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If at first you don’t succeed… do you REALLY want to try again?

If you’re a newly formed vocal group I mean, whose average age was now 40 and you were trying to compete in a field where the average ages of the three top acts (Ravens, Orioles and Robins) was in their early 20’s and for which the most fervent fan base was about the same age as that?

Isn’t there some other endeavor you’d like to undertake instead in these, your golden years? Like maybe shopping for dentures and then settling in for the early bird special at the diner so you can be back home by 5 PM and crank up the ol’ Victrola before you go to bed listening as you drift off to sleep to the thrilling sounds of Gene Austin crooning his 1927 hit My Blue Heaven that was the best selling record of your youth, oh so many years before.

Surely you don’t want to risk rejection and ridicule for trying to connect in rock ‘n’ roll yet again, do you?

You DO? Okay, don’t say we didn’t warn you though.


All I Have I’d Gladly Give
Since 78 RPM records in 1949 did not come with pictures of the artist, nor any biographical info on the label, you might be inclined to see their name – The Rhythm Kings – and think they were a) rhythmic, b) strong rulers and thus c) were kings of rhythm-based music, such as rock ‘n’ roll.

I assume there were truth in advertising laws back then but like now they’re rarely enforced. If they had been then this foursome would’ve been doing their singing in a courtroom, laying blame on the owners of Ivory Records who forced them into this life of crime against musical good taste by insisting they try their hand at rock ‘n’ roll.

But when the prosecutors bring up the fact that prior to this, since their formation in late 1947, they’d called themselves The Rhythm Masters and note that Masters and Kings are essentially interchangeable designations, then there might not be much leniency shown by the judge… or by the rock audience who had largely avoided their first record under this name, Night After Night, back in August despite the group showing some modest affinity for the style at times.

After all rock music was the domain of the young and these guys were the same age as a lot of fans’ parents, so if you deposited a nickel in a jukebox to listen to them based on the appeal of that moniker and been met with sounds that strongly hinted at pop music’s more genteel settings you weren’t likely to make the same mistake again a few months later.

Not that their first effort was altogether atrocious mind you. It wasn’t. They grasped the basics at least, their harmonies were decent and at times lead singer Leonard Thomas bore down hard on the emotional undercurrents of the lyrics and convinced you that they might not be utter frauds, but there was a lot of records now to choose from in this field and with only a buck or two at your disposal you were going to stick with someone more reliable than these guys were shaping up to be, their alluring name non-withstanding.

After the sentence was handed down for impersonating rock artists and they served their time in musical purgatory their transgressions wouldn’t be held against them. They’d be allowed back into society and would be free to pursue the type of mannered pop they’d been singing prior to their momentary diversion into the outskirts of rock. But should they try to make another stab at rock acceptance and not improve upon the results, well, then they’d be recidivist offenders and that’s something that few juries would have any tolerance for.

With the law laid down as plain as can be I can only say I hope The Rhythm Kings have a good defense attorney ready, because with If I Can’t Have The One I Love they don’t make any appreciable strides in their efforts at rock acceptance and may in fact weaken their case from the last summer and as a result they might be looking at serving some hard time for their offenses this time around.

Life Has No Meaning At All
To play Devil’s Advocate in this court hearing let me just say that, as always, The Rhythm Kings sing quite well each time out. The problem is they don’t always sing in the appropriate style the song calls for and that is usually a far bigger offense than merely missing a note or two if they had their approach down pat.

If I Can’t Have You is another ballad, something that gives them far less room for error since there won’t be any rousing instrumental interludes or energetic vocal bridge to drown out their shortcomings in other areas. Each note of every refrain will have to be sung credibly in order to convince us they were willing and able participants in rock ‘n’ roll, not merely draftees found hiding under the bed when the rock recruiters came calling looking to bolster the frontline ranks at another record label aspiring to make inroads into this increasingly promising field.

Things have indeed changed from their last effort, Night After Night, where we bemoaned the limited use of the sly electric guitar in favor of the dainty piano they had as their primary accompaniment, whereas here the guitar gets a more prominent role, yet to our utter dismay he executes his part in much worse fashion.

