The Ravens existed to showcase the incredible bass of Jimmy "Ricky" Ricks, the fifth voice that I consider vital for the understanding of Rhythm and Blues vocal group leads. The others are: Bill Kenny (the Ink Spots), Sonny Til (the Orioles), Clyde McPhatter (the Dominoes), and Frankie Lymon (the Teenagers). While the others are all tenors, the Ravens uniquely featured a bass lead. And what a bass! (I was surprised to find out that Ezio Pinza, of "South Pacific" fame, was an operatic basso profundo; next to Jimmy Ricks, he sounds like a tenor.) Ricks, and Ricks alone, was to influence an entire generation of aspiring bass singers; it's as simple as that.
This is not to slight the other members of the group (such as Maithe Marshall, Joe Van Loan, Leonard Puzey, Warren Suttles, Louis Heyward, and Jimmie Steward), all of whom had excellent voices, and were hired for that reason alone. But when it comes down to it, the Ravens are remembered for Jimmy Ricks. The Ravens' material isn't difficult to classify; it was anything that they could sing: R&B ballads, R&B uptempo, Pop standards (done as Pop), Pop standards (done as R&B), novelty numbers. You name it, they tried it. And they were generally superb. And their fans loved it. Ricks, whose inspiration was the Delta Rhythm Boys' Lee Gaines, had a bass voice that had depth and breadth and any other quality that you could name; it was a natural winner (his range, according to original Ravens baritone Warren Suttles, was three octaves).
James Thomas Ricks (known as "JT" to his family, and "Ricky" to the rest of the world) was born in 1924 in Adrian, Georgia (a small town of fewer than 600 people, between Macon and Savannah), but his family soon moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Actually, his mother (who was 14 at the time and was still alive in 2004) went to Florida in order to get a better job; Jimmy was raised by his aunt and uncle (Mamie and Luther Ricks), until he was around 13, when he too moved to Jacksonville.
Here are some insights into the early days of Jimmy Ricks, as told to me by his cousin, Jeannette Smith.
Daddy [Jimmy's Uncle, Luther] used to say, "that boy went up north and made something out of himself. I never thought that he would." The reason Daddy said that was because JT never liked to work in the fields. During the summers he had to crop tobacco and around September he had to pick cotton. The way that the family made the days pass quickly and not to think so much of how hard the work was, they would all sing in the fields. Mama [his Aunt Mamie] sang mezzo soprano, Walter [a cousin] and Daddy sang tenor and JT always had this very deep voice. Daddy had a good ear for music so he taught them how to blend their voices.
On Sunday mornings he had to attend the Adrian Chapel C.M.E. church and sing in the choir. Everyone at the church wanted to hear JT lead the song "Ride The Chariot In The Morning, Lord." It had a bass lead.
The family was quite talented and still is. There are still family members who sing today, but have never tried to get into show business, including myself.... There were so many of his relatives who can sing that I cannot name them all. It wasn't that they could just sing, but the family seems to just know how to blend their voices in perfect harmony. After JT moved to Jacksonville, I don't think that he thought much of his singing ability except for his own enjoyment. He went to New York just to escape the South. As for his voice, he had this range where he could go to tenor or sing the deepest bass. I guess it was just a God-given thing.
Sometime during World War 2, he relocated to New York City, and there embarked upon his singing career. In 1945, he was working as a waiter at the Four Hundred Tavern (on 148th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, in Harlem), and belonged to a group called the Melodeers. In the Spring of 1945, the Melodeers had secured an engagement at the Plantation Club in St. Louis. Their lead singer, Herb Kenny, went to say goodbye to his brother Bill (lead of the Ink Spots), who, that day, happened to be auditioning singers to fill the "talking bass" spot recently vacated by Cliff Givens. Herb heard someone trying out, approached him, and suggested improvements. Everyone listening realized that Herb could do it better than any of the hopefuls, and he was persuaded to join the Ink Spots. (As Herb put it, he "gave up singing" to join them.) While Herb now had full-time lucrative employment, the rest of the Melodeers were out of a job.
While working at the Four Hundred Tavern, Ricks met baritone Warren Suttles. He was originally from Fairfield, Alabama, right outside Birmingham. It was a steel manufacturing town, but Warren remembers mostly prejudice, pure and simple. That's what drove him to abandon Alabama when he was discharged from the Army, when he came to New York to seek his fortune. He enjoyed playing baseball and had an uncle in New York named George "Mule" Suttles (one of the powerhouses of the Negro Leagues), who had managed the Newark Eagles. By the time Warren hit New York, however, Mule was managing a bar. Warren fortunately turned to music.
