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DECCA 48197; JANUARY 1951



A few reviews back the underlying topic was the danger of rock groups landing on major labels and being steered into a pop direction or having their more authentic rock efforts compromised by the label.

If The Ravens, one of the greatest rock vocal groups on the scene, found themselves hamstrung by Columbia’s attempts to make them “more respectable” despite their long track record as hit makers before they arrived on their hallowed doorstep, then what chance at maintaining some degree of artistic integrity does a group like The Ray-O-Vacs, hardly the most fully committed rock act to begin with, have on Decca Records?

Umm, well, here they’re singing a cowboy song without a hint of irony or sarcasm. Does that answer your question?


On The Ranch Where I Was Born
Though Decca Records’ motives for placing this song with The Ray-O-Vacs probably were as shallow and shortsighted as you could imagine, let it at least be said that this was a song that had traveled everywhere stylistically over the past fifteen or so years since first appearing on the scene.

Big band star Tommy Dorsey of all people was the first to make waves with it in 1935 and nobody ever confused him with a hayseed. Chances are the closest he got to a horse was if he stopped in an all-night diner out in the sticks while on tour and naively ordered a flank steak for eighty nine cents thinking he was getting a steal, after which he told his bandmates back on the bus that it was good but tasted “a little tough”.

Bing Crosby also took a whack at it, but then again he sang everything and did so with surprising conviction, although the lilt in his voice on certain passages might’ve gotten him a few glares in the bunkhouse from his fellow cowpokes.


But it was famed singing cowboy Gene Autry, with his painted on smile singing it while riding a horse, who is most widely associated with Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle and for whom it fit thematically far more than it did for the likes of Harry Torrani, a British music hall yodeler.

It’s doubtful though The Ray-O-Vacs were intimately familiar with its subject matter themselves, as there aren’t many stables to be found in the streets of Newark where they came up. As a result this is just one more curious release for a group that had no real musical home to call their own… even rock ‘n’ roll for them had been as much a matter of circumstance as it was intent.

So from that perspective you might say… why not sing about your make believe home on the range?

A Pretty Western Tune… Are We Sure About That?
The disappointing aspect of The Ray-O-Vacs music isn’t necessarily their odd stylistic fit, but rather the fact they don’t approach any song – even this one – in a different way.

Everything they do is reduced to the same simple prototype – a slow, almost sluggish pace with Lester Harris’s gritty mellow croon dragging a half measure behind the beat while Chink Kinney’s hazy saxophone creates the primary ambiance and Joe Crump’s balky piano sets the rhythmic bed.

At its best… or should we say with the right material… it could be an endearing change of pace to the often frantic world of rock ‘n’ roll and to be fair they’ve been on something of a roll since coming to Decca last year, but when the compositions were ill-suited for their skill set there was nothing about their singing or playing to distract you from the substandard material.

Whether or not Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle qualifies as substandard material is up for debate. The song seems to almost be a parody of the romantic notion of the west and the risk is that when delivered sincerely it’s a sign the artist didn’t get the gag. Then again most pop and country songs weren’t exactly known for their sense of humor… though seeing every country singer over the past seventy five years wearing a cowboy hat on stage might make you think they’re the only ones in on the joke.

But there’s no question that in a rock context this is a bad choice of songs. When Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cut a version of this a few years down the road it was done with tongue firmly in cheek, whereas The Ray-O-Vacs are playing it straight and that’s just not going to fly… not in this realm anyway.

Yet when you get beyond the foolishness of the composition itself for this group and the audience expected to buy this you still find that Harris’s vocal technique, though repetitive, is modestly endearing. He’s got trouble when tries going up the scale, but when he lays into the downward progression of the chorus it works better. Not great, but tolerable anyway.


Let Me Ramble Along The Prairie
The musical side fares a little better because Kinney’s sax tone is, as always, the right fit for Harris’s laconic vocal… though again, maybe not so much when it comes to the song’s content as I can’t say I remember seeing many saxophones in a cowboy’s saddle bag in those two-reel black and white B-movies.

His solo is the best part of the record, a languid smoky interlude that is far too short but entirely welcome in that it gets us off the dusty trails and into a dark bunkhouse or wherever these guys were allowed to wear jackets and ties rather than dusters and neckerchiefs.

Harris’s secondary job, his drumming, is also fairly effective in that it keeps you at least aware of the rhythmic underpinnings of the song. But while it’s admirable that The Ray-O-Vacs were a self-contained band who didn’t use outsiders to augment their records, here’s one case where it might’ve been appropriate.

After all, Harris is singing about having a banjo on his knee and there’s no banjo, nor any guitar, and Take My Back To My Boots And Saddle – if it’s going to be presented as authentic – needs something to connect it to the musical motif of an outdoor Western scene rather than keeping it tied exclusively to an indoor nightclub setting back East.

Decca may not have been quite as overbearing in this regard as Columbia Records, where Mitch Miller surely would’ve had paid a horse union scale to stand in the studio and whinny on command to add atmosphere to the recording, but most major labels like Decca wouldn’t think twice about having a more elaborate production than is shown here.

So while on one hand it’s a good sign that they stayed out of The Ray-O-Vacs way and let them do as they wished when it came to arrangements, in this case the arrangement runs counter to the content of the song and does neither of them much good.

Let Me Ride The Range Once More
Considering how well The Ray-O-Vacs had done last year with an almost equally unlikely source in Bésame Mucho, which succeeded both commercially and aesthetically, we’re prone to giving them a little more leeway in their choices, even strange ones like this.

At least we hope cutting Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle was their choice because if not then someone at Decca Records needs to be reassigned at once.

But that was always going to be the problem with this act. They were stylistically out of step with most major genres, rock included, yet their sound was malleable enough to not be kicked out of whatever realm they tried.

With groups like The Ray-O-Vacs sometimes you just had to take your chances and throw whatever oddball release they came up with out into the marketplace and see what the response was. In this case it was a collective shrug and so the boots, the saddle and the horses which they rode to the studio can all be put back in the barn for someone else to try and rope some hits with next time out.


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