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COLEMAN 105; APRIL, 1949



A boy walks down a long quiet hallway in a school he’s gone to for a number of years but for once he’s not headed to his own classroom. Instead he’s been told to go to the classroom of a younger sibling who’s going to miss a week or more of school with chicken pox or measles or the flu. When he reaches the door the boy takes a deep breath before knocking and then as the door opens he awkwardly enters and makes his way through the rows of desks filled with inquisitive looks from the students who regard this unexpected intrusion with curious interest.

While the teacher recognizes him and welcomes him in, knowing what he’s there for – to pick up whatever books and assignments his little brother has – the older boy is a little uncomfortable surrounded by kids who he wouldn’t bother even noticing in other circumstances. On the school bus, the playground or the kid’s own neighborhood the younger children who fill those rows of desks would probably be a little intimidated of him, not so much for any threat he posed but merely because at that age a year or two difference seems significantly larger than it really is and thus the older kid naturally seems more self-assured to the younger ones when in their own element.

But not so here. In this case it’s the older kid who feels out of place. He knows he’s the outsider in the classroom, that he’s being watched with curiosity by the twenty or so pair of eyes who regard him a little suspiciously. The tables are turned and it’s the younger group who are on the solid ground here, made confident by the familiarity of their own surroundings.

The older kid is made to feel even more uneasy by the fact he must be somewhat deferential to the teacher he’s now speaking to, thereby losing whatever image of authority he might possess over the younger kids if they instead were in the cafeteria or outside the school doors. Since he’s singled out by his unique position here, standing while the others are sitting, speaking while the others are silent, waiting to be acknowledged by the teacher while the others are comfortably out of the spotlight, he’s seems somehow vulnerable while the younger kids are immune from this by virtue of their collective group identity.

The teacher hands over the work to be passed along to the boy’s ill sibling and the boy hastily makes his exit, exhaling with relief as he returns to the quiet hallway, making his way back to the safer environs of his own classroom filled with kids of his own peer group where his placement in the pecking order, whether high or low on the social ladder, is already well-established and thereby retains its sense of comfort.

What’s the point of this flashback to fourth grade?

Well in rock ‘n’ roll circa 1949 it’s increasingly the young guns who are confidently setting the standard, creating the rules and defining the terrain and as such the slightly older artists who are attempting to ply their trade in rock are becoming ever more conspicuous by their awkward inclusion.

Inevitably the more they hope NOT to stand out, the more they do.

Why Did You Love Me?
The Ray-O-Vacs, a club act who’d just recently entered the recording field and came away with a hit months earlier on their debut, find that they aren’t being admired for their feat so much as being regarded suspiciously for their intrusion.

This is hardly surprising. Ever since rock firmly established itself last year a few months after its late 1947 arrival on the scene the ground rules laid out have been decidedly different than most other forms of popular music.

More than any other genre to date, rock ‘n’ roll – or rather its fans – embraced, even insisted on, a form of cultural correlation tying the listener with the music itself. This shared outlook not only has informed what types of songs are most likely to connect, but once that became clear it’s also led artists to accentuate that connection more and more, and no doubt steered those who didn’t have the same backgrounds as those fans to head elsewhere in search of a musical home.

I’ll go out on a limb and say The Ray-O-Vacs probably wouldn’t have chosen the rock field to plant their crops in if the decision had been entirely theirs to make. But as fate would have it a convoluted set of circumstances led them to be picked out of the crowd and welcomed into the fold when their first record, I’ll Always Be In Love With You was first heard as an unpressed master and then quite literally stolen by Savoy Records who brought in a singer and a make-shift group of session musicians they dubbed The X-Rays to cut their own version of the arrangement, accentuating the tenor sax of Hal Singer who’d already scored a #1 hit with a rough and tumble rock instrumental.

The X-Rays version of the song muscled it up some which placed it firmly within the rock market, enough so that when Coleman Records quickly issued The Ray-O-Vacs original to compete with the cover the two became somewhat interchangeable to record buyers confused by the intentionally similar sounding names. The result was both versions became Top Ten Hits, largely bought by the same audience, and thus The Ray-O-Vacs, whose take on it was a little more sedate but still reasonably within rock’s outer edges, had their fate tied in with rock as a whole and from now on they would presumably have to meet expectations of that audience in order to remain commercially viable.

It was a tall order for a group who’d put in years playing to slightly older decidedly non-rock oriented nightclub patrons.


