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JUBILEE 5025; MARCH 1950

 
 

 

Let me state for the record that it’s patently unfair to subject Sonny Til & The Orioles to the kind of ridiculously high standards on both sides of every single release that few artists in rock would be able to consistently measure up to.

Yet of course we’ve done just that from the very start with them around here… and fair warning, will continue to do so for the rest of their careers.

The reason for this is because when they were good they were very, very good, but when they were bad they were… well, if not awful, at least awfully bland, which in rock is often viewed as a far more grave offense.

At times they seem hellbent on becoming warmed over pop singers ten years out of date… but whenever you’re about to give up on them they rise to the occasion and give us something so startlingly good that it takes your breath away.

Something like this record for instance.
 

 

My Heart Wanders All The Day
Let’s get a few things out of the way before we start. At times we’ve mildly critiquedsternly objected toharshly railed against The Orioles for their over-reliance on ballads and their lack of imagination when it comes to the sparse arrangements of these songs each time out.

We’ve stated in no uncertain terms how the law of diminishing returns alone will end up doing them in as long as they continue to try and mine the same emotional undercurrents by singing similar tempo songs with near-identical musical trappings, especially now that far more diverse stylistic wrinkles have been brought to the rock vocal group field by a growing list of competitors.

Yet to be perfectly honest almost all of those same stylistic elements are present and accounted for in At Night and yet here they work to utter perfection. Though this might not be their very best record it’s hard to find many that are appreciably better.

So what gives?

The nearest as I can pin it down is this: When they purposefully tried to boil their best work down to sheer formula it failed. The records that can be pointed to as mere rip-offs tended to score only in their hometown of Baltimore or their record company’s New York backyard while drawing blanks everywhere else.

Whether that’s because listeners radar is always far more sensitive to blatant imitation than they anticipated or else the precise combination of attributes they relied on was ever so slightly off, their releases met with drastically up and down responses even if on the surface most of the records sounded roughly the same to non-discerning ears.

The same character perspectives, the same halting deliveries, the same minimal backing instrumentation, even the same second singer appearing at the exact same time in each song to repeat the same lyrics from the earlier verses on the vocal bridge.

Like clockwork it all sounds identical and can’t help but grow tiresome.

Which might be why At Night stands out so much by contrast. Though there’s a lot of similarities to their past work here, they’ve subtly changed a few of those aforementioned traits and it transforms this into something new and magical reminding us all of why The Orioles at their peak were all but unbeatable.
 


 
 

I Dream Of You
Let’s get right to the aspects this record shares with most of the Orioles growing catalog of brokenhearted laments to better showcase those crucial changes which allows it to ultimately be set apart from the rest of their catalog.

Like virtually all of their released sides to date this is another slow ballad dripping with sorrow, reinforcing the idea that Sonny Til would be forever confined to a life of romantic isolation. We’ve said how tedious this can get when every day is a cloudy one in his world and that without some rays of sunshine poking through to brighten his outlook it diminishes the drawing power of that stellar voice.

Here, in a clever way, he manages to correct that flaw… by setting the song At Night.

Sunshine at night? Yeah, emotional sunshine at least, because while the pace is indeed slow and the sentiments are bemoaning his loneliness again, this time around he’s injected the quality of hope into this in ways that don’t feel forced and artificial but are instead the very thing that gets him through these nights so that he can face another day.

The lyrics of course are key in pulling this off and they’re very good even without being particularly special on paper. But it’s Sonny’s voice that adds immeasurable meaning to the basic words, caressing each and every syllable as if they were newborn babies or tiny kittens, nurturing them and protecting them with each line he offers.

It’s his own heart of course that’s the real life object he’s guarding, but unlike so many of the group’s earlier songs when his own doubt regarding the potential for a lasting love with whomever he fell for, or conversely his heartbreak over a relationship that’s ended, formed the basis of his plaintive cries, here he actually seems to be in a position to finally win a girl and keep her for a change. This may in fact have him nervous and insecure that it won’t last but you almost sense his confidence growing as he goes along.

Though the details are somewhat vague it sounds as if they’re serious but not living together at this point and so when he has to say goodnight to her and walk home alone he is envisioning their union becoming permanent to open up the vast array of intriguing nocturnal activities that he’s yet to experience for himself… at least with her.
 


 

Gaze At The Moon
Now no matter what the words he’s tasked with singing few voices in rock had the yearning, dreamy qualities of Sonny Til’s voice. Every time he’s asked to bear his soul he never fails to convince you of the authenticity of what he’s saying.

Here his vocal shadings are impeccable. He rises with hope and falls with resignation from line to line, breathy and even more hesitant at times than we’ve heard before, all of which contribute to the opaque emotional feel where you’re trying to get some definitive answer as to whether these hopes of his will be in vain or for once in his life it they’ll possibly wind up being fulfilled.

We never do find out, but At Night is arguably all the better for the uncertainty, exuding a tranquil hopeful dream-like quality that’s fitting for the circumstances.

Of course Sonny is so often a gold nugget amidst shale and pyrite that in most songs you wind up bemoaning the roles his cohorts are continually asked to play, where the other Orioles are usually given little to do in support for much of the run time before awkwardly inserting baritone George Nelson into the proceedings to offer up an unnecessary vocal bridge that adds no new insight or perspective, just repeats what we’ve already heard Sonny tell us.

But here, thankfully… FINALLY… they abandon that overused gimmick, letting Sonny himself handle the entire lead from start to finish and the record sparkles as a result. This allows him to dial up the urgency himself for the bridge, but because it’s still his own voice we take that as a shift in his optimism rather than merely studio trickeration as it too often comes across with Nelson in that role.

But don’t think for a moment that the absence of Nelson alone means the other four members are being reduced to nonentities here. On the contrary The Orioles offer up the most ethereal support we’ve heard out of them to date, giving us a tight harmony that eschews their usual method of letting Alex Sharp’s high tenor float – sometimes wander – over the others more pedestrian humming.

Here their job is relatively simple in theory yet easy to miss the mark with if they aren’t cohesive in the studio. During the primary verses they’re providing the melodic bed – there’s no instrumental support beyond the guitar opening of Tommy Gaither – and Sharp for once is riding alongside them rather than a top of them. In the middle eight they switch to a blow harmony technique, adding a modicum of bounce to lend some optimism to Til’s more hopeful outlook.

When misty-eyed doo-wop fans talk about acapella street corner harmonies songs like At Night are what makes their hair stand on end… or at least it should, because it’s sublime.

They get more involved as the song goes along, as we also get to hear Johnny Reed’s acoustic stand-up bass which now takes over the rhythmic chores while Johnny’s own bass voice gets used far more prominently in their vocal blend than we’re used to getting. By now they’re adding backing vocals, not just wordless harmonies, and the pace quickens again before dropping back down for Sonny to give us one of his patented cries to the heavens ending with a chilling “Whoa-Ohh-Ohhhahhhh” that says more in a few meaningless syllables than any dictionary or thesaurus could muster with a thousand descriptive words.

By the time they close it out with Reed’s earthy – downright suggestive – response to Sonny’s final plea, you’re enraptured.

And THIS is my friends is why we hold The Orioles to such high standards.
 

I’ll Never Leave Your Side
Though the record actually failed to make the Billboard national listings this probably sold as well, if not better, than a lot of hits, charting across the country in the far more reliable Cash Box regional listings from coast to coast.

In the years since At Night has often been treated as if it were one of their defining records, as much for the quality of the performance as for the sales total. How could any Orioles fan leave this out of their collection? Not only does it feature arguably their best group vocals to date but it also is the first song of theirs in awhile to be looking forward stylistically rather than backwards to their initial explosive entry into the field.

By now we pretty much know that – with a few exceptions – Sonny Til and The Orioles are going to stick mainly to lovelorn ballads that will forsake the kind of exciting musical accompaniment – saxophones blasting, pianos pounding, guitar ripping through the haze, and drums colliding like three fat ladies fighting over the last pastry in the bakery before closing – that will define the generation of vocal groups now emerging that sprung up in the Orioles wake.

While that singleminded stylistic approach still might not be for the best when it comes to maintaining their grip on the public’s imagination we can learn to accept their limited ambition… provided they tweak that formula enough from time to time to give us songs that no other vocal group could possibly deliver with the effortless grace shown here.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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