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APOLLO 1166; JUNE 1950

 
 

 

Of the prominent independent record labels of the first ten or so years of rock ‘n’ roll (1947-1957), Apollo Records is not near the very top of the list of those who contributed heavily to rock’s emergence but they’re far from the bottom too.

Their name recognition at least remained fairly high over the years if nothing else and yet to date we haven’t seen them really distinguish themselves with either a cornerstone-type artist or a readily identifiable sound to build their reputation on. Instead they’ve cast a wide net and have yet to reel in any big fish outside of gospel where Mahaila Jackson was all but carrying the label.

Though it’d be easy to say that The Rivals – with their lone single – did nothing to change that, the fact of the matter is their appearance signaled a shift in Apollo’s thinking as this got them deeper into the rock vocal group realm which would soon give the company a musical identity that would carry them over the next half decade.
 

 

Born In The Lion’s Den
With just one release to their name at the time, the only real notable fact about The Rivals in retrospect is the fact that their lead singer, bass vocalist Ira Mumford, was the brother of the far more well-known Eugene Mumford, a smooth tenor whose stellar voice adorned the records of The Larks, soon to be Apollo’s heralded centerpiece of their new rock vocal group direction.

Ironically though it doesn’t seem as if Ira’s brief connection to Apollo in the spring of 1950 had anything to do with The Larks arrival at the label in October, so it’s nothing more than interesting trivia at best. But The Rivals shouldn’t need to rely on any familial ties to draw notice to their own work, for this record stands on its own merits showing just how rapidly the rock landscape continues to evolve.

Clearly with Ira Mumford’s bass vocals out front The Rivals were being positioned as yet another Ravens-imitator, yet unlike many who might’ve had similar thoughts his performance is one that even Jimmy Ricks would be proud of as Rival Blues features all of the best elements of a Ravens track, from the rhythmic undercurrents to the suggestive content and delivery, capped off by a title that showed they understood the value of self-promotion even if nothing wound up coming from their bravado.

The group came out of a gospel background and they reputedly had long careers as a live act after this, but whether it was back in gospel circles or the secular realm isn’t entirely clear. Maybe their background was how the still gospel-centric Apollo got wind of them to begin with, but as they’d do with The Larks in the fall and The “5” Royales the following year, Apollo found the group was more distinctive and potentially more commercial when pursuing rock ‘n’ roll.

For their part The Rivals discovered they were perfectly suited for it too as everything about this track suggests they may have had long histories singing the Devil’s music after church let out.
 

 
When You See Me Coming…
At first you might think they were still doing gospel as the song kicks off with Ira delivering a line about Daniel and the Lion which comes from a book called The Bible that was apparently a best seller among those who were among the more devout gospel enthusiasts.

But if you’re inclined to believe the song was taken from, or at least inspired by, a gospel track that impression quickly fades as there’s a huge shift from the dominant gospel framework after that initial line which shows Rival Blues was something entirely different… a down and dirty unapologetic rocker.

From the interplay between Ira and the other vocalists to the constant rhythm churning beneath them and of course the lyrics which follow and chart a new course thematically from the parable used at the beginning to set the scene, it becomes abundantly clear that they were latching onto this new concept without any misgivings.

That’s what makes the record sound so thrilling, for even if you didn’t know their history (and in 1950 who would?) you can hear their enthusiasm bleeding through the speakers loud and clear.

Ira’s voice has a wickedly sly bounce to it and the lyrics are about as explicit as they could get away with for the times, with open boasts about his sexual conquests in which any detail left unstated in words becomes blatantly obvious by his rich honey-dripping delivery.

If his lusty singing and the initial surprise over the early content are the obvious highlights of this, the growing realization that the song was cribbed together from many far-flung sources to create a fairly generic roll call of familiar tropes lets the wind out of its sails ever so much as it shifts its focus away from the carnal subjects in the second half.

But Mumford’s ease with this vocal approach never deviates and he’s so completely convincing that, like Ricky often did, he manages to suggest a sense of debauchery even after the lyrics veer into other less-degenerate topics, keeping you from feeling let down by the more mundane content down the stretch.
 

Come Go Home With Me
The other Rivals are just as enthusiastic in their roles which is actually quite an improvement from a lot of the Ravens tracks we’ve seen where they were either encouraged to tone things down, or did so out of a sense of professional modesty of some sort.

The Rivals though play up their own vicarious interest in Mumford’s illicit affairs, their voices eager and bouncy as they repeat some lines to drive the points home and reply to others with their own commentary, all of which is delivered with the same lascivious grins their frontman employs.

Musically speaking Rival Blues is effective, if slightly more modest in its construct. The opening with its trading off of piano, stand-up bass and guitar, all played in isolation, is the most distinctive moment in the arrangement, yet also the most atypical for what we’ve heard thus far in rock’s journey. Once the vocals kick in they revert back to a more discreet accompaniment as the piano and bass are simply used to keep the rhythm from flagging and if there are drums on the track they’re buried and/or obscured by the lack of better remastering.

But the shortcomings are all just relative, not in any way detrimental to the record’s effectiveness. It’s a perfectly serviceable arrangement and if it could’ve been helped by a sax solo to break up the proceedings the lack of one was hardly noteworthy at this stage of the game, as few yet realized the impact such a component could add to vocal group records.

What you take from this one isn’t what it’s missing, but rather what it’s giving us without hesitation which is the salacious attitude of the lead and galvanizing efforts of the backing singers who are fully engaged, all working together with total belief in what they’re laying down.
 

That’s Alright For You
All things considered this winds up being one of the better records in its idiom and certainly among the most surprising. The enduring name recognition of The Ravens, Orioles and Robins ensures that the work of those groups will be more easily uncovered and more readily appreciated today, but to find a record that could stand with the best of those by a group who were “one and done” is something to savor seventy-one years after the fact.

The real shame is that Apollo Records weren’t able to savor the aesthetic leap forward they had made with this track and to disregard the poor sales, or to rightly chalk them up to the fact they had yet to build up any name for the company in this field and to do so would take time and more releases like Rival Blues to alert the masses of what they had to offer.

Sadly that task would fall to other groups, namely The Larks, as following this single The Rivals headed back to obscurity, their lone shot at the brass ring having fallen short.

You can’t help but wonder however what Christmas dinner was like at the Mumford family residence later this year after Eugene’s Larks were seeing their releases on the same label starting to make some genuine noise while the company threw the full weight of their promotion behind them.

If they were taking a family picture around the Christmas tree you’d understand if Ira felt it necessary to step outside and wasn’t anywhere to be found when the flash went off, because by all rights his group should’ve been the ones at the forefront of the emerging sounds instead of being just one of many who fell by the wayside on the road to glory.
 
 
SPONTAEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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