The Ravens have stood the test of time as one of the best of all pioneering rhythm and blues groups. They were the first to make continuous use of a bass vocalist (Jimmy Ricks) and a falsetto tenor (Maithe Marshall) on lead. They were also the first to incorporate dance steps into an R&B act. Though there had been black groups before, like THE MILLS BROTHERS, THE CHARIOTEERS, THE INK SPOTS, and the DELTA RHYTHM BOYS, they tended to sing popular songs for white audiences in a soft, smooth, inoffensive style. The Ravens (and a bit later THE ORIOLES) used bits of jazz, blues, gospel, and rhythm to make music that appealed to both races. In fact, record industry personnel and the media dubbed their music “race music.”
The Ravens were the brainchild of Jimmy Ricks and baritone Warren “Birdland” Suttles, two Harlem waiters. They decided to go to the Evans Booking Agency and recruit two more singers to form a group in 1945. That visit brought them in contact with first tenor Ollie Jones and second tenor Leonard Puzey.
The foursome decided to call themselves the Ravens, thus setting in motion what would become the first group-name craze, this one centered around birds.
The members were fans of acts like the Delta Rhythm Boys and began practicing tunes like “Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” They met up with Howard Biggs, who became their musical arranger and wrote many of their original songs.
The Ravens’ first performance was in 1946 at the Club Baron on West 132nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
In the spring of 1946 the group joined Hub Records, and their first 78, “Honey,” was issued on July 1. It was immediately followed by two more R&B singles, the better of which was a Dee Lippman-penned jump tune, “My Sugar Is So Refined.” They opened with this song when they appeared at a benefit show with Nat King Cole and Stan Kenton at the legendary Apollo Theatre. Puzey sang lead, but when Ricks took over, his booming bass brought the house down.
Ollie Jones then left, and a key addition came when Jimmy Ricks found falsetto tenor supreme Maithe Marshall tending bar and asked him to join. The group then rerecorded their Hub sides for King in 1946, who reissued them usually with an instrumental B side by the Three Chords.
In 1947 they signed with National Records (owned by Albert Green) and began a series of releases that usually featured Ricks on a jump tune while Maithe Marshall and his crystal-clear falsetto led the group on the flip-side ballads. Marshall, consequently, labeled himself a B-side singer. He would be gratified to know that in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s collectors literally fought to obtain Ravens records containing his B side.
The National recordings started with the Howard Biggs-penned “Write Me a Letter.” On December 13, 1947, it became the first R&B record to hit the national top 25, charting at number 24. As “Write Me” didn’t hit the R&B charts until January 10, 1948, the Ravens, the world’s first successful rhythm and blues group, actually charted Pop before they charted R&B, where “Write Me” reached number five Juke Box and number 10 Best Seller.
But it was their second National single, a rhythmic version of the standard “Old Man River,” full of Ricks’s cavernous bass, that established the group and its sound internationally. It supposedly sold over two million copies though it only reached number 10 R&B.
The years 1947 through ’49 saw a number of beautiful ballads and bouncy pre-rock Ravens records on National, including standards like “Summertime,” “September Sing,” “Once in a While,” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” “Deep Purple,” and “Count Every Star.” Their sixth National single, “Send for Me If You Need Me,” charted R&B on July 3rd, reaching number five Best Seller and Number seven Juke Box. In August one of the King recordings, “Bye Bye Baby Blues,” reached number eight Best Seller and number 13 Juke Box.
In September of 1948 they covered a new group’s first release, the Orioles’ “It’s Too Soon to Know,” but the rookie Orioles reached number one while the Ravens’ single, a fine bluesy version, only reached number 11.
The group began touring on what would become the legendary chitlin circuit, a series of theatre venues on the East Coast and in the Midwest in which thousands of rhythm and blues groups would perform. From the Uptown and Earl Theatres in Philadelphia, the Howard in Washington, the Royal in Baltimore, the Regal in Chicago, the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, and the State in Hartford to the crown jewel of theatres, the Apollo in New York, the Ravens blazed a trail for thousands of vocal groups.
In November 1948 National issued the group’s incredible rhythm version of “White Christmas” (#9 Juke Box, #14 Best Seller), setting the standard for the 1954 version by THE DRIFTERS (an almost note-for-note copy) that became the rock and roll standard. “White Christmas’s” flip was an equally thrilling ballad version of “Silent Night.”
In 1949 “Ricky’s Blues” reached number eight on the Juke Box R&B lists on June 11th as well as number 13 Best Seller. In February of 1950, “I Don’t Have to Ride No More” became their last National charter at number nine Best Seller, number 13 Juke Box.
During 1950 Louis Heyward took the baritone part as Suttles took one of his frequent sabbaticals (previously replaced by Joe Medlin – later a national promo exec for Atlantic Records – and Bubba Ritchie for short periods). Their last National single was “Lilacs in the Rain” featuring Marshall’s magical natural falsetto.
In late 1950 the Ravens signed with Columbia, recording fine sides like the Ricks-led blues tune “Time Takes Care of Everything” and the Marshall-featured “I’m So Crazy for Love.” After a few sides for Columbia’s Okeh affiliate, the Ravens moved to Mercury in late 1951. This was a relatively new Ravens incarnation, however, with Jimmy Steward taking over for Puzey on tenor, Louis Frazier in for Heyward, and a young falsetto lead named Joe Van Loan from a Philadelphia gospel group known as the Canaanites. Though Maithe Marshall’s sound was unique and much imitated in years to come, the man who came closest to his sound was his incredible replacement Joe Van Loan.