I’m Just A Lonely Guy
Making this task even harder is their proficiency with ballads, which, as we’ve stated before while a vital aspect of rock was always in danger of being dismissed for skewing too close to pop structure simply due to the nature of the beast. Slow songs expressing heartache were a far cry from uptempo blasts of carnal passion and so The Ray-O-Vacs typical choice of material wasn’t going to help their cause.

Sure enough Why Did You Break My Heart could easily be left out of the rock narrative altogether, and likely would be if not for their earlier effort that landed them in this mess to begin with.

The song is agonizingly slow, sparsely accompanied by piano, intermittent sax belches and lead singer Harry Lester’s own dry brittle drumming. Lester sings it in a halting voice, as if collecting his thoughts and mustering up his courage between each line so that he may continue telling his tale of woe. As often is the case with such stories, the heartbreak being sung about sounds deeply personal, wounding his soul beyond repair. Throughout it he seems somehow surprised that this girl to whom he gave his heart could be so cruel as to stomp on it after first ripping the still beating organ from his chest, but for us, neutral bystanders with no horse in the race, it’s hard to claim you couldn’t have seen it coming based on his weak natured response.

This clearly isn’t someone who held his own in the emotional stakes of the relationship at all. He comes across as inexperienced and frankly ill-suited for love outside the confines of a strict Catholic boarding school. If the girl in question had been around the block – even once – she was far too worldly for his limited outlook on romance and you can easily picture her thinking he was cute enough to give her number to on a lark, then after a date or two realizing he had no long-term prospects as boyfriend material and so she dumped him. She probably didn’t do so with any maliciousness or spite, just breezily informed him that it wasn’t going to work and went on her merry way.

He meanwhile, thinking he’d lucked into the love of his life (IE. a girl who wasn’t cut out of a magazine ad for perfume and who actually had a name, a pulse and presumably lived a life in the real world which he’d rarely mustered the courage to venture into before this) was heartbroken at her dismissal of him. If he got so much as a kiss out of the brief encounters he’ll surely be replaying it in vivid detail each night as he sits alone in his room or at the end of a bar, a sad lonely figure that most steer clear of out of sheer awkward discomfort.

When they lower him in the ground years from now I suspect we’ll still hear his ghost hauntingly singing these same refrains from the great beyond.


The Wrongs I’ve Done
All of that of course makes it a rather pitiful target to take aim at here. Lester embodies the character well – too well to not feel sorry for him – but the characterization itself is woefully out of place in rock ‘n’ roll, both in terms of the mindset he inhabits, the actions (or lack thereof) he takes to remedy his ineffectual nature that dooms him to a life of loneliness, and the delivery he chooses to impart this sad tale with. In the future (sometime in the 80’s I think) someone would come up with the term “wimp-rock” to define records lacking any testosterone but clearly this record is the spiritual origin of that designation.

In fact it defines it.

Further hurting its potential to appeal to somebody out there who presumably can relate to this sob story are the similarities to the slightly better top side, Happy Am I, which is more uptempo but otherwise shares many of the same instrumental ideas, namely how the sax of Chink Kinney seems to be thinking of what line to play for the first time as he puts the reed to his lips each time he’s about to blow. Aside from making the whole performance seem on the verge of collapse at any moment, the structure itself hems it in, unable to offer us a contrast when it most needs one to keep our interest.

Yes, the halting nature of their playing reflects Harry Lester’s torment so you can’t say it’s inappropriately chosen. Indeed just like the other side they definitely are adept at making sure the sentiments match the music, but the result of sticking so rigidly to this approach, not even detouring into a more lively break, is that it removes any semblance of forward momentum from the record. The song staggers along like a drunk on the sidewalk and pity the poor fool who finds himself stuck behind him when trying to catch a bus on the corner. You’ll never get around him in time.

Because the arrangement is so skeletal there’s also nowhere to escape the maudlin atmosphere. It reduces the entire landscape to a stark barren emotional wasteland and that type of setting isn’t easy to immerse yourself in unless the storyline and the singer can either get you to sympathize with their plight or the overall plot is close enough to your life experience to substitute the details of your own story to flesh out the rather simplistic sketch they’re laying down.

Neither one is the case here and as such the answer to the question of Why Did You Break My Heart remains pretty evident to anyone listening… their hearts simply weren’t strong enough to withstand the least bit of adversity, just like their lingering reputation from their initial success won’t be strong enough to keep drawing interest if they keep issuing a more tame style of rock that doesn’t speak to the audience it’s presumably being made for.

And so The Ray-O-Vacs when sent back to school, simply by virtue of being just a bit older in their thinking, wind up feeling out of place surrounded by the young guns who are crafting rock in their own image.


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