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IVORY 751; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 
With only a few more records to go before we get to the 1950’s we’re going to take some time to add in a few 1940’s songs we either overlooked or intentionally avoided for various reasons when first covering this ground. It won’t take long and hopefully will paint a more vivid picture of the first era of rock as we head into the second era in the next week or two.
 

 

Just what we need… another pop-slanted vocal group masquerading as a rock act. Couldn’t we just skip these guys and move on to something more… appropriate?

Sure, we could… but we won’t.

The reasons for this milder diversion isn’t to annoy and frustrate readers – that’s just an added bonus! – but rather because including these rather elderly interlopers (who further compounded their sins by choosing a name that approximately 158 other acts over the years took on as well) allows us to highlight our favorite recurring theme on this project – that of CONTEXT!

We understand your aversion to this type of story so feel free to skip it entirely if you want, but I’ll give you a fair warning, as unlikely as their presence here may be for even one record they’re actually going to be popping up a number of times in the years to come, always teetering on the brink of falling off the rock ‘n’ roll stage altogether but somehow, someway they’ll keep clinging to the edge all the same, like harmonizing human barnacles.

Try as you might, for almost a decade you won’t fully be able to shake free of them which means maybe you should read this after all just to find out why their presence helps to put so many other more important acts into proper perspective.
 

 

Do You Remember…
I’ve written something similar to this a bunch of times already but not everybody reads the reviews in order like they’re intended to be consumed and so when a situation comes along that requires this sort of ideological disclaimer I find myself rehashing the same points.

But that’s okay, if you’ve heard this before you can just skim over it until we get to the backstory of the group and the review of the record, but the reason why this group is being included here in the roll of rock releases when their material only skirts the edge of the genre is because without applying era and style related context to the larger picture we can’t truly get a sense of what the purer – for lack of a better term – rock records really meant at the time.

In other words, for those hearing The Ravens or The Orioles in the Twenty-First Century it’s sort of hard to understand why they were so revolutionary when in just a few years time their records would sound decidedly mild compared to what rock’s second and third generation of vocal groups were churning out in the early to mid-1950’s. By 2019 when these reviews are being written their key breakthrough sides probably seem roughly the equivalent of black and white silent films to those who’ve grown up on CGI blockbusters.

So in order to appreciate them for what they were – and to understand just what they meant to the audience at the time – you really need to grasp the historical context of the era they came out in.

We try doing this via a number of methods, one being the Monthly Overviews which give a look at what the average person at the time would be encountering in their day to day existence, including a concurrent hit pop song to contrast with these rock releases we’re covering. But we also have to try and bring into the fold a few records and artists whose presence in rock – even at the time – was questionable, or maybe circumstantial at best and based more on the needs of the industry looking to capitalize on something that remained just outside of their ability to truly comprehend than it did the stylistic tastes and goals of the artists themselves.

Thus we are introduced to The Rhythm Kings, a group comprised of four guys born between 1904 and 1917 who had mostly been singing or performing in some capacity as professionals since the mid-1930’s but who didn’t get a chance to cut records, individually or collectively, until only recently… at the dawn of the rock era, which explains how they were drafted somewhat uncomfortably into the growing ranks of rock vocal groups.
 

When Shadows Fall
Of all the unlikely acts to make their way to the rock ‘n’ roll club and be let in the doors and stay for more than a few minutes, arguably none were as improbable as The Rhythm Kings.

Sure a guy like Todd Rhodes, born in 1900(!), was hardly a typical entrant either, but as a songwriter, pianist and bandleader he at least had specific skills that allowed him to be more of a behind the scenes figure if he chose, able to write and record music, even play it on stage, without drawing undue attention to himself – or his age – in the process.

But for four singers who came of age in an era when jazz was just reaching commercial fruition after being scorned for its own racy image back in the 1920’s trying to fit in to a genre that would be facing the same stigma – one levied against them ironically enough by many of the same people who reveled in the notoriety of early jazz when they were younger – was too farcical to even consider. There was no way that these guys calling themselves The Rhythm Kings in a transparent attempt to fit in could pull this masquerade off.

Could they?

No, of course not. Though they may have only gotten together in 1947, they all had far too many miles under their belts with other music projects before that to be seen as anything “new” or cutting edge. The eldest, baritone Howard Scott, was born in 1904 making him 45 years old by this point. To show the background these guys were coming from he and the group’s second tenor Cecil Murray, who was born in 1907, had been earning their living as singing waiters!

Yes, they once had such professions as waiters who sang and while they still have waiters today, none of them sing though I suppose if they did at least would distract you when they deliver the wrong food to your table, but I digress.

Lead singer Leonard Thomas was born in 1910 and was working as an elevator operator in the same hotel the aforementioned singing waiters worked (another job that has fallen by the wayside), while the baby of group, bass James Riley (b. 1917) who was just 32, gave the group their youthful appeal.

In January 1948 as The Rhythm Masters they appeared on – and won – first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (four months before The Orioles, who WERE young, finished second on Godfrey’s program and launched their own careers). They signed their first record deal in the summer on tiny Bandwagon Records and backed vocalist Ann Cornell on a few sides that fall. They were now making regular appearances on other Godfrey radio shows and by the next spring they were entrenched in supper clubs along the East Coast which obviously means they were not singing anything resembling rock ‘n’ roll, something that bears out when we run across them on their lone release on Bennett Records from the early summer of 1949 (as The Rhythmasters) which is pure pop.

