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The Ray-O-Vacs

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Biography

The Ray-O-Vacs are best remembered for "I've Got Two Arms to Hold You," which sold well in both the R&B and pop music fields in the mid-'50s. The Ray-O-Vacs -- led by Lester Harris -- appeared on the doo wop scene in early March of 1950. At the time, "Once Upon a Time" was a big number one hit for the Ames Brothers, who recorded for Coral Records. Coral's parent label -- Decca -- had tried to get additional sales by having the Ray-O-Vacs cover the song and their version did sell some copies, but not nearly enough to make a dent in the sales by the Ames Brothers. Decca tried again with the pop standard "Besame Mucho," which managed to sell well throughout the summer and into fall. That November, Decca issued a final side for the Ray-O-Vacs, this time spotlighting Harris on "I've Got Two Arms to Hold You" b/w "A Kiss in the Dark," which was the first recording on Decca by the group released in the new 45-rpm format. The single sold well in both the R&B and pop music fields, but subsequent singles failed to further their career. Ray-O-Vacs lead vocalist Harris left the group and signed a contract to record as a solo artist for RCA Records; Harris was eventually replaced by Herbert Milliner, who was spotlighted on their final Decca release, "Hands Across the Table," from 1951. The next year brought new attempts to find success within the pop music field. The Ray-O-Vacs issued "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano," which had been a hit for the Ink Spots years before, but it too failed to ignite any sales. Decca eventually dropped the Ray-O-Vacs from their roster. They were soon signed to Jerry Blaine's Jubilee label. In November, their first release -- "Start Loving Me" b/w "What Can I Say?" -- was issued in both 78- and 45-rpm formats. During February of 1953, the group performed in Philadelphia (well-received shows at both Pep's and the Club Bill & Lou). The following month, they learned that founding member and former lead singer Lester Harris had died. He was 33 years old. A few months later, in May, The Pittsburgh Courier, a black and mostly urban newspaper, conducted a prestigious readers poll. The Courier's readers picked the Ray-O-Vacs as the best small-combo attraction (beating out Paul Gayten and Louis Jordan's groups) and this award somewhat seemed to make up for the group's lack of success. That same month, the Gale Agency signed the group to its talent representative roster, and by the fall the Ray-O-Vacs performed during the Operation Music Show, which presented the winners of the Pittsburgh Courier poll and helped to benefit the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In April of 1954, Jubilee decided to move the Ray-O-Vacs to its Josie subsidiary, hoping their association with other Josie acts (the Cadillacs and the Five Notes) would help them score with the public. The first release for the Josie label was "Riding High," and featured a lead vocal by Milliner. It failed to ignite interest in the group. During the following summer, Josie tried again with a new single; "Daddy" featured a lead vocal by Babe Hutton, while "I Still Love You" was led by Herb Milliner, although the single's label credits the group as Flap McQueen & the Ray-O-Vacs. In 1956, the small independent Kaiser label issued "Crying All Alone" b/w "Party Time" and later that same year, "Wino" b/w "Hong Kong." The next year, they were shuffled over to the Atlantic subsidiary label Atco, which re-released this same single. It would end up being the final release by the Ray-O-Vacs. ~ Bryan Thomas
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