Ricks and Suttles found a shared interest in singing, spending lots of time harmonizing along with tunes on the jukebox (especially those of the Delta Rhythm Boys). In early 1946, they had abandoned the Four Hundred Tavern for the L-Bar, and it was then that they decided to form a group; this was the beginning of the Ravens.
Raven number three was Leonard "Zeke" Puzey, a second tenor, who had won first prize on the Apollo Theater amateur show by singing future Ravens song, "There's No You." Jimmy Edwards, an agent for the Evans Booking Agency, was impressed and introduced him to Ricks and Suttles. (Leonard loved to play baseball as a kid. Since he played first base, and the first baseman for the New York Giants in the late 30s was Zeke Bonura, the other kids nicknamed him "Zeke." The nickname stuck and it even made it to one of the Ravens' songs, "No More Kisses For Baby," where Ricks starts off by calling "Hey, Zeke.")
They started practicing "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "Darktown Poker Club" (a song popularized by Phil Harris); Warren did the piano work and the arranging. The Evans agency then recommended Henry Oliver "Ollie" Jones (also a second tenor) and he became Raven number four. The Ravens were ready to spread their wings (to coin a phrase). At this point they added a song written by Ollie to their repertoire: "Lullaby."
Enter Ben Bart. In 1945, while treasurer of the Gale Agency (which managed the Ink Spots), Bart had set up the Hub Recording Company. The next year, he broke with Gale and, with Harry Lenetzka (another Gale employee), formed the competing Universal Attractions. The Ravens hooked up with Bart, through the efforts of their vocal coach, Joe Thomas, who'd been a sax player with Jelly Roll Morton (he wasn't the sax player of the same name who'd been with Jimmie Lunceford). Bart became their manager and, since they lacked arrangements and couldn't read music, he decided that they could do with an accompanist. Joe Thomas came through once again, suggesting pianist/arranger Howard Biggs (who had performed those functions for Luis Russell's Orchestra). (One other thing Joe Thomas would do for the Ravens: he wrote "There's Nothing Like A Woman In Love" for them.) The last "member" would be road manager Nat Margo.
To Bart, the Ravens must have seemed like the anti-Ink Spots. Instead of having a lead singer with an impossibly high voice, the Ravens had a lead singer with an impossibly low one.
The Ravens began their prolific recording career in June 1946, with a single six-tune session: "Honey" and "Bye Bye Baby Blues" are led by Ricky; "Lullaby," "My Sugar Is So Refined," and "Once And For All" are fronted by Leonard; and "Out Of A Dream" features the alternating leads of Ricky and Ollie. Since their manager conveniently owned a record label, all the tunes would be issued on Hub. The first release was "Lullaby" and "Honey," which probably came out in August 1946. The Ravens were on their way!
The first engagement by the fledgling group was at Harlem's Baby Grand. They also played the Baron (at 132nd and Lenox Avenue) and the Club 845 (in the Bronx).
Next to be released was "Out Of A Dream," backed with "My Sugar Is So Refined"; this was issued around September. For some reason, they left out the very first stanza to "My Sugar Is So Refined" (a 1946 hit for Johnny Mercer). As long as you're interested, it goes: "She doesn't wear a hat/ She wears a chapeau/ She goes to see a cinema/ But never a show." "Out Of A Dream" is a pretty song, written by bandleader Edgar Hayes, who recorded the original version of "In The Mood."
The Ravens' last Hub record, "Once And For All," coupled with "Bye Bye Baby Blues," came out around October 1946.
Public reaction to the Hub songs was overwhelming, however record sales were poor. That is, they were big jukebox hits, but never really sold in stores. Even though Hub had decent recording artists (like Tab Smith, Don Byas, and Manhattan Paul), the label had poor distribution.
While it's nice to have fans, sometimes they could get out of hand. At one appearance, with bandleader Illinois Jacquet, someone in the audience was insistent that they sing "Lullaby." When they sang something else, the man started firing a gun (fortunately in the air).
On October 29, 1946, they appeared on the brand-new Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show on CBS radio (it had only been on for about four months). They were brought there by William Jones, who was "just visiting" New York from Seattle and had seen them perform at Club Baron on his "first night in New York." It was a heartwarming story, but Jones was probably an employee of either Hub Records or Universal Booking. (Unfortunately, neither Warren Suttles nor Leonard Puzey remembered who brought them up there.) Sounding nervous, the Ravens sang "My Sugar Is So Refined" (including the stanza that they hadn't recorded), but lost to a blind soprano named Carmen Abel (as the Orioles would lose to blind pianist George Shearing in two years' time). [The very next week, Browley Guy appeared, losing out to a comedienne.]
The biggest break of their early career came on December 6, 1946, when they played a benefit show at the Apollo. How do you follow Stan Kenton and Nat "King" Cole? It isn't easy, and they were scared. Their first song was, once again, "My Sugar Is So Refined." Leonard did the lead, up to "And you should see/ How she holds a cup of tea" at which point Ricks' booming bass line ("With just two fingers/ While she sticks out three") brought down the house; they ended up singing half a dozen numbers. They did so well, in fact, that they were invited back a few weeks later (along with Sy Oliver's band), at which time they repeated their crowd-pleasing performance.
However, Howard Biggs had a problem with Ollie Jones: Ollie's voice wasn't strong enough, and Biggs didn't like the way he blended in with the rest of the group. There was no animosity about it; Ollie wasn't fired. He was simply told that the Ravens would continue using him until they found a first tenor who could fit in better.
And who would that first tenor be? Ricks came across a bartender (another Floridian) named Maithe Williams. (In the 1940 census, he was "Maithe Williams". When he registered with Social Security the following year, it was as "Maithe Williams Marshall".) Maithe had a soaring tenor, which was just what the Ravens were looking for. (My feeling is that Maithe was heavily influenced by Jimmy Springs, the lead tenor of the 5 Red Caps.) He was already a professional singer, having been in the ensemble of the original Broadway production of "Carmen Jones" (which ran from December 2, 1943 to sometime in mid-1945; by then he'd worked himself up from the chorus to, fittingly, the part of the "bartender").
Around January 1947, Maithe Marshall replaced Ollie Jones. Don't think that Ollie was left out in the cold, however, he went on to form the Blenders, and maintained a friendship with the Ravens. In 1948, he was thinking of hiring bass James DeLoach, and had him audition for Ricks. Ricks even took the Blenders to see Al Green, president of National Records (for whom the Ravens were recording at the time); Green ended up giving them a contract. Finally, since the Ravens had more work than they could handle, Ricks made sure some of it was passed on to the Blenders. Ollie Jones would also be a founding member of the Cues and a successful songwriter (he wrote Nat "King" Cole's "Send For Me").
When Maithe joined, Ben Bart had them re-record all their Hub tunes, but Leonard couldn't remember just why. Warren felt that it was because it was now a "different sound" (which is true, but doesn't really explain it). Possibly it was just to give them some practice with Maithe. The new recordings were kept in the can (for a while).
In February 1947, the Ravens were voted "Best New Singing Group of the Year" by the listeners of the Symphony Sid After Hours radio show (co-hosted by Ray Carroll, who would soon team up with Willie Bryant). Sid presented them with an award on his WHOM (NY) show. This is proof that people were listening to their Hub recordings.
Possibly as a result of this, in April 1947, Bart signed the Ravens with National Records (Hub Records would continue on for another year). While they were appearing with Cab Calloway at Broadway's Strand Theater, they recorded their first four sides for National, in a split session on April 23 and 24: "Mahzel," "Ol' Man River," "For You," and "Would You Believe Me."
I heard a story many years ago from a recording engineer; it may be apocryphal. The Delta Rhythm Boys had a bass, Lee Gaines, who was supposedly the deepest in the business. However, they recorded for RCA Victor, the industry leader. Gaines was told that he couldn't sing as low as he was able, because it would cause the resulting records (78s, naturally) to be cut with a wider groove. This would make the needle bounce around a bit in the groove and the record would wear out faster than normal. RCA Victor wouldn't allow this, because they prided themselves on a quality product. National, however, had no such scruples; Ricks was allowed to sing as low as he wanted. The result? It was Ricks, not Gaines, who became the bass everyone else looked up to (although Gaines was Ricks' idol).
Although they were beginning to pick up a following at clubs and theaters, their first National release, issued in April 1947, only days after it was recorded, wasn't a hit. This was the oddball "Mahzel" (Hebrew for "luck"), with Leonard, Ricky, and Maithe sharing lead. It was backed with "For You" (featuring Ricky). Written by Al Dubin and Joseph Burke in 1930, "For You" was the first of many Pop standards to be recorded by the Ravens. The writers of "Mahzel" (Artie Wayne and Jack Beekman) came to a Ravens' rehearsal with the song; Biggs started playing around with it and worked out an arrangement. Leonard said that they all thought it was "cute." Why, however, would two writers of an essentially Jewish song show up at the doorstep of a black R&B group with it? The only reason I can think of is that they were friends of Al Green and he wanted something different as the first Ravens release; we'll probably never know. What we do know is that there were versions of the song by Art Mooney, Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, the Murphy Sisters, the Galli Sisters, Betty Reilly, Harry Cool, Ted Straeter, Larry Douglas, and Artie Wayne himself (note that most of these acts were demonstrably non-Jewish). I'm not willing to swear that the Ravens' version was the original.
