The Ravens were among the pioneering post-World War II R&B groups, and also among the earliest R&B groups named for birds.
In both their musicality and their nomenclature, they influenced two generations of performers that followed, as well as sold lots of records in the process. The Ravens originated with Jimmy Ricks (born 1924, Jackson, FL; died 1974, New York, NY), who started singing at an early age. In 1945, he was employed as a waiter at the Four Hundred Tavern and later at an establishment known as the L. Bar, both in New York's Harlem. One of his co-workers was a friend, Warren "Birdland" Suttles, and during moments when the work wasn't too frantic, the two began singing together, to tunes by the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and other harmony groups whose music appeared on the club's jukebox. They decided to try and form an actual group, searching for two more members that would make up the requisite harmony quartet. The two hooked up with Leonard "Zeke" Puzey and Ollie Jones, and worked up their sound around songs such as "Darktown Strutters' Ball." Choosing the name the Ravens, and thus inaugurating the "bird" group trend in black vocal groups, they were booked into the Club Baton in Harlem, and proved themselves sufficiently talented to rate a national tour, also picking up Howard Biggs, who became their arranger and the composer of much of their original repertory. The Ravens' sound was unusual for its time, featuring bass singer Ricks as the lead voice -- this would become their trademark and one of their most often emulated attributes over the next decade.
The group was signed to Hub Records in early 1946, and released their debut single, "Honey" b/w "Lullaby," the latter a Jones original that they'd been performing since putting together their four-man lineup. Jones left the group late in 1946 to join the Cues and was replaced by Maithe Marshall. The Ravens' contract with Hub ended after one year and they jumped to the National label, where they enjoyed an immediate hit with their version of "Ol' Man River," which was perhaps the best of a succession of eight Top Ten R&B hits over the next decade, including "Write Me a Letter" and "Send for Me If You Need Me." By 1948, the Ravens were already an influence on dozens, perhaps hundreds of R&B vocal groups that were coalescing around the variety of sounds that they were bringing to the charts. The Orioles, the Crows, the Swallows, the Swans, and the Wrens followed immediately in their wake, and the trend didn't slacken in the 1950s, as outfits with names like the Penguins continued charting, but the Ravens was where it started. The group continued performing and recording for another seven years, with Marshall and Suttles periodically exiting the lineup at different times, the latter replaced by Joe Medlin and Louis Heyward, and Bubba Ritchie. Their label relationships were nearly as busy as these lineup shifts, from National to Columbia (and OKeh) in 1950, and then to Mercury in 1951. Their move to the latter label resulted in a major lineup change as Jimmy Stewart succeeded as the lead tenor from Puzey, who jumped to the Hi-Hatters -- Marshall later followed him into that lineup, as did Heyward for a short period. Whatever their lineup, the Ravens ascended to the top of their field while at Mercury, although their chart placements didn't always reflect their status as a performing group. They only enjoyed one major chart hit, "Rock Me All Night Long," which got to number eight on the national R&B listings, but the group was commanding a fee of 2,000 dollars a night for their performances during this period. The group, consisting of Ricks, Joe Van Loan, Louis Frazier, and Stewart, moved to Jubilee Records once their Mercury contract ended in 1953. Their four Jubilee singles were released during the period when rock & roll was on the rise and many R&B acts were put in the position of trying to appeal to a wider, whiter youth audience than they'd previously thought of reaching. "Green Eyes" was their biggest hit on Jubilee, in mid-1955 -- several of their songs from this period show the growing influence of rock & roll, complete with loud sax arrangements and titles such as "Rockin' at the Record Hop."
The beginning of the end for the group came when Ricks began pursuing his goal of a solo career. Their final singles were issued credited to "Jimmy Ricks and the Ravens" or "Jimmy Ricks and the Rickateers." Ricks exited the group in 1956, and the group name was taken over by Van Loan, who purchased the Ravens' name in partnership with their road manager, Nat Margo. Under Van Loan's leadership, the Ravens jumped to Chess Records' Argo imprint that same year. Ricks' influence remained profound into the late '50s, long after the Ravens ceased charting records -- the Temptations' Melvin Franklin, in particular, was heavily influenced by Ricks' singing. Ricks remained an active solo performer, moving between the Paris, Decca, and Signature labels before signing with Atlantic Records in 1961, where he recorded with LaVern Baker and Little Esther. By the 1967, when he rejoined Jubilee Records, he'd passed through the Mainstream and Festival Records rosters. Ricks reunited with Warren Suttles in 1971 and reformed the the Ravens, with Gregory Carroll and Jimmy Breedlove filling out the lineup. As an indication of the flexibility of Ricks' singing voice and the respect he commanded even after more than 25 years as an R&B vocalist, he joined the Count Basie band as its vocalist in the early '70s, a capacity in which he was serving at the time of his death on July 2, 1974, at the age of 50. The Ravens never recorded as much as their main rival group, the Orioles, and have never received the kind of comprehensive retrospective accorded the latter group. Their recorded legacies for National, Columbia and OKeh, Mercury, and Jubilee are available but scattered among several releases on various labels. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi