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ATLANTIC 938; MAY 1951

 
 

 

Another entry in what is shaping up to be one of the most lauded Freshman Classes in rock history (fall ‘50-spring ‘51… like a school year), certainly when it comes to vocal groups at least, and yet another who debuted with a Top Ten national hit.

But when flipping through the class yearbook The Cardinals are the ones who were destined to be overlooked, or at least continually overshadowed by more illustrious classmates. They weren’t kings of the campus like The Dominoes, nor did they have the personalities of the wisecracking Clovers and they weren’t viewed as having the potential of The Larks.

When surrounded by such company it’s easy to understand why The Cardinals were never considered the best group in rock yet they held their own for years and in the end they earned their diploma in style.
 

 

What’s My Future To Be?
Because they were from Baltimore and specialized in ballads (and were named after a bird) it’d be fairly obvious to suggest The Cardinals were one of many groups who formed hoping to emulate the success of local kids made good, The Orioles. The truth though is The Cardinals were actually around before Sonny Til and company ever got together.

Yet while The Orioles thrived on the national recording scene starting in 1948 thanks to an ambitious and talented songwriter/manager in Deborah Chessler, The Cardinals remained strictly a local act known as The Mellotones. But in 1951 Atlantic co-owner Herb Abramson came to town looking for acts the group was signed and it’s here The Orioles connection became obvious as the label rechristened them The Cardinals.

Their style was similar with an expressive lead in Ernie Warren and simple, slightly ragged, backing vocals on Shouldn’t I Know with a low-tenor/baritone sung bridge to break it up while a tenor floats above all while singing a theme that explored the uncertainty of romance… even the word “Know” in the title hearkened back to The Orioles debut.

But while it may appear to be a rather shallow imitation of the dominant group from the last few years, the beauty of the performance itself transcends any surface similarities and with the vocal group style coalescing in the national consciousness The Cardinals seemed poised to act as the bridge between the first and second eras.
 


 
 

That Bright Moonlight Glow
With its eerily crystalline guitar opening there’s almost a moment of uncertainty as to where this is headed, but the pensive mood it creates along with a tone that suggests everything from jazz to country music depending on your experiences of the time is the perfect lead-in to Warren’s halting delivery and that pure unaffected voice dripping with sincerity.

Unlike many recent break-through songs of their rivals in the field who’d rapidly outpace them, there’s nothing here designed to stand out. No complex backing vocals, no additional instrumental passages, no startling tempo changes or catchy vocal “hooks”. The song is as straightforward as they come, Warren’s in a relationship but needs reassurance that it’s going to last, and – like The Orioles on some of their biggest hits – the lyrics take the form of questions to the girl who’s captured his heart.

So for this to work just on that level alone it has to walk a tightrope that reflects the underlying anxiety of anyone who wants something to endure that is not entirely in their control while at the same time not appearing desperate or clingy and giving listeners the sense that this girl would be better off dumping him for somebody with a little more confidence in himself.

Written by group member Meredith Brothers the wisest decision he made was to include examples of this insecurity so it’s not, as often was the case with Sonny Til, just paranoid dread and a general feeling of unworthiness. Instead Shouldn’t I Know contemplates the nights Warren has spent alone when they should be together and while there are no outright accusations of cheating you can’t help but wonder if that’s really what he’s concerned about.

But while the lyrics hold up to scrutiny because it’s more about the emotional ravages of doubt than any plot developments, the real brilliance of the song is found in the melody which flows along gracefully and yet still allows for moments of harder vocal urgency.
 

Shouldn’t You Be Here Close To Me
Warren’s voice is magnificent here and the song’s construction lets him show it off in subtle ways, from the effortless shift to his higher range to the way he roughens it up coming out of the breaks. The best moments come when he ramps things up heading into the final refrain and lets his voice go, exhibiting a vocal strength that hadn’t been apparent early on, before gliding into a falsetto to close things out.

It’s such a powerful performance from front to back, expertly judged with every emotional note ringing true, that it draws your attention away from the somewhat weaker individual parts in support of him from the others.

Though their blend on Shouldn’t I Know is really nice they show their limitations in their smaller moments in the spotlight. Whoever is taking the bridge, whether Brothers or Donald Johnson, is straining too hard to mask a thinner vocal instrument while the floating tenor of Brothers or Jack Aydolette is just a little too airy as he’s unable to nail the notes required in full voice in a way that Clyde McPhatter would’ve done. Meanwhile Leon Hardy’s bass is nowhere near as resonant as the best in the business – Jimmy Ricks, Bill Brown or even converted baritone Bobby Nunn.

But while they may not have stacked-up well against a veritable all-star team of group members found elsewhere it helps to remember that their experience with this type of music was rather limited at this point – they’d been more of an Ink Spots pop styled act before Jesse Stone drilled them in the finer aspects of rock vocal harmony – so they’ve clearly made great strides in a short time.

Picking apart their singular roles reveal their limitations but they’re never anything less than engaging in spite of their deficiencies and if nothing else they know how to interact well with each other. Rather than downplay them because of those technical shortcomings the arrangement smartly makes this a full group effort which adds more layers – and more authenticity – to the overall performance than had they let Warren handle it all himself which must’ve been tempting for Atlantic after hearing his poignant lead.
 


 

I Sit And Pine
There’s been plenty of speculation about The Cardinals never living up to the promise they showed here, though they would have a couple more national hits scattered across the next half decade.

The general assessment is Atlantic buried them once The Clovers took off at the same time their solo artists – Ruth Brown, Joe Turner and others – gave them plenty of reliable hit-makers to allow the label to take a wait and see attitude with their other artists, only putting their organizational weight behind them when a record broke out on its own.

Ahmet Ertegun couldn’t even name any of their members when asked about them twenty years later even though they recorded for the company for six years, showing just how low of a priority they were for them. By 1951 they were one of the stronger labels and The Cardinals may have been done in by being a smaller fish in the larger pond… err… ocean(?) of Atlantic. A smaller company devoting more resources to advancing their career might’ve propelled them to stardom.

There were other factors though, most notably Ernie Warren being drafted the next year, a forced servitude that resulted in The Cardinals being virtually shelved by Atlantic during his absence despite enlisting a capable replacement.

But ultimately The Cardinals may have suffered commercially for the very thing Shouldn’t I Know did so well. They were balladeers reliant on good songs, strong melodies and a lead vocalist who was really solid but not dynamic or unique enough to be memorable to casual listeners.

When everything fell into place though as it did here they were hard to resist. This is a heartfelt song with a fragile state of mind that reflects the similar thoughts of a generation of rock fans growing younger by the day, but with all the noise being created by the ever-broadening field it was inevitable that someone had to fall through the cracks.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The Cardinals for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)