On May 2, the Ravens opened at the Apollo Theater, sharing the stage with superstar Cab Calloway.
The next release, in June 1947, was a natural for Ricks: Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's 1927 masterpiece, "Ol' Man River" (backed with Maithe's first stunning ballad, "Would You Believe Me"). "Ol' Man River" became the Ravens' first chart hit, rising to #10 (R&B).
July found the Ravens into some antics. Taking advantage of the new "flying saucer" craze (that had started in June), the Ravens were almost arrested for sailing copies of "Ol' Man River" off NY's George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River. While Leonard confirmed that the event actually took place, the article went on to say that the only thing that saved the Ravens from being hustled off to jail was the timely intervention of Herb Abramson (a&r man for National Records, in one of his last acts before he quit to form Atlantic with Ahmet Ertegun) and Ben Bart. Abramson was quick to take the blame, calling it just a publicity stunt. Of course, the Ravens had to sing for the police to establish their identity beyond question. (I don't know about you, but I take great delight in these concocted press agents' releases).
The Ravens next National session was held on September 11, 1947. It was a big one; they recorded eight tunes: "Write Me A Letter," "Summertime," "Until The Real Thing Comes Along," "September Song," "Always," "Once In A While," "I Don't Know Why I Love You Like I Do," and "Searching For Love."
On September 12, the Ravens went into Smalls' Paradise (at 2294 Seventh Avenue in Harlem). It was supposed to be for a week, but they were held over for two more weeks.
National released two Ricks-led tunes in October: "Write Me A Letter" and "Summertime" (by DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin, from 1935's "Porgy And Bess"). "Write Me A Letter" was such a big hit (#5 R&B), that it crossed over to the Pop charts, peaking at #24. However, the charts aren't enough to tell the story of the Ravens' huge popularity, since most of their audience heard them on juke boxes and radios.
Ricks was in the news again in October, when it was reported that he and thrush Hadda Brooks were engaged. According to Leonard, they lived together for a while, but never married. This sounds to me like an elaborate cover-up to hide the affair that Hadda was having with Jules Bihari, the married owner of Modern Records. November found the Ravens playing the Club Bengazi in Washington, D.C., while announcing plans for an eight-week engagement at London's Casino the following April. However, Leonard says the trip never materialized.
On December 12, the Ravens began another week at the Apollo Theater. This time, they shared the boards with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra.
The next National session was held on December 22, 1947. It was another double session, at which they recorded the following eight songs: "Rooster," "Be I Bumblebee Or Not," "I'm Afraid Of You," "Always" (the second, unreleased attempt), "Fool That I Am," "Together," "Send For Me If You Need Me," "There's No You," and "How Could I Know."
In three months the Ravens had recorded 16 songs. That's a lot, but there was an impending musicians' strike (called for January 1, 1948) and the companies were stockpiling all the masters they could. The Ravens wouldn't record again (except for a couple of demos) until November 1948.
December found National issuing not one, but two Ravens records: a re-release of "For You" (Ricky), backed with "Searching For Love" (Maithe) in place of "Mahzel," and "Fool That I Am" (Maithe and Ricky), backed with one of my favorites, "Be I Bumble Bee Or Not" (Leonard and Ricky). Neither made the charts, but both were solid jukebox hits.
In January 1948, if you had 50¢, you could see the Ravens at Newark's Adams Theater, along with the Andy Kirk Orchestra and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. The Ravens sang "Be I Bumblebee Or Not," "Fool That I Am," "Summertime," and "Ol' Man River." They were also part of a March Of Dimes benefit show at Carnegie Hall. Others on the bill were Morey Amsterdam, Zero Mostel, Smith and Dale, Dinah Washington, and Red Ingle. The MC was Joe Franklin of WMCA. That same month, they received an award as the "Outstanding New Act Of The Year" (however, the blurb didn't say from whom).
The Pittsburgh Courier kicked off its fifth annual music poll on January 17, with results tabulated by IBM. The nominations placed the Ravens third, behind the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers. On January 24, they printed some ballots, showing that famous bandleaders Ted Weems and Sam Donahue had both voted for the Ravens. The first voter returns (reported on January 31) showed Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie fighting it out for the most popular band. In the trio category, the leaders were the King Cole Trio, Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, and the Slam Stewart Trio. Small combos were led by Louis Jordan, Illinois Jacquet, and Earl Bostic. Female soloists were represented by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Nellie Lutcher; the men had Billy Eckstine, Nat Cole, and Herb Jeffries. No surprises here. The paper was surprised, however, to find the Ravens, a new group "who came from nowhere last year," leading the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers in popularity. Going into the home stretch, the Ravens were still out in front by Valentine's Day. On March 6, they were 1000 votes ahead of the Ink Spots. At the end, the winners were Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, the King Cole Trio, Sarah Vaughan, and Billy Eckstine. (Oh, by the way, the Ravens beat out those pesky Ink Spots. The final score there was Ravens, 9815; Ink Spots, 4137; Mills Brothers, 2241; Charioteers, 644; Delta Rhythm Boys, 639, Golden Gate Quartet, 628; Basin Street Boys, 220; Deep River Boys, 181; 4 Tunes, 176; and Jubalaires, 154.)
