BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of the most successful early rock vocal groups and among the most influential acts in rock history. With their youth, their relative inexperience and unpolished sound specializing in yearning romantic songs, and in lead singer Sonny Til, who became rock’s first sex symbol, The Orioles became the faces of the growing young audience for the music in its formative years.

Formed in March 1948 from various competitors at Baltimore talent shows their rise to stardom was astonishingly quick upon teaming up with white local songwriter Deborah Chessler who became their manager and despite her own lack of experience was able to get them on the national radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts at the start of May and parlayed that appearance into a recording contract with Jubilee Records.

In violation of the recording ban the group entered the studio in late June and recorded songs Chessler had written for the occasion. When the ballad, “It’s Too Soon To Know”, originally intended as the B-side of their debut, became a #1 hit the song and the group ushered in a new aspect to rock’s expanding musical palette, that of the hopeful romantic dreamer which was distanced from the pop world by a soulful delivery of both the leads and harmony.

The next few years saw them score a number of national hits and even more regional hits, virtually keeping Jubilee Records afloat singlehandedly. Their live shows were notorious for the fanatical female audiences they attracted as girls would scream “Ride my alley, Sonny” when he’d croon directly to them as they’d tear at him possessively. On numerous occasions girls would theatrically attempt suicide after seeing them, further bolstering their image as the initial superstars of the rock field.

The male audience was no less affected, though in a different way, with countless groups forming and modeling themselves on The Orioles with many subsequent hitmaking acts in rock, such as The Cardinals, being virtual imitations of them. Along with the earthier sounding Ravens, The Orioles also spurred the cottage industry of vocal groups named after birds which would dominate the landscape over the next fifteen years.

However their initial success with ballads made them rather one-dimensional as they soon abandoned their early attempts at bouncier mid-tempo or rockin’ uptempo songs, content to pair two ballads on each release, limiting the potential ways in which they could connect with audiences and which led to a gradual lessening of their commercial appeal.

Eventually they reversed this trend with a handful of sides which showed they were more than capable of delivering in more exciting, edge-of-the-seat types of songs, but it remained only a small part of their arsenal over the years.

The group suffered a major loss when an auto accident returning from a tour killed the group’s guitarist, Tommy Gaither in 1950, his place taken by Ralph Williams.

Over time the changing landscape of rock with a more uninhibited vocal style being popularized, as well as attempts by Jubilee Records to make Sonny Til a solo act by releasing records without The Orioles, or in duets with their new signee, Edna McGriff (who became their first new star since 1948), and group member George Nelson’s increasing unreliability which led to his 1953 departure (replaced by Gregory Carroll), cut into The Orioles consistent popularity, though they scored their biggest hit in 1953 with “Crying In The Chapel” which led to a boost to their touring that would last two years. Yet after that just one more hit followed and in 1954 Chessler, who had penned some of their biggest hits, got them all of their initial breaks and was a devoted manager whom they all respected and loved, announced she was stepping down, tiring of the grind.

The increased popularity of the multi-artist tours cut into their money-making ability, as they’d been able to secure much higher guarantees when they were the only act at a club rather than one of a half dozen or more acts on a larger stage show emceed by a radio dee-jay who’d use their ability to play – and thus promote – the group on his show as a way to entice artists to play for less. Johnny Reed left as a result of this and soon after the other regulars, including the lone remaining original member Alex Sharp, quit as well over the declining revenue.

Til put together an entirely new group of Orioles but even a move to the larger Vee-Jay Records couldn’t revive sales and they too broke up. More renditions of The Orioles followed but recording opportunities were few and far between and by the mid-1960’s Til and whomever was a designated Oriole for the show were doing small gigs for little pay and no recognition. In the 1970’s he wound up singing for a revived Ink Spots group, ironic in that they were the dominant pre-rock vocal group that acts like The Ravens and Orioles made passé.

Sonny Til died at the age of just 56 in 1981 and of the original members only Johnny Reed was still around when the group was inducted into The Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame in 1995. Deborah Chessler, the woman who oversaw their rise into the premier vocal group of rock’s first half dozen years, passed away at the age of 89 in 2012.

