Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Ravens

Just found the Ravens' 1955 recording of On Chapel Hill on youtube and had to include it here: like the Del-Vikings' Wilette, it's another overheated doo wop fave which I have only come across on one CD (below), despite the current proliferation of Ravens collections.

As is customary with that group, the performance is odd mix of emotion and refinement, which at one time would have had me agonising about whether it really constituted "true" doo wop, but now I don't care. If you too have doubts, just hang on in there for the ending: overblown anguish framed with a kind of dignity.

But my all-time fave Jimmy Ricks lead has to be There's No You, again hard to find on CD for some reason. I bought a double album of their National recordings on spec about thirty years ago (top), and although in the past I've sold off job lots of records, either because I've been short of cash or tired of them through overplaying, at the last minute I took the Ravens' album out of the pile. Glad I did, despite the overprocessing of the sound, especially because of There's No You, and Ricks's soulful performance. (And another good reason for retaining it is that you will search in vain for that particular song on the CD reissue.)

Whether or not you want to call them doo wop, the Ravens' National recordings - a couple of dozen of which predate the Orioles' It's Too Soon to Know - are very interesting for the sense of a musical form in transition. The group  sound jazzier, hipper than the Inkspots - Jimmy Ricks's fathoms-deep bass is not being used for comic interjections - but on some sides not by that much. I also like the tenor lead, Maithe Marshall - though I suspect he might get tiring without the interplay with Ricks. But then it's that combination which made the Ravens. Read Billy Vera's liner notes for a complete CD set of their National material on the doo wop cafe site, here, but in these two paragraphs he sums up what made the Ravens unique:
Next to the Great Ricks, all others were mere parodies. He felt no need to prove or to overstate his manly gift with vocal acrobatics; he just sang the song.

Show biz is, in the end, a racket. And every racket needs a gimmick. That of the Ravens would be the juxtaposition, offered without nudge, wink nor irony, of Jimmy's basso profundo against the eunuch of Maithe Marshall's natural freak soprano. Just lay it out there and trust in your audience.
Think that's an important point: the juxtaposition of those two extreme voices was, on one level, a gimmick, a USP. But they sound so right together. And as Billy Vera says, they're not playing it for laughs: it's just a beautiful sound.

Pity I didn't also take out the mono copy of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's Gorilla, complete with booklet designed by Viv Stanshall, from that stack of soon-to-banished vinyl, but that's a subject for another entry.

Anyway, here's On Chapel Hill, recorded around April 1955 for Jubilee. It's almost a Ricks solo recording (Marshall left in late '51).

Incidentally, does anybody out there in Internetland know anything about the song? The net itself hasn't yielded up anything that I can find, hampered by similarly titled songs like In the Chapel on the Hill. I'm trying to work out whether it was one of the many standards from previous decades which the Ravens tackled, or a contemporary song.

It's an intriguing sort of puzzle if you like thirties and forties music as well as doo wop: does it sound crafted enough in an old school sort of a way to belong to an earlier era? Not sure. "I thrill to joys we two have known" sounds sort of quaint - or is that just bad writing? I can't even find the lyrics online or find other recordings by Sinatra or whoever on the well-stocked European streaming site spotify, so maybe it's not that well known. The words don't give that much of a clue, I think, as they're fairly basic:
Each night you'll find me
On Chapel Hill
For it's here, my love,
You're with me still
And it's here, my love,
you took my hand
And you hoped that I
Might understand

On Chapel Hill, dear
I stand alone
And I thrill to joys
We two have known
If I loved you then,
Then I always will
And so I'll wait for you
On Chapel Hill

If I loved you then,
Then I always will
And so I'll wait for you
On Chapel Hill
Maybe on this occasion it's the singer, not the song, who makes the whole sound good. A false start on another track on this CD (issued by the UK-based Sequel Records) has been retained to illustrate that Jimmy Ricks could occasionally hang it out too long ("Yoooooooou're the same sweet wonderful one"), to general hilarity, but the way he delivers On Chapel Hill makes it seem like it's the most important song in the world to him. I would love to know whether anyone else tackled it.

And here's the earlier There's No You (1947), usually associated with the late Jo Stafford, recorded by the Ravens for National, along with many other great songs, many of which can be found on that double album.

No point in this case with Lou Johnson/Sandie Shaw-type comparisons: as Stafford is doing something which sounds quite different - listen to it here if you're unfamiliar with it. Very straight and true with nothing even vaguely melismatic, and backed by a full complement of strings.

So surefooted was she vocally, in fact, that a playful alter ego, Darlene Edwards, occasionally ventured out to demonstrate how not to do it: feel free to torture yourself by listening recently to Ms. Edwards murdering Autumn in New York on the youtube page here, if you wish; I'm not going to place in on my blog directly. Couldn't take that responsibility.

The Ravens' There's No You has a moore loose-limbed, jazzier feel than On Chapel Hill, with piano providing a kind of commentary around the vocal - is "fills" the technical term? - plus a brief guitar solo which serves the song perfectly. These are pleasures which draw me back to the Ravens - and the early Flamingos' recordings, come to that: two genres in one, thus halfing the time spent listening and freeing you up to waste the rest of your time in some other way.

Talking of the Flamingos, I've now ordered the Jasmine CD of that mammoth Flamingos collection and will report on the audio quality shortly. As a boogie woogie collection on that label was sonically dull, I'm not sure how this will turn out, but they really are delving deeply into doo wop and according to Peter Burns' reviews of some Jasmine issues on his highly recommended Soul Music HQ site (mentioned earlier in connection with Ben E King) here, they are compiled and annotated by good people, so the signs are this won't be a cheapskate job.

Diversion: by coincidence I had been listening last night to a survey of Bessie Smith's career on BBC Radio 3's Jazz Library series (you can listen to it here until next Saturday)  with lots of examples of interplay between voice and instrument. The regular presenter, Alyn Shipton, was joined by jazz singer Christine Tobin, and it was interesting to hear an example of where Tobin felt the balance wasn't quite right, both sides demanding attention, on Careless Love Blues. The instrumentalist in that case? Louis Armstrong.

Going back to the Ravens' There's No You, which starts 2'45'' in on the youtube clip below. This also feels more like a group performance than On Chapel Hill, even though in either case the others aren't given much to do; maybe it's like the start of that video performance of That Day Is Done (discussed and findable here) where the group are simply making a wordless statement of support which helps lift the lead to greater heights. Could this even be the similarly-assisted Jimmy Ricks's finest three minutes?

Searching around for Ravens info, I'm happy to say that Marv Goldberg's site is now back online - hooray! Looks like it has a new address. Start here for all you could wish to know, Ravenswise, or go to his homepage. Welcome back, Unca Marvy. And dig the songs he says were all recorded for National on the same day, December 22, 1947, including I'm Afraid Of You, Fool That I Am, There's No You, and How Could I Know. Maybe doo wop started with the Orioles' It's Too Soon to Know the following year, and maybe the Ravens are more jazz than gospel, which rather messes up my earlier attempt at a definition of doo wop, here, but whatever they are it sounds good. (And I like their version of It's Too Soon to Know, too. So there.)

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