In February, while they were at the RKO Boston, National released another of my favorites: the beautiful Ricks-led ballad "There's No You", backed with "Together" (Ricky and Maithe). "Together" had been written in 1928 by Bud De Sylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson. Later that month, they appeared at the Bengasi Club in Washington, D.C., followed by the Powelton Cafe in West Philadelphia. Then, they were off on a series of one-nighters, starting with Chicago's Regal Theater, along with Eddie Vinson and the George Hudson Orchestra.
Also in February, the industry news was that Ben Bart had bought out his Universal Attractions partner, Herry Lenetzka. They had both worked for the Gale Agency before setting up Universal (and taking one of Gale's premier acts, the Ink Spots, along with them). Now, the Ink Spots had returned to Gale, which may have precipitated the break-up.
Sometime in early 1948, the Ravens recorded three a cappella demos, which, for some reason, National saw fit to assign master numbers to: "Sylvia," "The House I Live In," and "Rickey's Blues." Since they've been preserved and issued on a Savoy release, it's possible to hear the evolution of a song. "The House I Live In," especially, shows that it needs a lot more work.
In May, National issued "Until The Real Thing Comes Along"/"Send For Me If You Need Me," both Ricks-led. "Send For Me If You Need Me" was a jump tune in the vein of "Write Me A Letter," and presumably pleased the fans, although it didn't chart. At the time, the Ravens were on a tour of the South.
In June 1948, since it was winding down operations, Hub Records sold some of its Ravens masters to King Records. (Presumably Ben Bart's split-up with Harry Lenetzka meant that Bart had less time to devote to a record company.) A blurb in the June 26 Billboard said that King had purchased six Ravens Hub masters, four of which had not been previously issued. (Remember that all six of the original 1946 Hub tunes with Ollie Jones had been re-recorded when Maithe Marshall joined in early 1947.) King bought two sides that had been released on Hub: "Once And For All" and "Bye Bye Baby Blues," and four sides that been re-recorded: "Out Of A Dream," "Honey," "My Sugar Is So Refined," and "Lullaby." (These weren't the only masters King bought. For example Hub 3045, by the Galli Sisters, was also reissued on King. At this time, the musicians union recording ban was still on, so it was a useful practice to purchase pre-strike masters.)
June found the Ravens doing a week-long engagement at the Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles. On June 15, they appeared on an ABC (radio) program called It's Dream Time (a 15-minute show with the tag line "music of yesterday and today); they sang "Ol' Man River".
Somehow they found time, in July, to purchase the contract of a prizefighter: welterweight Woody Wilson. Along the way, the Ravens had been incorporated into "Ravens Singers, Inc.", and it was this entity which now owned Wilson. Actually, it was Ben Bart who engineered the deal, having always wanted to manage a boxer. "He never became a great fighter," said Leonard.
Also in July, National released the Ravens' version of the 1938 classic by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill: "September Song" (Maithe). It was backed with "Once In A While" (Ricky), a 1937 tune by Bud Green and Michael Edwards.
With the Ravens as popular as they were on National, King tried to stretch the Hub masters as far as they'd go. The first release, in August 1948, was a two-sider ("Bye Bye Baby Blues"/"Once And For All" - these were the original Hub cuts). This time "Bye Bye Baby Blues" was snapped up by Ravens fans, pushing it to #8 on the R&B charts. All subsequent releases featured the Ravens on one side and the instrumental stylings of the 3 Clouds or the Herman Chittison Trio on the other (see discography). The rest of the releases were: "Out Of A Dream" (the re-recorded version, with Maithe) in November 1948, "Honey" (also a re-recorded version) in January 1949, and "My Sugar Is So Refined" (another re-recorded version: Leonard's was the first voice heard on the Hub cut; Ricks starts off on King) in May 1949. ("Lullaby" was sold too, but King never released it for some reason.)