Unlike many artists of rock’s pre-crossover years who’ve been systematically cast aside and forgotten in the history books, The Orioles continue to receive a decent amount of recognition for the chord they struck with the first generation of rock fans.
 
 
SONNY TIL & THE ORIOLES DISCOGRAPHY (Reviews To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
 
 
IT’S TOO SOON TO KNOW
(It’s A Natural 5000/Jubilee 5000; July, 1948)
A disarmingly simple and addictive melody backed by some of the most deeply probing and heartfelt lyrics topped by impeccable singing that was urgent, direct and soulful and spoke to the generation coming of age who made The Orioles stars of the first magnitude and this a Number One hit. A perfect debut. (9)

BARBRA LEE
(It’s A Natural 5000/Jubilee 5000; July, 1948)
Though catchy on the surface the novelty concept of the lyrics with a plot twist that renders the sentiments they’d been offering a joke, the record was a victim of the mindset that decreed cute = successful. In this case cute = a solid effort put to waste. (3)

(IT’S GONNA BE A) LONELY CHRISTMAS
(Jubilee 5001; November, 1948)
The first original rock Christmas song was a winner, both aesthetically and commercially, with Sonny Til’s heart wrenching despondency seeming so real that it’s remained the defining performance of the timeless holiday staple ever since. (8)

TO BE TO YOU
(Jubilee 5001; November, 1948)
Uninspired attempt to capture the spirit of their breakthrough using the same surface attributes – slow pacing, no musical support, emotionally despondent theme – while forgetting the facets of that first record that made it work, such as a brilliant melody, vivid storyline and memorable lyrics. (3)

DARE TO DREAM
(Jubilee 5001 reissue; January, 1949)
Beautifully sung by Sonny Til but hampered greatly by the dainty piano-led pop arrangement that sought to disavow rock advances in favor of a more established and acceptable approach. (3)

PLEASE GIVE MY HEART A BREAK
(Jubilee 5002; February, 1949)
Another record caught between styles, as the arrangement sticks to the artificiality of pop but Sonny Til nearly wins you over by displaying the emotional commitment required of rock. (4)

IT SEEMS SO LONG AGO
(Jubilee 5002; February, 1949)
Desperate attempt at mainstream pop acceptance, a bland pop ballad that leaves so little meat for Sonny Til to sink his teeth into vocally that it’s hardly worth even calling a meal. (2)

TELL ME SO
(Jubilee 5005; April, 1949)
A comeback record of sorts following multiple ill-suited stabs at pop acceptance The Orioles return to the emotional yearning they do so well on a song that is perfect lyrically and melodically and returned them to the top of the charts. (9)

DEACON JONES
(Jubilee 5005; April, 1949)
Rousing gospel-styled cover of a recent Bull Moose Jackson song finds The Orioles vocal harmonies front and center in an approach they rarely tackled but prove they could pull off as well as anybody. (8)

I CHALLENGE YOUR KISS
(Jubilee 5008; July, 1949)
A somewhat unambitious cover record on a song that is well-suited to their style makes this a mixed bag, on one hand it was well sung with an undercurrent of genuine longing, but on the other it showed the group’s own creativity was increasingly lacking. (6)

A KISS AND A ROSE
(Jubilee 5009; August, 1949)
Though their recent rash of cover songs is troubling this is a really good composition done in exquisite fashion, as Sonny Til delivers one of his most effective leads with solid support by the others making it one of their definitive performances. (8)

IT’S A COLD SUMMER
(Jubilee 5009; August, 1949)
Yet another mournful ballad featuring the perpetually brokenhearted Sonny Til covering the same ground in the same style as they’ve done nine times prior to this, though by now we’ve grown tired of him crying on our shoulder all the time. (2)

FORGIVE AND FORGET
(Jubilee 5016; October, 1949)
Another breathtaking performance by Sonny Til on the last great song written for them by their manager Deborah Chessler and featuring some of the best support the others have offered on record… another well earned hit. (8)

SO MUCH
(Jubilee 5016; October, 1949)
From its pacing and viewpoint to its vocal and instrumental arrangements this is a new song in name and lyrics only, another sign of their growing stylistic repetitiveness that will slowly but surely do them in from this point forward. (3)

