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IVORY 751; AUGUST 1949



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.


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 who’d been professional singers 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.

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!

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) and signed their first recording contract on Bandwagon Records as a pure pop act and started working supper clubs where, if rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t turned the world on its head, they might’ve thrived for another twenty years.

But rock ‘n’ roll DID come along and was getting more and more popular while their brand of genteel pop was fading and so later that summer here they are on Ivory Records with a new name and a new sound… sort of… with Night After Night, hoping to convince you they’re far younger and hipper than they were so they could be promoted in a field that provided a lot more commercial possibilities than what they specialized in.

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 generally 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 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… they never went far enough to convince you of their authenticity.

Even if they had done more though it’s doubtful that The Rhythm Kings, with their AARP cards in the mail by the time they started their recording career, were ever going to be fully accepted by rock fans no matter how sincere about it they may have been.

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.

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. That’s where The Rhythm Kings fit in, showing the difference between those who embraced the new sounds and led the way into the future and those like this group who never fully let go of the past.


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