The “forgotten” vocal group of the early Fifties had the misfortune to be in the shadow of more dynamic and trendsetting groups who came along at the same time and despite some exceptional work along the way and a few hits to go with it The Cardinals never reached the heights they may have otherwise in slightly different circumstances.

Originally formed in Baltimore in late 1946 when Leon “Tree Top” Hardy (bass) and Meredith Brothers (tenor) convinced Donald Johnson (baritone) to join them singing in their spare time around their neighborhood. Johnson brought with him tenor Ernie Warren and the foursome became The Mellotones, one of many groups modeling themselves on the pop-inflected Ink Spots. Though by the time they finally signed with a record label they’d be seen as having been influenced by The Orioles who were from the same town, they were actually formed a year and a half earlier than that group, they just didn’t have any opportunities to make records.

They’d added tenor vocalist/guitarist Jack Aydelotte along the way and worked fairly steadily in clubs around the area but it was Johnson’s job at Super Music Record Shop that got them their break. The store’s owner Sam Azrael became their manager and when Atlantic Records’ owner Herb Abramson came scouting for talent Azrael told them about his group and they passed their on-demand audition and were signed by the company, clearly looking for another Orioles, something evident when they were re-named The Cardinals, helping to further establish the “bird group” trend in rock vocal groups.

Since their material had been more pop-oriented they were coached by Atlantic’s Jesse Stone in the finer points of rock ‘n’ roll but it was group member Brothers who wrote their debut “Shouldn’t I Know”, a Top Ten hit in 1951. Though clearly indebted to The Orioles in style and substance, Ernie Warren’s lead could stand on its own. Unfortunately a song that took five months to break into the national Top Ten – for a single week at #7 – was no longer the kind of promising return it might’ve been for the company just one year earlier for now they were riding high with multiple stars who had been releasing much bigger hits than that including four chart toppers in the last calendar year with the last of those being by another mid-Atlantic region vocal group, The Clovers, who’d signed at roughly the same time as The Cardinals. With their more unique humorous and bluesy sound The Clovers stood apart from the field of balladeers that had been so vital in advancing the vocal group scene in rock over the past four years and though The Cardinals third release also charted briefly, its minor success was obscured by The Clovers second #1 hit that fall.

Any chance for the group to make more headway ended when lead singer Warren was drafted in early 1952 forcing The Cardinals to recruit a replacement in Leander Tarver who remained only until the end of the year, singing lead on one single released during that time. While they took on another member to fill out their ranks after he left and Warren was able to record with them on leave in early 1953, Atlantic had turned its attention elsewhere now as The Clovers were outselling every group in the business and their solo acts were also notching huge sellers. The Cardinals saw just one release each in 1953 and 1954 – both featuring Warren, the second of which was from their second session back in late 1951!

With Warren’s discharge in March 1954 the group was left out in the cold altogether, touring off their past releases while Atlantic failed to have them come in for a new session, pre-occupied by the hub-bub over their newest vocal group The Chords who released one of the most crucial singles of the decade that spring. Failing to recognize the commercial boom in that style the company would wait until early 1955 before having The Cardinals cut more songs but it was at that date they recorded their biggest hit, “The Door Is Still Open To My Heart”, written for them by Chuck Willis who would later join them at the label.

The belated hit got them a lot more high profile gigs on various multi-artist rock ‘n’ roll shows but it didn’t seem to afford them any more respect within Atlantic as their follow-up was a cover song of another vocal group’s record after which The Cardinals releases were spaced six months apart with little promotion. After their final single in early 1957 the group broke up and Warren started a new outfit that recorded some songs, none of which saw release and a year later he got the original Cardinals back together again, hoping for a change in their fortunes but they never again got inside a studio and broke up for good in the early 1960’s.

In Ernie Warren they had one of the best ballad leads of his day and their catalog is widely acclaimed by fans of the style, but Atlantic Records were largely out of step with the vocal group scene of the 1950’s and didn’t realize what they had, something evident by the fact that a dozen of their sides from their time with the company never saw release while they were together.
THE CARDINALS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Atlantic 938; May, 1951)
A beautiful crystal clear lead by Warren on a song with a strong emotional pull featuring a delectable melody makes this one of the finer debuts of the star-studded year, a record that serves as a bridge between the first and second era of the rock vocal group evolution. (9)

(Atlantic 938; May, 1951)
The idea behind this enthusiastic but sloppy cut is better than the execution as they try to come up with a more upbeat song with full group vocals and some humor to set it apart from the other side, but it’s not funny and their voices aren’t strong enough to carry it. (3)

(Atlantic 952; November, 1951)
A naked plea for love delivered without any ambiguity, as Ernie Warren drops his defenses to make clear his desires even while knowing there’s a chance it will backfire and he’ll be left alone, all of sung with a beauty that will make you think his success is actually possible. (8)

(Atlantic 952; November, 1951)
A great sign in that the group is utilizing all its members vocally in an uptempo song that runs counter to their usual ballad fare, but while it’s well executed the song itself, a cover of a Tampa Red blues record, is somewhat indistinct. (6)

(Atlantic 958; January, 1952)
The most ubiquitous across the board hit in music in the winter of 1952 gets a strong rock rendition here thanks to a solid lead and good vocal harmonies replacing the the horns used on most versions and of course the tune itself with its delectable melody goes down easy. (7)

(Atlantic 958; January, 1952)
A good change of pace for the ballad oriented group who deliver a multi-layered vocal on this uptempo cut which features a really inventive musical arrangement by Jesse Stone, unfortunately though the song itself isn’t quite as well-rounded as everything else. (6)

(Atlantic 972; July, 1952)
A song about sex disguised as a song about dancing yet one that isn’t racy enough to make the former interesting and doesn’t move you enough to make the latter convincing despite a nice sax part and some adequate singing this was a record done in by misguided aims. (5)

(Atlantic 972; July, 1952)
Another song that is blatantly about sex but this one is sort of obscured by Leander Tarver’s slush-mouthed vocals that exaggerate the humor to distract from the content, but the ramshackle feel marks a key transition point in the rock vocal group idiom. (6)