WHAT ARE YOU DOING NEW YEAR’S EVE?
(Jubilee 5017; November, 1949)
Though not an original composition The Orioles make this their own for eternity thanks to a more ragged than usual delivery by Sonny Til which perfectly conveys the mixture of hope and despair in the lyrics giving them their second definitive reading of a holiday classic. (9)

WOULD I STILL BE THE ONE IN YOUR HEART
(Jubilee 5018; January, 1950)
Nothing new stylistically, structurally, melodically or thematically from the group despite different songwriters which turns out to be the only intriguing aspect of this record as two prominent disc jockeys who furthered their careers share credit with a pop tunesmith of note. (3)

IS MY HEART WASTING TIME
(Jubilee 5018; January, 1950)
A risky question to ask by a group who is wasting everyone’s time with more of the same weepy sentiments and maudlin accompaniment… if you liked this approach the last 312 times they tried it you might still find it worthwhile but it’s getting tedious. (3)

AT NIGHT
(Jubilee 5025; March, 1950)
One of the group’s defining efforts, sticking with their usual lovelorn ballad fare but tweaking their standard formula just enough in the process, helped by a vague dream-like perspective, to make this sparkle from start to finish. (9)

EVERY DOG-GONE TIME
(Jubilee 5025; March, 1950)
An apt title for the group who revert back to their usual approach in every way – theme, pacing and structure – giving you the sense that you’ve heard it all before. (4)

MOONLIGHT
(Jubilee 5026; April, 1950)
Another drawn-out ballad which tries to inject a detached optimism into the mix but screws it up by having it run counter to the downcast melodic progression resulting in a sloppy and chaotic sounding performance. (2)

I WONDER WHEN
(Jubilee 5026; April, 1950)
Notable for being the first time a string section was used on a rock vocal group record but while they manage to adapt it to their style more tastefully than expected it’s still a pop arrangement which reveals questionable motives in their future direction. (3)

EVERYTHING THEY SAID CAME TRUE
(Jubilee 5028; June, 1950)
A shallow attempt at upward mobility replete with a string section, insipid lyrics and a happy ending that defies logic, all made worse by Sonny Til adhering to pop vocal techniques until he finally breaks free just enough to show he has a pulse. (2)

YOU’RE GONE
(Jubilee 5028; June, 1950)
Another stab at pop acceptance this time with supper club piano as the main accompaniment while Sonny Til sounds as if he’s had enough of this drivel and is just going through the motions and not investing himself in the shallow sentiments at all. (2)

I’D RATHER HAVE YOU UNDER THE MOON
(Jubilee 5031; August, 1950)
After sticking exclusively to the exact same structure in all of their arrangements they finally shake things up slightly, but unfortunately it’s only by taking the bridge at a faster pace which comes across as a gimmick not radical re-invention. (3)

WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE THROUGH
(Jubilee 5031; August, 1950)
More predictable stuff from the perennially abject group with a skeletal framework and transparent melody framing a despondent emotional theme which is delivered nicely by Sonny Til again but none of it is striking enough to be memorable. (4)

I NEED YOU SO
(Jubilee 5037; September, 1950)
Rather than do a straightforward reading of Ivory Joe Hunter’s current hit, The Orioles alter the arrangement slightly, taking advantage of their group vocals and Sonny Til’s more desperate lead and while this doesn’t match the original it’s not a bad effort creatively speaking. (6)

GOODNIGHT IRENE
(Jubilee 5037; September, 1950)
By alternating Sonny Til’s stoic emotional lead with a rousing, almost mocking, chorus sung by George Nelson with strong support by the others, this freewheeling performance becomes one of their more enjoyable records in spite of – or because of – that schizophrenic approach. (7)

I CROSS MY FINGERS
(Jubilee 5040; October, 1950)
Though beset with the same approach of most of their material this is helped by a slightly stronger melodic hook to better showcase Sonny Til’s strong lead and while the harmonies are more prominent than usual they still are avoiding any innovative arrangements. (5)

CAN’T SEEM TO LAUGH ANYMORE
(Jubilee 5040; October, 1950)
While we can bemoan their resorting to a current pop cover for their material the content is tailor made for the group who strip the arrangement down even more than usual, letting the others provide a nice harmony bed for Sonny Til’s fragile lead. (5)

