Sunday, August 16, 2009


Jimmy Ricks (lower right) and the Ravens


His voice was considered one of the most influential in the history of rhythm and blues. There was no one who could sing any lower and as well as Jimmy "Ricky" Ricks. As a member of the vocal group, the Ravens, Jimmy Ricks's lead vocals set the standard for doo-wop and rhythm and blues groups that followed him.

Jimmy Ricks was born in Adrian, Georgia in 1924. When he was a small child, Jimmy's family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where Jimmy remained until World War II, when he removed to New York to seek a career in the music business. Ricks had a unique bass voice, one which would catapult him to stardom in the blossoming rhythm and blues field. In 1945, while working as a waiter in the Four Hundred Tavern in Harlem, Ricks joined the Melodeers, a group led by Herb Kenny, whose brother Bill was the lead singer of the legendary Ink Spots. The group disbanded when Herb joined the Ink Spots as their "talking bass singer." While working at the Four Hundred, Ricks formed a friendship with Warren Suttles. The duo began singing along with jukebox records. They decided to form a group and invited Zeke Puzey, an amateur champion singer, and Ollie Jones. They called themselves the Ravens. They hired as their manager, Ben Bart, who also managed the Ink Spots.

The Ravens began their musical career in the summer of 1946 when they recorded six songs for Hub Records. Their first gig was at the Baby Grand in Harlem. The audiences loved the new sound of the Ravens, with Ricks on the bass lead. While record sales were slow at first, the Ravens's tunes were popular with the juke box crowd. Their first big break came with an appearance on Arthur Godfrey's radio show. Their next big performance came before Christmas 1946 with an appearance at the Apollo Theater following Nat King Cole. The audience went wild. The new stars were invited for a return engagement.

The Ravens re-recorded their first songs with Maithe Marshall, who replaced Jones, as the lead tenor. Listeners of a New York radio station voted the Ravens as the "Best New Singing Group of 1946." The Ravens signed a contract with National Records and began performing with Cab Calloway at the Strand on Broadway. In the spring of '47, the Ravens began their National recording sessions with one of their biggest hits "Ol' Man River, " the classic song of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern. It rose to number 10 on the R&B charts. Their next hit was "Write Me A Letter," which went to number 5 on the R&B charts and number 24 on the pop charts. The Ravens continued to release cover songs of classics such as "Summertime," by George Gershwin. The Ravens were climbing to the top of the charts. In an effort to cash in on their new popularity and the flying saucer fad sweeping the country, the group reportedly staged a publicity stunt by flinging copies of "Ol' Man River" off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.

The Ravens went back to the studio in the fall of 1947, recording nearly twenty new songs, including some of their greatest hits, "Be I Bumble Bee Or Not," "Always," and "Fool That I Am." Included in the 1947 sessions was a tune called "Rooster," a very humorous minstrel show style take off on a farmer and his rooster, which he threatens to make into dumplin's if he doesn't win the prize at the county fair. The Ravens continued to turn out one record after another in 1948, before going out on a tour of the South. The highlight of the year was a one week engagement at the Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles and two weeks at the Bali Theater in Washington, D.C. As the Ravens became more successful, they incorporated their group and began to invest in other business ventures including owning a prize fighter and a turkey farm, which they named, "Ravenswood." Although the Ravens were enjoying success in 1948, two of the main members, Warren Suttles and Maithe Marshall left the group. Maithe returned in time to record "Silent Night" and "White Christmas," which rose to number 8 and number 9 on the R&B charts.

Jimmy Ricks

Jimmy Ricks (Upper Left) and the Ravens

Suttles returned in early 1949 just before the Ravens made their national television debut on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town." Sullivan presented the group with the "Top Vocal Group of 1948," given by the readers of "Cashbox" magazine. The Ravens had enjoyed their most successful year in 1948, breaking records at the Apollo Theater in New York and the Paradise Theater in Detroit. They won six popularity polls and continued their string of cover hits of classic tunes, such as "Deep Purple," "Tea For Two," and "Without a Song." Jimmy, known as "Ricky" to his friends, wrote and sung, "Ricky's Blues," which peaked at number 8 on the charts. The Ravens ended the Forties with their last chart hit, "I Don't Have to Ride Anymore," which also rose to number 8 on the R&B charts. The lyrics told of a man not being thrown out of the house because he had won the numbers game with "6-9-4." It has been said that while the Ravens were performing in Atlanta, local bookies refused to accept the three now famous numbers.

Despite their songs were not making the charts, the Ravens still enjoyed a vast popularity with their fans. In the winter of 1950, the Ravens performed with such greats as Dinah Washington and Artie Shaw. Warren Suttles left the group and was replaced by Louis Heyward. The group had their last recording session with National Records in the summer of 1950, before going over to the Columbia label, when Jimmy Ricks joined the Benny Goodman Sextet in performing, "Oh, Babe," and "You're Gonna Lose Your Girl," the former rising to number 25 on the pop charts. Ricks performed the song, "Oh Babe," with Goodman on his television show on the Dumont Network. With Jimmy's success with Goodman, the Raven's producers decided to use swing musicians to back the group.

