility.

There’s Only One Thing I Want You To Do…
They’re on a new label, but as this starts up we hear they’ve brought with them the same old sound, showing that the stodgy mindsets of Decca Records was not entirely to blame for their decidedly dusty sound.

But let’s give credit where it’s due as the song itself – co-written by bassist Flap McQueen – is lyrically pretty strong, even if it suffers from the same lethargic delivery, both in Milinder’s vocals and the wheezy sax and parched dry rhythm section we’ve become accustomed to all these years.

Though the theme of Start Lovin’ Me is pretty standard, just another guy pining over a girl, his rhyme schemes are inventive and he’s coming up with more evocative images than we usually see in these kinds of songs. Had it been sung with more passion by someone with a more flexible voice it might’ve been really good. Obviously Clyde McPhatter is the gold standard along those lines, but you’d love to see someone constantly beset with substandard material like Sonny Til (now conveniently on the same label too!) get a crack at it… provided of course it got a better arrangement than this starts off with.

That’s what is so maddening about The Ray-O-Vacs, their overreliance on the same sleepy accompaniment on each and every song. But maybe lulling us into a sense of complacency was their aim all along because that’s what enables them to provide us with the shock of a lifetime when the sax break stops us in our tracks with the first notes blasting away like machine gun fire at unsuspecting sightseers.

Even when Chink Kinney eases off on the forcefulness, he never relents on the thick beefy tone or the lusty way in which he delivers this, the result of which makes this the most rocking they’ve allowed themselves to sound in ages… oh hell, I come right out and say it, the most rocking they’ve ever sounded, even if that lasts all of thirty seconds.

That’s not going to be quite enough to convince us they’ve turned the corner in their careers, not at this late stage and especially on a label that has a tendency to rein in even their more natural rock acts, but their rather forceful demand to Start Lovin’ Me is certainly a great sign just to see they have it in them just as we were about to call a doctor in to check to see if they had a pulse! When Herb Milinder starts crying out with emotion in the fade you want the doctor to stick around and check on the health of YOUR heart.

It can’t quite live up to their career peaks, for one thing in the context of this era it’s got much stiffer competition than their two more well-known records had to face, but it’s their best original song yet and certainly their best instrumental turn and in a vacuum when comparing each Ray-O-Vacs song against the others without making adjustments for era, it might just be the most satisfying one to listen to as well.


What I Am For, You Can Not Ignore
Naturally the question has to be… what prompted this unexpected show of life?

Was it because it was their first effort for their new employers and they wanted to give them something more exhilarating? That may seem sensible on the surface, but it’s hard to think Jerry Blaine was signing them to be MORE energetic when he’s been slipping valium in the water that his more authentic rock acts drink before every session for years now.

Were they starting to see a lack of response in their club gigs and thought this might bring more excitement to their shows? Well, it undoubtedly would, but they could just stick the same sax solo into any song in their repertoire since they all used the same basic arrangement, pace and sonic textures anyway, they wouldn’t have to create a new song just to debut this feature.

So what is it then? Well, I don’t want to speak for them, but it’s not hard to see that even their scant chart action has dried up and everywhere they look other acts are scoring with more vibrant performances than they’ve ever given us. Maybe they figured now that they weren’t on Decca, a company that would surely recoil at such sounds, the time was right to tweak that formula just a little. If Start Lovin’ Me met with a more favorable response that’d be a sign to take things a little further next time. They still would never catch up to the leaders in the field, but at least they wouldn’t be lapped again while going around the racetrack like they were taking a leisurely stroll in the park.

The problem with making such a change now though is there’s hardly any rock fan who was going to even notice The Ray-O-Vacs had a new record out when the group hadn’t given them any reason to think they were capable of such things for the past four years. Even if you took a chance with this on a jukebox, you’d be apt to walk out on it with two and a half cents of your investment still to come because it starts off with the same aural drudgery as most of their sides, even if the song as written was a lot better.

But if you did step outside for a breath of fresh air in the middle of it and your buddy suddenly raced out a minute later as if his hair was on fire to tell you in shocked disbelief what you missed you’d naturally think he was playing a prank on you… at least until he volunteered his OWN nickel for you to hear it all the way through.

In the end, we’ll do them one better than that and give them an extra penny on top of it for their efforts and hope OUR re-investment in them pays off.


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