OH HOLY NIGHT
(Jubilee 5045; November, 1950)
Beautiful rendition of the Christmas standard delivered with only faint instrumental backing allowing Til’s solemn delivery to shine while the group adds subtle harmonies and moments of impressive support throughout. (7)

I MISS YOU SO
(Jubilee 5051; January, 1951)
One of their better remembered songs, despite not being a hit, featuring a breathtaking lead by Sonny Til and some solid backing vocals by the others with a theme that connects in more ways than intended by the composition itself. (8)

YOU ARE MY FIRST LOVE
(Jubilee 5051; January, 1951)
With a really good melodic structure and a slightly different lyrical perspective than usual The Orioles make this song work in spite of the string section which is the primary accompaniment, never letting it overwhelm the voices which remain the primary draw. (6)

HAPPY GO LUCKY LOCAL BLUES
(Jubilee 5055; April, 1951)
A creative effort by the usually staid Orioles who deviate from their normal ballad fare by adding vocals to a Duke Ellington song that effectively interpret the themes and allow them to expand their vocal technique even though the song itself can’t help but look backwards. (6)

PAL OF MINE
(Jubilee 5055; April, 1951)
Recorded as a heartfelt tribute to their guitarist, Tommy Gaither, who’d died in a car crash with them the previous fall, this is chilling at times but since it wasn’t written for that purpose the effect fluctuates down the stretch even with some touchingly sincere vocals. (6)

WOULD I LOVE YOU (LOVE YOU, LOVE YOU)
(Jubilee 5057; May, 1951)
Well, they’re at it again, trying desperately to appeal to a respectable audience with another cover record of an insipid pop song and while they sing it well there’s no emotional stakes in this bland material, no story to get into and thus no point in doing it in the first place. (3)

WHEN YOU’RE A LONG, LONG WAY FROM HOME
(Jubilee 5057; May, 1951)
A dismal attempt to resurrect a song from World War One and saddle it with a modern pop arrangement where only Johnny Reed’s bass vocal turn is welcome and even that gets ruined by the others warbling off-key behind him. A dreadful record. (1)

MY PRAYER
(Jubilee 5060; August, 1951)
A solo effort by Sonny Til could’ve used the other Orioles adding a distinctive harmony bed underneath him but the song itself is so durable and Til’s performance wrings out the pensive yearning qualities of the composition so well, it may not matter that they aren’t here. (6)

HOLD ME! SQUEEZE ME!
(Jubilee 5061; August, 1951)
Though hardly very honorable of them to rip off The Dominoes “Sixty Minute Man”, it was a worthwhile move just to get them comfortable cutting uptempo songs with racier lyrics and judging by his enthusiastic performance Sonny Til welcomed the change. (7)

I’M JUST A FOOL IN LOVE
(Jubilee 5061; August, 1951)
A somewhat ambitious, if slightly misguided, attempt to update their ballad sound with some unusual uptempo passages that don’t always come off smoothly but their modest experimentation seems positively daring for a group so stuck in their ways. (4)

BABY PLEASE DON’T GO
(Jubilee 5065; October, 1951)
A radical departure for The Orioles who get to display far more vocal passion than usual and are backed by a vibrant instrumental track featuring two great solos on sax and guitar making this blues adaption a perfect rock song and a great – if atypical – showcase for the group. (9)

DON’T TELL HER WHAT’S HAPPENED TO ME
(Jubilee 5065; October, 1951)
A disturbing plot finds the brokenhearted Sonny hiring others to stalk his ex and report back to him on her activities is somehow made more tolerable by his breathy halting delivery and some good distant support by the others, but it’s a record still best kept at arm’s length.
(4)

HOW BLIND CAN YOU BE
(Jubilee 5071; December, 1951)
A surprisingly innovative cover of the recent debut from The Falcons which doesn’t accentuate the downcast sentiments as you’d expect with The Orioles, but instead plays up a more vibrant arrangement, making this come extremely close to matching the original. (8)

WHEN YOU’RE NOT AROUND
(Jubilee 5071; December, 1951)
Though all of the components used here are right from the standard Orioles playbook – a slow despondent tale of heartache with the same structure as always – the pieces are of a much higher quality and the singing by everyone is first rate making this one stand out. (7)