Last Saturday marked the end of my nearly eight years of employment at Amoeba Music Hollywood.
Okay – right away I can hear your breathing start to quicken and your heart-rate speed, so let me say right off that I will still be contributing to the Amoeblog. I struck a deal with management that, in exchange for writing my thoroughly researched and factually accurate lies and nonsense as I have been, I will be permitted access to the Amoeba Music break-room for all the free coffee I can drink from the hours of 4:30 pm to 5:45 pm, every Tuesday. Jealous?!?
A lot of people have been asking me what I’ll be doing now that I’ll no longer be working retail. My answer is simple.
Anyway, I want to share some of the sounds that have been weakening my knees for a while now; specifically, harmonizing vocal groups. (To be clear, I’m going to focus on more “popular vocal” groups of yesteryear – doo wop delights like The Flamingos and modern… err… marvels such as Color Me Badd will not be included.)
To start, let’s listen to one of my favorite harmonizing vocal groups of all time, The Ravens.
(...well, actually, it's just a picture of them on your computer)
The Ravens were formed in 1945 by Jimmy “B” Ricks and Warren “The Extremely” Suttles in response to the lack of “colored” acts with bird names, the development of which was seen as imperative in the move towards civil rights for blacks (though historians have since downplayed the importance of connecting African-Americans with any phylum chordata).
Ricks and Suttles, both waiters in Harlem, joined forces with singers Ollie Jones and Leonard Puzey, after mistakenly hearing their order for “Two medium-rare hamburgers” as “Hey, you fellas know of any vocal groups we could join to peppermint?”
After laughing over the confusing “to peppermint” addendum, the four men went to work honing their harmonizing skills and deciding what bird-themed moniker would lead them closer to liberty and justice. Early considerations included The Great Tinamous, The Finches, The Pallas’ Rosefinches, and for a brief and controversial time, The Rough-faced Shags. This changed to The Disease-ridden Eye-plucking Ravens and finally, in an effort to attract more people to their concerts, The Ravens.
The (awesomely-named) Rough-faced Shag
Ollie Jones left the group, citing aggravation with “all this obsession over f**king birds” and was replaced with feather collecting enthusiast and tenor, Maithe Marshall.
After signing and producing for various labels, they finally scored a hit in 1947 with the Howard Biggs-penned Write Me a Letter. It became the first R&B record to hit the National Top 25.
For years afterwards, The Ravens recorded many hits and were a top-drawing live act. They popularized the integration of dance moves into their singing, which went on to find life for decades to come in groups such as The Cadillacs, The Miracles and The Temptations.
They also spawned a great many bird-themed doo-wop groups, whom they inspired (The Orioles, The Crows, The Swallows, The Swans, The Wrens) – the rest is history; today African-Americans enjoy equal rights that once were wrongfully denied.
The Ravens line-up would continue to change; the original members went on to sing with other groups, while their road manager, Nat Margo, bought the name and continued to use the band concept, usually with singing humans but occasionally using actual, caged ravens.
The Ravens were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.