But later that summer here they are on Ivory Records with a new name and a new sound… sort of… with Night After Night, which either speaks of their utter failure to make headway as pop singers or more likely it tells us that someone at newly formed Ivory Records was pushing them to try and pretend they’re far younger and hipper than they were so they could be promoted in a field that provided more commercial possibilities for a new black vocal group than bland pop music did at this point.

Any way you looked at it you had to know this wouldn’t work. Like someone trying to convince you that a poodle is really a pitbull there’s only so much you can do before people start laughing in your face.
 

When You Went Away
Before you send these guys back to the restaurant, or drop them down an open elevator shaft for intruding on hallowed ground, let it be said that in spite of their lack of credentials they more or less manage to actually grasp the basic techniques pretty well.

That doesn’t mean Night After Night is what you’d want to be listening to as a rock fan night after night as it were, but there are signs scattered throughout that either they were more astute than we generally give old people credit for when it comes to understanding younger mindsets, or that the rudimentary skills required for rock harmony singing were more universal than generaly believed.

Still, there’s really two competing techniques that are at work here, one hinting strongly at what we like about rock, which is the emotional investment of the singers, and the other – the bland superficiality of the sentiments – which was a hallmark of a lot of pop groups who valued smooth precise deliveries over everything.

The two approaches battle for much of the song with even the backing music not firmly choosing sides, trading off between light dainty piano accompaniment and more subversive guitar interjections.

The opening gives you no hope that these guys will figure this out. The piano sounds as if they took it right from the Belmont Plaza Hotel lounge where they’d been working. Their harmonies are a blessed relief when they come in and distract you but don’t let that get you to think they’re actually doing anything to turn the tide.

Thomas’s lead is high and mostly ineffectual to start with, keeping in line with the pop trappings for the most part. It’s not quite so shallow as that, but it’s hardly pushing any boundaries just yet. But a funny thing happens on the way to complete and total irrelevancy… they actually start to really embrace what they’re singing!

Thomas’s first wordless interjection – ”Whoa-oh-ah-oahh” – marks a turning point. It’s not transformative in of itself, but it suggests that they weren’t going to play this straight down the middle either. You wait, anxiously hoping for more of the same but they ease back again, biding their time while trying your patience.

But fear not, the first bridge is where they make their move with Thomas really pushing hard to connect with the lyrical sentiments in two passages as he emerges from the group vocals sounding – dare we say – authentic. But then, just as suddenly as he broke out signs of possessing genuine emotion he pulls back again, conflicted to the end.
 

How You Broke My Heart
These dual objectives never fully resolve themselves as Thomas runs hot and cold, bearing down and easing off with maddening regularity even as, technically speaking anyway, he pulls off those transitions quite naturally.

The others are serviceable behind Thomas, not given too much to do but not stumbling when they’re featured more prominently either. The lack of any third notable instrument to turn the tide doesn’t help their cause. The guitar, the asset of the rock brigade in the audience, isn’t given the spotlight for more than a few seconds whereas a solo from it, or had they brought in a saxophone or gave the rumored drummer a chance to add some energy with an aggressive pickup pattern out of those harmony vocal turns, would’ve done wonders to just suggest some urgency beyond those all too brief passages by Thomas.

You never get the idea that Night After Night was completely schizophrenic, as if they really didn’t have any clue about how to emphasize the aspects that would be more likely to connect with rock fans, but rather you realize they don’t quite understand that you need to bet heavily on that approach rather than hedge those bets to get people to truly embrace you. If The Rhythm Kings had a fatal flaw their more modest aims was surely it.

Though we’re loathe to admit it one reason why so many rock fans who prefer the harder edged sounds – of rockabilly, metal, punk, funk, grunge or rap, take your pick – tend to dismiss ALL vocal harmony groups is because, even in the best of circumstances, it’s never TOO far away from pop sensibilities, particularly on ballads.

There’s only so many components that go into them – there’s generally limited instrumentation, and nothing too ostentatious at that, and few chances for the singers to break free of the song’s structure without upsetting the balance. The only way to truly distance these songs from pop is with gospel-esque leads where the emotionalism is cranked up to 11. But every lead singer is not Clyde McPhatter and so if the song is taken straight there’s always going to be people questioning their merit.

We obviously don’t ascribe to that, you need to listen for the way the background singers accentuate their vowels, the rhythmic pulse they add to their parts and other insider minutia to really be able to categorize them and when you do you’ll hear the obvious differences between pop harmony groups like The Four Aces and rock harmony groups like The Four Buddies. But truthfully, at a glance, hearing The Four Buddies alongside say The Dominoes or The Harp-tones you’ll be more prone to calling the former a glorified pop act simply because they don’t take things far enough to leave no doubt as to their qualifications.

Such is the nature of the idiom and to that end The Rhythm Kings, with their AARP cards in the mail by the time they started their recording career, were never going to be fully accepted by rock fans no matter how sincere about it they may have been. Yet in spite of their generational and stylistic conflicts they stuck with it even as they never fully divested themselves of the aspects that inexorably tied them to pop.

But far from being irrelevant and not worth the time to look into, The Rhythm Kings serve a very useful purpose in the history of rock ‘n’ roll which is to act as the buffer between those pure pop acts who disdained rock’s very existence and the more authentic rock vocal groups that really defined this form of singing.

Call them sacrificial lambs in that regard if you want, but the mere fact they made the effort to fit in shows that it was no longer pop music that was the be-all and end-all for aspiring black vocal groups and that rock ‘n’ roll was now an appealing destination even for those old enough to know better.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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