The Ravens became a top-drawer attraction. As an indication of their popularity, in a February 1951 performance at Middlebury College in Vermont, they received $2,000, a hefty sum in those days for one night’s work.
Mercury issued some softer jump sides like “Begin the Beguine” and charted for the first time in two-and-a-half years with “Rock Me All Night Long” (#4 Juke Box, #8 Best Seller, 1952). The best-loved Mercury sides were ballads such as “Who’ll Be the Fool” and “September Song”. Billboard’s February review of “September Song” described it as a “moody rendition of the evergreen, with the high voice of the lead singer soaring slickly overall, a very strong entry,” Perhaps the best ballad ever recorded by a Ravens group was the Joe Van Loan-led “Don’t Mention My Name” (December 1952), a nearly overlooked jazz, blues, and pop classic that had Van Loan’s glass-breaking falsetto weaving on top of a mellow sax.
Despite the fact that three-fourths of the group were new additions, the Mercury quartet sounded as good as the National label originals. In 1953 Suttles returned to replace Frazier and Tommy Evens spent some time performing with the group, while Ricks soloed for a while.
In early 1955 the Ravens of Ricks, Van Loan, Stewart, and Frazier (back again) signed with Jubilee. By the spring of 1956 Ricks had decided on a fulltime solo career; Van Loan, however, wasn’t ready to give up the name, and he recruited his brothers Paul (second tenor) and James (baritone) along with David “Boots” Bowers (bass) as a new Ravens. The quartet maintained the vocal sound of the original when they signed to Argo Records in the fall of 1956.
Their first single was the powerful “Kneel and Pray,” with outstanding harmony and Van Loan at his stratospheric best. Though not a national hit, it received enough sales and airplay to prompt the release of a similar powerhouse, “A Simple Prayer,” which included another stirring performance and earth-shattering final notes for Van Loan.
Their last great effort was a remake of the Scarlets’ 1954 “Dear One” in the summer of 1957.
The group’s road manager, Nat Margo, bought the Ravens name from Ricks, and a variety of Ravens showed up on the tour circuit through the ‘60s and ‘70s.
In the 1970s Ricks, Van Loan, Stewart, and Frazier re-formed to tour Europe with Benny Goodman. In 1971 Ricks and Suttles performed as the Ravens with Gregory Carroll of the Four Buddies and Jimmy Breedlove of THE CUES.
All the original Ravens went on to sing with other groups, sometimes moonlighting with two at a time. The first time Suttles left in 1950 he formed THE DREAMERS with Harriet Calender, Freddie Francis, and Perry Green recording for Mercury and Jubilee. He remained in New York City and became manager of a restaurant and bar.
Leonard Puzey had introduced the “applejack” to group choreography. Ironically, the Ravens themselves didn’t like the dance step ideas, but the audiences loved them so Ricks and company kept them in. Puzey’s moves became a part of vocal group performances from the Orioles and THE CADILLACS to THE TEMPTATIONS and THE MIRACLES for decades to come. After the Ravens, Puzey joined the Hi Hatters and after the service sang with both Orville Brooks and Deed Watson’s Ink Spots. He retired to live in Minnesota.
Ollie Jones joined the Cues (Capitol) and became a songwriting success with tunes like “Send for Me” (Nat King Cole). Joe Van Loan sang with the Dixiearies (Harlem), the Bells (Rama), and the Dreamers (Mercury) with Suttles throughout the Ravens years. After their demise he joined the Du Droppers (Groove) and in the early ‘70s sang with Charles Fuga’s Ink Spots.
In 1950 Jimmy Ricks left the Ravens to appear and record with Benny Goodman and had a hit (#25) duetting with Nancy Reed on “Oh Babe!” (Columbia, 1950). After his final recording stint with the Ravens in 1956 Ricks went on to record solo for more labels than there were Ravens members, including Atco, Atlantic, Jubilee, Josie, Decca, Fury Felsted, Baton, Pilgrim, Peacock, Signature, and Mainstream, but he never charted as a solo artist. He moved to Florida performed with Count Basie, and stayed active on the club scene until his death on July 2, 1974, at the age of 50.
– Jay Warner
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 selling lots of records in the process.
The Ravens originated with with Jimmy Ricks (b. 1924, Jackson, Florida-d. 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 Jimmy 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 “Lullabye,” the latter an Ollie Jones original that they’d been performing since putting together their four-man line-up. 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 “Old Man River,” which was perhaps the best of a succession of a eight top-10 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 sound 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 were where it started. The group continued performing and recording for another seven years, with Marshall and Suttles periodically exiting the line-up at different times, the latter replaced by Joe Medlin and Louis Heyward, and Bubba Ritchie. Their label relationships were nearly as busy as these line-up 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 line-up change as Jimmy Stewart succeeded as the lead tenor from Leonard “Zeke” Puzey, who jumped to the Hi-Hatters — Marshall later followed him into that line-up, as did Heyward for a short period. Whatever their line-up, 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 No. 8 on the national R&B listings, but the group was commanding a fee of $2000 a night for their performances during this period. The group, consisting of Ricks, Van Loan, 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 ‘n 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 ‘n 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 Jimmy 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 Joe 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. Jimmy Ricks’ influence remained profound into the late 1950s, 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 line-up. As an indication of the flexibility of Jimmy 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. he 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