The Life and Times of The Ray-O-Vacs ©JCMarion


The first time that most Rhythm & Blues fans became aware of the vocal group with the strange name (after storage batteries) called The Ray-O-Vacs was in early March of 1950. Decca Records had just released a new side by the group called "Once Upon A Time" / "Sentimental Me". The ballad side "Sentimental" was currently a big number one hit for the Ames Brothers on Coral in the pop music field, and so Coral's parent label Decca tried to get additional sales by the Ray-O-Vacs. Their version did sell some copies, but not nearly enough to make a dent in the sales by the Ames Brothers, and soon Decca was trying again with a new release. The pop standard "Besame Mucho" was paired with the jump tune "You Got To Love Me Baby", and the release date was in July. This disc, especially "Besame Mucho", sells sporadically throughout the fall keeping the name of the group before the public and holding out promise that they will break out into the big time. Decca releases a final side for the year in November, this time spotlighting lead singer Lester Harris on the label. The two songs are "I've Got Two Arms To Hold You" / "A Kiss In The Dark".

"A Kiss In The Dark" is the first recording on Decca by the group that is released in the new 45rpm format. The record has minor sales in both the R & B and pop music fields, and so Decca tries again in March with "Goodnight My Love" / "Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle". In mid May "If You Should Leave Me" / " You Can Depend On Me" is released with Lester Harris again featured as lead singer on the label. In July "My Baby's Gone" and "Lets" are paired together for Decca, but at almost the same time New Jersey independent label Regent issues a Ray-O-Vacs record - "Happy Am I" / "Hot Dog". In September Decca issues "I Still Love You Baby" / "What's Mine Is Mine" and the result is the same as with the previous seven releases, little airplay and disappointing airplay. Other than "Besame Mucho", most of the records by the group seem to vanish without much of a lasting effect. Herbert Milliner is now the featured lead singer for the group and he is spotlighted on the final release for 1951 by Decca - "Hands Across The Table" / "Charmaine", two pop music standards.

The following year brings about another attempt to find success within the pop music field for the Ray-O-Vacs with the release of "When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano" with its memories of the fine rendition done by The Inkspots years before. The flip side is "She's A Real Lovin' Baby". In June former member and lead singer Lester Harris signs a contract to record as a solo artist for RCA Records. After many records for Decca that did not register much demand at the sales counters, the label drops the group. This is not unexpected, and the group has enough of a following to be picked up by Jerry Blaine at his Jubilee label. In November the first release for Jubilee is issued - "Start Loving Me" / "What Can I Say?" in both 78 and 45 rpm formats. During February of 1953 they are well received in Philadelphia at both Pep's and the Club Bill & Lou. The next month the group learns that founding member and former lead singer Lester Harris has died at age thirty three. In May a prestigious readers poll conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier, a well known and respected Black urban newspaper, picks the Ray-O-Vacs as the best small combo attraction beating out Paul Gayten and Louis Jordan. This award by readers and music fans is a greatly appreciated honor that makes up somewhat for the groups lack of success as record sellers. In May the huge Gale Agency signs the group to its talent representative roster and things are improving for the guys. In the fall of the year, the group is a big part of the Operation Music Show, which presents the winners of the Pittsburgh Courier poll and helps to benefit the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

In April of 1954, Jubilee decides to move the Ray-O-Vacs to its Josie label, hoping the association with that label's group talent such as the Cadillacs and the Five Notes will help the Vacs score with the public. The first release for the Josie label is "Riding High" and "Darling" with lead vocal by Herb Milliner. Josie Records gives a big advertising push behind the group's efforts but the sales do not result. During the following summer, Josie tries once more with "Daddy" with vocal by Babe Hutton, and "I Still Love You" with vocal by Herb Milliner. Strangely enough, the label credits the group as Flap McQueen and The Ray-O-Vacs. In 1956 there are two sides issued on the small independent Kaiser label : "Crying All Alone" / "Party Time" and later that year : "Wino" / "Hong Kong". In 1957 there was a further recording credited to the Ray-O-Vacs that was issued on the Atlantic subsidiary label Atco. This was a re-release of the first side for Kaiser-"Party Time" and "Crying All Alone".This was the final side credited to the group. They were another that just seemed to miss the style and the presentation of the classic R & B vocal group style. They were rooted in the 1940s and like most groups caught up in this vapor lock, they sold very few records. They attracted attention when appearing live, and their names were well known, but they just didn't hit it off with the younger generation that was about to change the music forever. So like the others (Deep River Boys, Delta Rhythm Boys, Charioteers, Four Vagabonds, Golden gate Quartet, et.al.) these groups are not known as great innovators but were present for the transition and provided a bridge from the past to the present.

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