Mid-September found them at the Club Bali (D.C.) for a two-week stint, and then, because there was so much work for them, Ben Bart made a deal with the William Morris Agency to book the Ravens in the West (Universal Attractions would continue to book them in the East). That same month, there was another National session, in which they covered the Orioles' smash hit "It's Too Soon To Know," and laid down "Be On Your Merry Way" and an unreleased version of the beautiful "The House I Live In." (They'd practiced this a lot since the a cappella demo they'd done six months before, but it still wasn't perfect; the released version was finally recorded in January of 1949.)
When "September Song" failed to take off, National issued "Be On Your Merry Way" (Ricky), which climbed to #13 (R&B). The flip of this September 1948 release was "It's Too Soon To Know" (Maithe and Ricky), one of the dozen or so covers of the first Orioles recording. The Ravens' rendition went to #11 on the R&B charts, not nearly as big a hit as the original (which was a #1 smash).
Around September 1948, Warren Suttles left the group during the time that the Ravens' books were being audited (since they weren't getting enough money to live on, they hired an accountant to investigate why). Warren was replaced by Joe Medlin, who had been a soloist for years, but wasn't really known outside of the Harlem club scene. In October, Maithe also quit, and Richie Cannon was hired in his place.
Cannon was from Birmingham, Alabama, where he had sung in the choir, both in High School and at Tuskegee Institute. He had then gone on to be a winner on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show. Moving to Philadelphia, Cannon became the vocalist for the Cedric Wallace Trio, with whom he recorded a couple of records for the Diamond label in early 1947. In the summer of that year, he was with the Blue Chips and then, in the fall, went on to become one of the vocalists for the 5 Blue Dots. By June 1948, he was appearing as part of a cabaret show at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Howard Biggs did the auditions for both Joe and Richie, recommending to management that they be hired.
Therefore, in the fall of 1948, the Ravens were: Richie Cannon, Leonard Puzey, Joe Medlin, Jimmy Ricks, and Howard Biggs, but this arrangement only lasted a short time. Joe Medlin's voice was good for solo work, but didn't blend well with the group; in November he left to resume work on his solo career. Fortunately, Maithe returned, just in time for a November tour that took them to St. Louis, and Richie Cannon was shifted down to baritone. While in St. Louis, they recorded "Silent Night" and Irving Berlin's 1942 Yuletide classic, "White Christmas." Another name associated with the Ravens during this period was Bubba Richie, a relative of Ricks, and the group's valet and driver. Since he could sing tenor, they let him perform with them a couple of times. However, he wasn't a strong tenor and never recorded with the Ravens.
In October, National issued "How Could I Know" (Maithe and Ricky)/"I Don't Know Why I Love You Like I Do" (Ricky), a beautiful pair of ballads. ("I Don't Know Why" had been written in 1931, by Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert.) Also in October, National released "Silent Night" (Maithe and Ricky), backed with "White Christmas" (Ricky and Maithe). As a publicity stunt, the Ravens purchased 1500 copies of "Silent Night" and sold them in the lobby of the Apollo Theater as a way of raising money for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. This record became a perennial seller for the Ravens, issued on various labels throughout the years. In 1948, however, "Silent Night" rose to #8 (R&B), slightly edging out "White Christmas," which peaked at #9. The latter song was a direct influence on Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters' version. On October 1, the Ravens began a week at the Apollo Theater, along with Dinah Washington and the George Hudson Orchestra.
Sometime in 1948 (probably) the Ravens did a radio commercial for that wonderful new soft drink, "Joe Louis Punch". Put together by Warren, it went something like: "Ain't no punch like Joe Louis Punch". The intro to the song was the same as that to "Ol' Man River".
In late November, Dinah Washington and the Ravens appeared at the Paradise Theater in Detroit and press agent Hal Halperin pulled out all the stops. At the local Thanksgiving Day parade, balloons with tiny ravens attached were let loose. Anyone who caught one got free admission to the show. You'd also get in free if you were one of the first 150 people named "Washington" to show up at the box office. Then, there was a drawing, based on Social Security number; winners received copies of "White Christmas." When they went to the Howard Theater in D.C. in late December, all women named "Washington" received a string of simulated pearls; you could win a bottle of perfume by guessing the number of sticks of gum in a fishbowl in the lobby.
In December, National put out the Irving Berlin tune "Always" (Ricky and Maithe)/"Rooster" (mostly Ricky, with the others talking). "Rooster," a novelty, was different from anything the Ravens had done since "Mahzel." It's the story of a lazy hayseed farmer, his lazy hayseed children, and his rooster (work ethic unknown). With the speakers stepping on each other's lines (as if they hadn't bothered to rehearse them), it wasn't the Ravens at their top form.
The Ravens' television debut came on January 2, 1949, when they appeared on Ed Sullivan's Toast Of The Town. Looking extremely nervous, Maithe, Richie, Jimmy, and Leonard sang "My Sugar Is So Refined" standing around Howard Biggs' piano. Sullivan was supposed to present them with an award as the top vocal group in the country (an honor they won in a Cash Box magazine poll), but the show ran out of time before he could do it.
