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Of all of rock’s early stars The Orioles were the one act from the late 1940’s who received a modicum of post-modern recognition.

They were one of just two 1940’s rock acts to be inducted into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame in the Twentieth Century, they still have two holiday singles played regularly each Christmas and at least a handful of their hits had enough legs to be familiar to casual fans a half century later.

But for all their talent and influence on rock’s formative years they quickly fell into formula releasing nothing but aching ballads featuring a brokenhearted Sonny Til wrestling with the pain of unfulfilled love with minimal accompaniment and very little rhythm. Though his vocal performances were almost always good, the subpar quality of many of the songs and the repetitive nature of the material eroded the group’s impact as time went on.

But before they could fade into the misty pages of history they showed they had at least one more trick up their sleeve to stay relevant in the new rock landscape.


You Brought Me Way Down Here
No matter how many times we try and set the record straight on these pages there’s sure to be those who remain stuck on the idea that the blues had more to do with rock’s birth than any other style of music.

The myth persists because it fits an easy and degrading stereotype – a comparatively primitive black style goosed up by later white interpreters to become a worldwide phenomenon – when in fact the reverse was true, rock was a dumbed-down version of more sophisticated jazz in a musical sense with a bastardized gospel vocal form added to the mix.

But the blues DID have some influence simply because it was the bedrock of jazz and was still widely popular in the black communities where rock was born and grew to immense proportions. Now the two styles did tend to attract different audiences within that demographic but it was inevitable that from time to time there’d be some records where the connection was more tangible.

In 1935 Big Joe Williams released the first version of Baby, Please Don’t Go and while non-crossover songs by black artists at the time were nearly impossible to definitively say how popular they were, the fact that it continually was revived over the years shows that audiences – and other artists – responded to it in a big way.

But The Orioles hardly seemed like the kind of singers who’d be eager to take a stab at a song that was in the repertoire of Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. In fact, they didn’t seem like the type of music fans who would be even familiar with such a song… after all, the September session included a revival of the standard I May Wrong (But I Think You’re Wonderful) so it certainly appears like this was an outlier.

Usually that kind of left field choice doesn’t work, or at least takes a few attempts before getting the hang of it, but The Orioles ease into this as if it were the most natural thing in the world.


I Gave You All My Dough
As the record opens the horns hit you squarely between the eyes with a resplendent flourish. If when spinning the 78 rpm disc in 1951 an actual horn came leaping off the turntable and literally hit you between the eyes you couldn’t possibly have been MORE surprised than you were to hear this change to their arrangements.

Horns?… Drums?… The Orioles?!… This must be an elaborate prank!

Maybe the presence of those instruments alone would’ve been enough to make this worthwhile even if the vocals were hoarse and out of tune but instead we get peak Orioles singing combined with an aggressive instrumental backing which is like a jolt to the system, throwing your expectations to the wind and forcing you to reconsider everything you’ve come to know about the group.

The 1935 original was odd in its own right for its time with a prominent fiddle that plays a haunting almost prehistoric psychedelic line that runs its way through the song creating an eerie ambiance that sets off Williams’ keening vocals. His subsequent re-recordings of it (in 1941 with Sonny Boy Williamson’s harmonica now the dominant instrument, then later in 1947 with a heavier beat thanks to drums and a more percussive guitar) shows how adaptable it was to different times and The Orioles prove that it was equally comfortable being presented in an entirely different style as well.

As welcome as the instrumentation is here – and we’ll get to its biggest impact soon – it’s the vocals which define Baby Please Don’t Go in the Orioles rendition as Sonny Til gets to sing with more force in his voice than ever before, bearing down on lyrics rather than floating over them as he was so often required to do.

The song as written is intentionally monotonous, repeating the title line with minimal set-up and framework to create a bare bones plot wherein the narrator is insisting his woman not head back to New Orleans in what amounts to a droning plea, showing he’s been stripped of his power in the relationship.

In Til’s hands the emphasis shifts to the emotional underside of that sentiment as he’s highlighting different textures of the line, stretching out the words “please” and “go” in particular which somehow give us the impression that unlike the blues versions where the outcome is inevitable, maybe Sonny actually has a chance of convincing her to stay.

Adding to this are the other Orioles echoing his lines in what has to be their biggest group showcase on record to this point. For once they’re right up front in the mix, chanting these commands in full voice with an insistence that differs from Til’s delivery. It’s almost as if they’re the family members who accompanied him to the train station to physically stop her from leaving town if need be.

This approach paints a totally different scene, one that is far more dramatic not to mention more sonically vibrant, pulling you in to sing along with them in ways most of their best records had never done.

Down To New Orleans
If the vocal arrangement and some added musical heft behind the group were the only new components this had to offer it’d still be deemed a radical departure from their usual fare but shockingly they don’t stop there!

Remember that on virtually every single Orioles cut the structure of the song remained identical regardless of its source – a light guitar or piano intro, some barely audible playing in the background, a George Nelson-sung bridge and no instrumental solos of any kind. It was one of those things to be counted on in life, like Sunday morning hangovers.

Yet on Baby Please Don’t Go they dispense with all of that and give us something that may be hardly new in rock ‘n’ roll itself, but is completely unexpected on an Orioles record all the same… not one but TWO solos.

The first is a saxophone, something we’ve been practically begging for when it comes to their catalog. Though more melodic than honking it’s perfectly integrated into the song, swaying with hypnotic ease and adding immeasurably to the communal nature of the performance while also bringing out the tune’s subversive melody that was downplayed in all of the many blues versions of the song.

From there they switch to what can only be described as one of rock’s most surprising guitar solos considering the source, as Ralph Williams cuts loose with a tour de force performance, not from a technical standpoint per say – though it is exceptionally well played – but rather from a stylistic one as he retains some bluesy shadings while adding a clear jazzy tone yet executing it all with a very definite rock attitude.

With drums crashing in the changes this isn’t just a good instrumental track for an Orioles record, but one of the better tracks for all of rock ‘n’ roll in 1951 – unhurried yet vigorous, in your face while at the same time still blending seamlessly into the bigger picture.


Don’t Go, Don’t Go, Don’t Go! Don’t Go!
Whenever a major artist who’ve become stars with one basic approach try and branch out the fear is always that it will fail to connect commercially, thereby sending the group or the record label back to the safer environs of their tried and true blueprint for eternity.

Because this was such a shocking reinvention for The Orioles there was even more riding on Baby Please Don’t Go than that, as the scope or their legacy itself was hanging in the balance in a way.

Of course no matter what happened with this record they would always be credited – even revered – for establishing the emotional vocal group ballad style of rock, something which obviously still exists today giving them a tremendous amount of long term influence, but were that all they contributed it might be easy to pass them off as a one-trick pony even if that one trick was pretty important.

But in one fell swoop this record gives them much needed diversity and since it was a Top Ten national hit in early 1952 it’s not in danger of being overlooked historically… and that’s even before we get to its massive influence on James Brown’s first hit, Please Please Please, a few years down the road.

We wish we could say that its success – both in the marketplace and from an aesthetic point of view – led to more of the same, or even new risks and challenges in their material, but while The Orioles DID expand their sights somewhat after this, they never pursued this kind of thing with quite the same intensity again.

But doing it once – and doing it perfectly – is more than we had any reason to hope for after four years of the same ol’ thing out of them and whether one of many or just one unto itself, a perfect record is a perfect record.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Billy Wright (December, 1951)