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IT’S A NATURAL 5000; JULY, 1948

 

Re-Issued As JUBILEE 5000; AUGUST, 1948

 
 

 

Everything broke right for The Orioles out of the gate. While they’ll go on to have a long rewarding career, in many ways they rode the momentum of their debut for years.

The timing of their first release, coming in the midst of a dry spell for recently cut songs thanks to the recording ban now in its seventh month, the fact they were filling multiple needs in the artist demographics (a vocal group as opposed to a solo singer or instrumentalist; young and vulnerable in their presentation, yet with a soulfulness that let girls sense their virility) as well as the fact they were on a record label formed just to expose them, yet was run by someone with a deep background in the independent label field, gave them built-in advantages that helped position them for success.

Of course it didn’t hurt that they came out of the gate with such a great song in a style that was also sorely needed to keep rock from becoming seen as too one-dimensional.
 

What A Break For Me
Ballads have an uneasy position in rock history. For while there are thousands of hit rock ballads, including some of the most enduring records in its history, their legitimacy AS rock is always somewhat tenuous in the minds of many and those ballads which have attained universal acceptance are often due more to the perceived authenticity of the artist in question as it is the particulars of the song itself.

Yet ballads are the necessary emotional counterpoint to the rebellious and the wild histrionics of the uptempo offerings, a deeper flip-side to the more sensational suggestive sexual come-ons offered by the acts that tend to grab most of the headlines. In the simplest of terms the ballads are the internal dialogue that remains hidden by external bravado.

Rock NEEDED these ballads to balance the scales. As with the need for stylistic musical diversity to ensure its lasting relevance there was an equal need for a difference in audience – and artistic – perspectives, one that allowed rock music to serve as not just an outlet for the social scene and all it entails – the going out, the getting down, the getting busy with someone who catches your eye – but also for the solitary confinement of the heart for those who don’t. Without it rock music, no matter how many ways they play it, with saxophones, pianos or guitars, a single voice or groups of voices or no voices at all, becomes emotionally one-dimensional. Party music. Have a good time while you dance and drink and grind and sweat, but then turn off the lights on your way out because the show’s over.

What it needed was something to listen to when those people were back home, alone in the dark, or even more importantly, when those who didn’t go to the party in the first place were sitting by themselves yearning to be there with someone.

And so the ballad had to not just exist, but be commercially accepted by that same audience, lest that audience turn elsewhere for their needs.

As such It’s Too Soon To Know came at the perfect time in rock’s ascent, when the more unhinged braggadocio had generated the excitement that fueled its early rise was still going strong, but before it was at risk for outstaying its welcome.

Most of the rock ballads that pre-date this were somewhat less than successful to be kind – in large part because the artists cutting them were older, more established groups and thus were imbued with definite pre-rock sensibilities that often left little to distinguish the songs from standard pop offerings – and so its spot in the family tree was still uncertain until The Orioles came along and immediately showed how it should be done, and consequently, how it fit within a style known for more raucous affairs.

Yet ironically what wasn’t touched upon in that review was It’s Too Soon To Know wasn’t even the intended A-side.

The original A-side was the more uptempo Barbra Lee, which probably stands to reason considering what was selling best at the time throughout all of rock. But their immediate overwhelming success with the ballad meant they’d follow that path for the rest of their careers and so Barbra Lee wound up becoming one of the few uptempo songs they’d ever release.

Since we won’t get too many chances to evaluate that side of them over their six years of steady popularity on the scene this will have to suffice for awhile when contemplating how they might’ve fared in that realm instead.
 

A New Kind Of A Baby, The Kind You Would Adore
It’s important to keep in mind just what the landscape for vocal groups was in mid-summer 1948. There was The Ravens obviously and there was… nobody else of any importance.

At all!

So The Orioles – with a lead singer in tenor Sonny Til, who sounded nothing whatsoever like the valley-deep bass of Ravens lead Jimmy Ricks (or for that matter the almost female-soprano-like voice of Ravens tenor Maithe Marshall) – had a pretty open field to plow and in Barbra Lee they tackle something that they clearly hoped would set them apart from the competition.
 

Opening with the entire group singing the hook in unison, though Til is clearly positioned closest to the mic so as to stand out, the song isn’t so much uptempo as sort of a rhythmic medium tempo pace, but compared to the flip (not to mention most of what followed in their careers) it stands out as being jaunty.