A bit later in January, while they were playing the Royal Roost (at 47th and Broadway in Manhattan), Warren Suttles returned, and Richie Cannon was let go. Later that year, Cannon became the vocalist with the Abe Baker Trio. (Abe, a bassist, was a famous New York City session musician.) In the late 50s, he had at least two solo releases on Capitol, as well as one on Urania (all as "Richard Cannon").
On January 27, the Ravens held another session for National. The four tunes they recorded were: "Leave My Gal Alone," "Deep Purple," "Sylvia," and "The House I Live In (That's America To Me)." After much practicing, they'd finally achieved perfection with "The House I Live In."
Within days (it was still January), National released "Deep Purple"/"Leave My Gal Alone," two Ricks-led sides. The music to "Deep Purple" was written by Peter De Rose in 1934; five years later, Mitchell Parish added the beautiful words. Also in January, Billboard announced that "Write Me A Letter" had made the Ravens the second most popular juke box singing group of 1948 (in first place was the Orioles' "It's Too Soon To Know"). It was the 19th most played R&B record of the year (the Orioles were once again ahead, at number 16); the top R&B record of 1948 was Lonnie Johnson's "Tomorrow Night."
While they were around New York, National had them do another session sometime in February. The four tunes recorded were: "Tea For Two," Ricky's Blues," "Without A Song," and "Marie."
In February, when the Ravens were appearing somewhere in Baltimore (unspecified), the Afro-American helped us identify the current members: James Ricks, "William Saniford", Maithe Marshall, "Wanner Suttles", and "Leonard Bazey". The members of the Red Caps, also in town, were correctly spelled. I'm not sure what this proves.
March 1949 found them on a tour with Dinah Washington and Cootie Williams ("The Growl Trumpet King"), two more of Ben Bart's acts. The month-long tour (March 4 - April 5) took them to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Raleigh, Maxton (NC), Charleston, and Atlanta. The tour was nicknamed "The Steam Roller Unit." The Ravens (and Dinah) made the cover of the April 16 Billboard, which gave the itinerary of their upcoming Universal Attractions tour: the Apollo Theater (April 15), the Armory (Indianapolis - April 23), Kiel Auditorium (St. Louis - April 24-30), City Auditorium (Kansas City, Missouri - May 1), State Theater (Cincinnati - May 6-12), Paradise Theater (Detroit - May 13-19), Regal Theater (Chicago - May 20-26), The Auditorium (Toledo - May 27), Nu-Elms Ballroom (Youngstown, Ohio - May 28), and East Market Gardens (Akron, Ohio - May 29).
In May, National released "Ricky's Blues" (Ricky)/"The House I Live In" (Maithe and Ricky). "Ricky's Blues" hit #8 on the R&B charts. "The House I Live In" (written in 1942 by Lewis Allen and Earl Robinson) was a metaphor for the United States. It had been the subject of a Frank Sinatra movie "short" in the mid-40s. Beautiful as it was, it became an embarrassment to the Ravens. When Maithe sang the opening, "What is America to me?", he was heckled by Apollo Theater fans who didn't feel that America was treating blacks very well at that time. (One answer from the audience was, "Not a goddamned thing!")
In early June 1949, it was reported that, with a name like "Ravens," it was only fitting that Jimmy Ricks was taking flying lessons. He was said to have purchased a Piper Cub when they were playing the Oasis Club in Los Angeles. However, Leonard says that the whole story was another press agent fabrication.
Also in June, an article appeared in the Cleveland Call And Post (which I find difficult to believe), claiming that each member of the Ravens had been approached, within a two-week period, to leave the group. Ricks was the target of a "nationally famous choral group" which wanted his services. Maithe was offered a role in a "proposed Broadway musical." Puzey had the chance to join a "name" quartet. Suttles was approached for a "movie short." This stinks of a heavy-handed publicity agent. Ricks' statement to the press was: "We all are interested in the act. It's the big thing. We neither will change nor want to after we've come this far. Funny none of these offers came before we were an established success, isn't it?" Not to me, it isn't; why would anyone be interested in a bunch of unknowns?
The Ravens were honored by being voted the fifth most popular small vocal group in Billboard's 11th Annual College Poll. They placed right behind the Ink Spots and knocked the Andrews Sisters out of the top five.
Their next session was held in June 1949; the four tunes recorded were: "There's Nothing Like A Woman In Love," "Careless Love," "If You Didn't Mean It," and "Moonglow." On June 17, the Ravens and Dizzy Gillespie began an engagement at Frank Palumbo's Click in Philadelphia.