It’s a dreamy slack stringed sound, trying to be exotic maybe but failing miserably at it. Things don’t improve when Leonard Thomas opens his mouth and starts to sing in a decidedly stilted manner. As stated last time around his tenor voice is pitched too high, sort of like The Ravens’ Maithe Marshall who had a better, purer instrument with which to work, yet like Marshall was frequently guilty of, Thomas projects that voice the wrong way, singing in an open-throated delivery which is more at home in pop music than in rock. That style of singing removes the resonance of the voice, eliminates its ability to add more subtle shading by coarsening it up slightly and makes the sentiments he’s singing sound altogether artificial.

The topic they choose is obviously a sad one but thanks to the way he delivers this he comes across as either owning such a fragile heart that he was bound to get hurt in love no matter what the girl did, or he’s merely playing a part and none too convincingly. It’s a shame too because he’s got good tools to work with but he keeps reaching for the wrong one in the shed, using a rake when a shovel would be better for the kind of digging he needs to do here.

The others are not carrying their weight this time around either, their wordless backing reduced to just harmonizing on long held notes – in tune and on point maybe, but lacking any distinctiveness at all, almost to the point where you have to remind yourself to listen for them most of the time.

When they DO remind you of their presence in the bridge you wish they’d stayed silent because this is the most pop sounding stretch of the record as all of them use the same airy tone that is causing Thomas so much trouble when trying to convince us he belongs here. Let’s remind you that even on The Ravens sides where Marshall’s poorly-judged pop-aspiring leads are threatening to sink the entire affair, the bridge is where they often redeem themselves thanks to Jimmy Ricks lending some gravity to the situation with his anchor-like bass pulling the balloon back down from the upper atmosphere before it flies away.

Had The Rhythm Kings done something similar – not that they have someone like Ricky in their ranks to lean on – they might’ve turned this around somewhat, letting Thomas ramp up his own delivery coming out of it. Instead they all drift off into space together, lost among the clouds and left to dodge airplanes and falling meteorites as the air grows thin and their time grows short.

I’d Rather Have No One
The last bastion of hope comes in the backing music but as already stated the lead-in on guitar was a big let down and nothing that follows changes that impression.

They’re joined for the first time by Isaac Royal, who’d soon become their fifth – and only non-singing – member. Royal was a stellar pianist who’d worked with some big names in the past, including Billie Holiday, and for him to join a novice group on a rather small label tells you either his own options for more gainful employment were dwindling, or The Rhythm Kings had somehow acquired an enviable reputation in the New York club scene, since we know damn well Ivory Records weren’t shelling out big bucks to lure Royal into the fold.

But his playing is hardly adding anything of note to If I Can’t Have The One I Love, tinkling the treble keys while the guitar steps into the forefront more. God forbid they think to hire a rhythm section to bolster the sound, let alone a tenor sax to contribute a rawer, rougher sound.

The dry, almost brittle, technique they both use – voices and instruments alike – not only deprives it of any vitality, but also any variance. It’s a monotonous record when heard in passing and even when really studying it closely it fails to reach you because Thomas barely lets himself be moved by what he’s singing, which means you aren’t likely to be moved by it either.

He tries to hint at some feelings beneath the surface with a few breathy moments as he holds a note at the end of a line, but these are subtle touches, hardly noticeable unless you’re putting them under a microscope.

Even when he tries to apply slightly more pressure on a line like “If you’d say we’re not through” he promptly gives back the gain on the end of the next stanza when he over-enunciates the word “can’t”, singing it as “Cah-nt”, like he was working as a butler for the Queen of England or something. His “sweetheart” that closes that section out tells you that he’s probably never HAD a sweetheart in real life and based on this won’t have one down the line either unless he grows some hair on his chest. As we can tell by their shared closing harmonies, a sound so sickeningly false that you cringe when they sing it, that’s a prescription for testosterone they all need to have filled.

After this desultory performance the loose grip The Rhythm Kings had on rock leading into this slips further out of their grasp and now it’s just a matter of who will put them out of their misery. They may indeed have good voices and be technically skilled in their pacing and breath control, all of the things you’d learn in school, but without connecting the lyrics to the real-life experiences the songs suggest and then using those voices to convince you the songs were pulled from their own lives, they’ll never be more than well-meaning impostors, doomed to suffer the slings and arrows from rock fans who are far too savvy to be fooled by their ruse.


(Visit the Artist page of The Rhythm Kings for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)