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DECCA 48274; JANUARY 1952



I know we kinda hinted at the demise of this group back in the fall, suggesting that maybe with rock advancing at a pace they were unwilling – and unable – to keep up with, their tamer rock-lite nightclub act might have reached the end of the road, especially now that they’ve had to get a new lead singer.

Yet here they are again, sounding the same as always, so obviously they didn’t get a reprieve for a sudden dramatic stylistic shift.

Are we merely being overly generous saps or is there some underlying reason we keep subjecting you to variations of the same review – well played, but unemotional, tedious and repetitive music.

Actually, the answer is probably both.


You Promised To Come Back To Me
Since the musical part of the review has already been delved into with as much insight as I’d care to write in all of eight words of the opening section, we can skip ahead to the real reason they’re here today rather than getting properly jettisoned for boring us to tears by releasing essentially the same record under different names for more than three years now… or at least the same exact arrangement, both instrumental and vocal, on all of those disparate titles.

Some songs are ill-suited for rock ‘n’ roll on the surface, as they belong to another time and another style – perfectly suited to the time and style in which they were written, but hardly appearing adaptable for later usage unless they’re radically overhauled.

The Ray-O-Vacs do no such thing here in case you were curious.

When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano is a beautiful song with a nice melody and evocative lyrics about the annual migration of the cliff swallows to the Mission San Juan Capistrano in California.

It was written by Leon René, who later owned the Exclusive Records label where early rock acts Joe Swift and Edgar Hayes And His Stardusters were featured, and where Big Jay McNeely did time as well before the company folded as the 1940’s came to a close.

René’s writing skills were what got him into that end of the industry and this was one of his more enduring compositions ever since The Ink Spots turned in the definitive rendition right out of the gate in 1940. That went to the Top Five on the charts and an instrumental version by Glenn Miller did even better that year, hitting Number Two and there were countless other takes on it by big name stars which showed just how good a tune it was.

For 1940 that is.

By 1952 things have changed, not the least of which is the style of music that is making waves. Sure, in the pop kingdom something this mellow with its observational theme might still be viable, but not in rock ‘n’ roll. Yet maybe that’s why The Ray-O-Vacs tackled it, knowing that doubling down on mellow songs might be the only thing to find them a new audience since their existing one was rapidly leaving them behind for non-compliance.

The Chapel Choir Will Sing… Better Than These Guys
You gotta hand it to The Ray-O-Vacs, no matter what song they’re presented with they weren’t going to change a damned thing about their deliveries.

It could be anything from Auld Lang Syne to Prince’s Sign O’ The Times and they’d cut it exactly as they had every other record they tried, regardless of whether former lead Lester Harris or new lead Herb Milliner was at the microphone, both using a breathy, almost huffing style of singing that always sounded as if they’d just run up four flights of stairs to the studio as the red light was going on, forcing them to launch into the song without catching their breath.

Of course the band doesn’t change things around either, just so the singer will know they’re in the right place. We get the same wheezing saxophone courtesy of Chink Kinney, light drums by whoever replaced Harris who doubled on that instrument, and the modest bass playing of Flap McQueen, all capable musicians who somehow never seemed to move past their first successful lessons, repeating the exercises their teacher must’ve given them when they started practicing as kids fifteen or twenty years before.

The real problem though with When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano, besides the lack of variety and inspiration in what they play, is what pianist Joe Crump delivers here, a decidedly pop-like performance that undercuts the faint hint of rhythm the others provide.

He’s so schmaltzy that even as he remains in the background you can’t help but be overwhelmed by his ineptitude. It’s not that he’s a terrible musician, he’s just playing a terrible part and worse yet, doesn’t seem to realize how badly it effects the record.

But even if he’d been replaced by someone far more creative on the keys, maybe Lady Dee Williams or Archibald or Fats Domino, it wouldn’t likely matter much because Milliner is lost here himself for much of the time, falling out of the precise cadences he needs to keep to justify their instrumental pacing, scrambling to squeeze an extra word in each of the first few stanzas because he’s so out of step. With him too however, had he stayed in step it wouldn’t improve things much because he sounds so far removed emotionally for much of this, it’s like someone being called on in 5th grade to read a paragraph in a story and delivering it in a dry monotone voice just to show his classmates that he’s not taking it seriously.

Neither are we, Herb.

After Kinney’s sax solo that merely repeats the melody which doesn’t sound much better without those annoying vocals, Milliner senses he’s lost us and tries to raise the stakes with an all-too brief emotional plea, his voice rising in volume and finding a much stronger tone which actually sounds good for a change. Had he sung that way the entire time maybe it’d have shamed his bandmates into playing more energetically and this could’ve been halfway decent.

Instead they stuck to their masterful plan to induce comas in their audience to pick their pockets while they slept.


Flew Out To Sea
So why DID we return along with the birds to the same ol’ nest with these guys, knowing we weren’t going to be getting anything new from them?

Hadn’t we all but said we could write them off once Lester departed, closing the door on the group in neat orderly fashion when their centerpiece left?

But we didn’t do that, giving Milliner a chance to convince us they weren’t all washed up two months later, hoping he’d bring something new to the table. He didn’t and it’s obvious they weren’t going to even try to change their sound or their image anymore. In fact you’d hardly be surprised if you found out he went so far to wear Lester’s old suit and shoes on stage, that’s how close the imitation was.

So what is it that got them back in, other than our penchant for following through on an artist’s career to the bitter end if we can?

Well, in this case it’s the song itself, for while they did nothing very interesting with When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano we’re soon going to see another group change things up with it considerably, showing just how rock music could – and should – transform even the most indelible standards into something reasonably unique for a new style.

Because of that we figured it was best to show The Ray-O-Vacs utterly fail to do so at the same exact time, thereby pointing out the different mindset and why that, just as much as skill, determined your place in rock’s pecking order.

The funny thing is, by 2022, even well before this actually, the real swallows that have been making the six thousand mile journey from Argentina to Southern California each spring for centuries have stopped coming, victims of a changing landscape, urban sprawl and other man-made nightmares.

Then again maybe they finally got around to hearing this rendition of the song written in their honor and decided to go vacation somewhere with better music.


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