They started off July with Illinois Jacquet at the Earle Theater (Philadelphia), probably performing their latest National release, "There's Nothing Like A Woman In Love" (Ricky and Maithe)/"Careless Love" (Ricky). ("Careless Love" was more or less a folk song, originally sung by a woman bewailing her unlooked-for pregnancy.) They then started a month-long engagement at Broadway's Bop City. While there (went a suspicious press release), they sang their version of "The Whiffenpoof Song" (which they wouldn't record until August 1951). Who should be in the audience, but a bunch of Yalies, who "were so visibly moved by the unexpected treat that they immediately invited the boys to pay the campus a visit during football season and, by all means, to lead the singing of the 'Whiffenpoof Song' at the spot so dear to the heart of all Yale men. Naturally leader Jimmy Ricks was quick to accept the invitation to invade the ivy clad precincts." (From the New York Age, July 23, 1949.) A few weeks later, as soon as the Bop City gig had ended, Warren Suttles had to leave the group for a couple of weeks in order to have a tonsillectomy (or so said the press release, at any rate).
In August, National announced that R&B records would no longer be advertised as "Race Records," "a word which has long been used by the recording industry to identify and segregate records by Negro artists." This move was applauded by the Ravens, according to the article.
There was another session held on August 1, 1949, during which another four tracks were waxed: "Someday," "Lilacs In The Rain," "Tea For Two" (the second attempt at this, although neither was ever issued), and "Get Wise Baby."
Soon after that session, Howard Biggs departed to join the Beavers (who had formed back in February). The Beavers (with Biggs definitely a member) appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show on October 15 (they came in second). By the end of the year, when Biggs saw that the group was going nowhere, he looked around for another job and Regal Records announced, in January 1950, that he'd been signed as Musical Director. By August, he had become the arranger for the Coleman Brothers, one of Regal's acts.
Biggs was replaced in the Ravens by Bill Sanford, who had worked as pianist and arranger with the 4 Vagabonds, and had even recorded with them, as bass, on their Miracle record, which had been released in September 1949 (but probably recorded a few months before).
The next release was September's "If You Didn't Mean It" (Ricky)/"Someday" (Ricky and Maithe). The latter song should have been entitled "Someday You'll Want Me To Want You." In November, the Ravens appeared on the cover of Billboard. The accompanying blurb said that the corporation (Ravens Singers, Inc.) had purchased a turkey farm in Marlboro, Maryland; they called it "Ravenswood." The question is who was "they"; neither Leonard nor Warren was aware that they ever owned a turkey farm. (Since they're both in the photo, it's reasonable to suspect that this was just another heavy-handed public relations gimmick that the guys had totally forgotten about.)
A blurb in the Pittsburgh Courier on September 3 said that Fred Johnstone, "technical director of the Electronics Institute," had done some recordings of Ricks' voice and determined that his was one of the lowest registers ever recorded. I have no idea if this is legitimate or another press agent invention.
Sometime in the Fall of 1949 the Ravens recorded three songs that were never to be released: "Bless You" (led by Leonard), a second version of "Until The Real Thing Comes Along," and a second version of "Once In A While."
A December blurb talks of the "impending" marriage between Leonard Puzey and Ruth Brown. At the time, she was just beginning to emerge as an Atlantic hitmaker (and in September, she had still been married to, and recording with, Jimmy Brown). The Ravens (and Dinah Washington) were playing a two-week engagement at the Strand (on Broadway) when Leonard was quoted as saying he was "very, very fond of the lady." Even though it sounds like another press agent story, Leonard told me that he really was engaged to Ruth for a while (although I still have my doubts).
While the Ravens were in town, they recorded four tunes on December 13th: "I've Been A Fool," "Talk Of The Town," "I Don't Have To Ride No More," and "No More Kisses For Baby."
In December 1949, National issued a pair of releases. The first of these had the great ballad "I'm Afraid Of You," backed with "Get Wise Baby," both sides led by Ricky. The second was "I Don't Have To Ride No More" (Ricky)/"I've Been A Fool" (Maithe). While "I've Been A Fool" was rushed out to compete with Little Jimmy Scott's original, it was "I Don't Have To Ride No More" that topped out at #9 (R&B), becoming their last chart hit on National. (Notice that it's not the Ravens' great ballads that make the charts.)
In February 1950, the Ravens played Chicago's Regal Theater, with Dinah Washington and the Three Chocolateers. March saw the Ravens returning to Broadway's Bop City, for a twelve-day engagement with bandleader Artie Shaw. While there, Ricks slipped and hurt his back while (went the story) moving a stack of Ravens' arrangements; this served to sideline him for one performance.