The year 1951 was another successful one for the Ravens as they continued to churn out one song after another for Columbia. They received thousands of dollars a night to perform. Louis Heyward and Maithe Marshall returned to the group, but not for long. The main group broke up and the new Ravens signed with Mercury Records, with Jimmy Ricks as the sole surviving member. The new group continued the old group's success by recording cover versions of classic American songs, such as Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" and Hank Williams's "Hey Good Lookin!"

The new group suddenly became the old group in late 1952. Warren Suttles and Zeke Puzey, the original co-founders, returned. In Pittsburgh, the Ravens were as popular as ever, garnering the 1953 poll as the best vocal quartet. Once again the Ravens were one of the most popular recording acts in the country. The last Ravens original record with Mercury was fittingly a 1954 cover version of Cole Porter's classic, "I've Got You Under My Skin." 1955 was Jimmy Ricks's last year with the Ravens. On his final record with the Ravens, Ricks sang the lead on "Boots and Saddles/I'll Always Be In Love With You," which was released in February of 1956. While the Ravens continued to perform for more than a decade, Ricks embarked on a less successful solo career releasing two dozen solo 45s.

Jimmy Ricks died on July 2, 1974, while he was attempting a comeback as a singer for the Count Basie Orchestra. The Ravens, who were inspired by the Ink Spots and who released nearly five dozen singles, were considered the first real rhythm and blues group. They were the first group to use dance steps in their act. Ricks's deep bass and Suttles booming baritone influenced a younger generation of doo-wop singers and the male soul groups of the late 60s and 70s. In 1998, the Ravens were inducted as initial members of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon, Pennsylvania.


Nathan said...

All great information. I didn't know Ricks was with Basie when he died. It seems to me that the Ravens recorded "Hey Good Lookin' " with Dinah Washington, and that this is actually NOT the Hank Williams tune, but a different song with the same title.

Jimmy is one of the secret wonders of the world. A natural born Bass Singer is one of the rarest of musical phenomena. He is certainly unique in the history of popular music.

And while Jimmy was great, for some reason he was also a very uneven artist. His greatest work, to me, is his 1965 solo album with Don Sebesky,"Vibrations", recorded for the Mainstream label. And even here only about half of the album succeeds. But some of these performances are truly unbelievable. They include: "And The Angels Sing", "Teach Me Tonight", "Sophisticated Lady", "If I Should Lose You", and "Sixteen Tons".

I have recently been in contact with Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records who may be interested in reissuing this album on cd. If this happens, it would be a very important release. Something that could bring Jimmy some much deserved attention. Unfortunately the company that now owns Mainstream is not the easiest to deal with. We can only hope!

Terence said...

Certainly the Ravens rate more than examination by scholars and people in the record collectors.

Jimmy Ricks was truly a great bass singer (got a bit carried with his own success I have read), yet what he did was essential to the doo-wop, r &B, and eventually soul that followed in the states and ska, rock steady that coming from Jamaica who are very astute when it comes to American R & B.

Count Every Star, Old Man River sound as good, with his bass, now as they did more than 60 years past. Good for him to kept at well into the soul era he helped set the stage for, but seemed to shunned those more grounded in the pre-soul music era.

Anonymous said...

I love this group ... all of them ... and especially Ricky. I picked up a CD and loved all the tunes. The one I chose to do is "Send For Me If You Need Me" which wasn't mentioned in the bio above. It believe it was hit for them the year I was born ... 1947.
Fabulous group and I am forever indebted to their contribution to the world of music and group singing.

Nics218 said...

I came across this when looking for more information on Jimmy Ricks - I just love his version of Daddy Rollin' Stone. Thanks for giving me some background on this great vocalist...I will be searching out more of his work!

Anonymous said...

Probably my favorite Jimmy Ricks/Ravens song is "If You Didn't Mean It"... what a voice!! --Paula M--

Millie M Ricks Kyle said...

Wow! i never get the chance to send messages/however, seeing my dad's story and his cousin jimmy ricks-i am moved. I am the daughter of Percy Doc Ricks Jr and/author:Waking Up a Swan, that has my dad's story. He is and was my hero. Millie M Ricks Kyle

Michael Francis Owings aka Jacksonville Slim said...

Jimmy Ricks drove me to a 7-11 when I was a kid and bought me an RC cola in his white 1963 Corvette with red leather interior. His young wife; Ida Pearl was our housekeeper. My Mother was little Ricky Ricks' GodMother.
Jimmy Ricks had the deepest voice of anyone I ever heard. It was like the voice of God.

Michael Francis Owings aka Jacksonville Slim said...

Jimmy Ricks drove me to a 7-11 when I was a kid and bought me an RC cola in his white 1963 Corvette with red leather interior. His young wife; Ida Pearl was our housekeeper. My Mother was little Ricky Ricks' GodMother.
Jimmy Ricks had the deepest voice of anyone I ever heard. It was like the voice of God.