With Tommy Gaither’s acoustic guitar giving it a sort of a loose sitting around the campfire feel, there’s a definite catchiness to it that’s evident on first listen. It’s a sound you’re drawn to, a friendly comforting sound in a way, again the unmistakable scene it paints is that of a bunch of pals sitting around together one night and fooling around with a song but actually doing it well enough that it’s not a lark. They harmonize well, there’s a nice scatting vocal by Sonny Til in the middle eight which adds a different vibe, and the song has a solid consistent flow to the melody that keeps it modestly surging forward, getting you to bob your head and move your shoulders in time with it all.

But while it’s a reasonably good, even somewhat charming performance by the group themselves, it is not a great composition because of the puerile concept that lays at its core. The lyrics are clearly the aspect of it that everyone involved, from manager/songwriter Deborah Chessler to record label chief Jerry Blaine, saw as its greatest strength… a supposedly clever approach to lure in listeners to a new untested group.

But it winds up being a gimmick, nothing more than an amateurish slight of hand, something that’s not apparent when it starts out as a fairly straightforward ode to a hot chick with typical nods to her sweetness, her eyes, etc., before pulling the rug out from under you by announcing she’s “only three” and thus the hints dropped earlier, from her “toddling up to me” and how she elicits sympathy when she looks at you, suddenly become all too apparent.

Once the cat is out of the bag the entire premise of the song changes irrevocably and robbed of the impressions you had been building in your mind as to this (presumably legal aged) girl’s alluring sexual attributes you now are forced to either find the sudden switcheroo to discovering it is an actual baby they’re singing about to be “cute”… or to find it rather disturbing and even nauseating.

I find it to be the latter.

When I’m listening to music the last reaction I want to have upon hearing a song is, “Aww, that’s adorable!”. That’s just not a role music intended for anyone over the age of seven should ever take. If I want cute I’ll go watch puppies roll around in the grass playing with baby ducks, not listen to rock ‘n’ roll.

By injecting that ill-conceived stab at being endearing into this they’ve effectively neutered all the positives the song had been delivering unless you’re the kind who truly doesn’t even pay attention to lyrics (and there ARE those who claim to, though I’m damned if I know how you’d even be able to do so without disconnecting the wires from your ears to your brain) in which case the “joke” won’t even be noticed.

For the set-up to work the payoff has to be appreciated, but here the payoff acts as a spoiler that ruins the otherwise pretty solid melody and singing of that set-up – a song, that had it been done straight, would’ve worked effectively and been above average at the end of the day.
 

 

Round In Circles
In 1948 however, really that entire era (until rock largely changed the game as it became more dominant in the marketplace), “cute” was “IN”. Gimmicks, novelties… call them what you will… were one of the most reliable ways to get a hit and practically every artist, no matter how accomplished and serious they were about their craft otherwise, were expected to go along with such things if a composition was deemed hit-worthy. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, The Andrews Sisters, Nat Cole… nobody was immune to this infantile pandering to the perpetually naïve, gullible and simple-minded audience mindset that held sway for much of that time.

The American public in the late 40’s were eager to smile after enduring such hardship as a decade long Great Depression followed by another five years of a World War, and the recording industry was going to provide them with ample opportunity to do just that. Though as with every era in popular music years later you can look back and scratch your head about some songs that became huge hits, as styles and tastes change and it can be hard to envision what sensibilities certain tunes appealed to, but maybe never more so than the era in which we’re in now when “I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover” spent 18 weeks at #1 during 1948, and, as those who’ve checked out our Monthly Overview for July well know, “Woody Woodpecker” (yup, THAT Woody Woodpecker!) was the subject of the song that was sitting atop the pop charts when this Orioles (a different kind of bird) record was released.

But just because Barbra Lee fit into that basic niche didn’t mean it was a sure thing to succeed, especially with a far different, younger, hipper (read: black) audience as its target. Therefore it’s hardly a surprise that when it was sent out to DJ’s with the plug side clearly marked it stirred only mild interest. Only when legendary New York DJ Willie Bryant flipped it over to play It’s Too Soon To Know did the record take off, immediately causing the phones to light up, showing that the public whom rock was courting were not the kind of simpletons who melted at the first sign of a harmless novelty, but in fact wanted something they could identify with and get something meaningful out of.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Orioles became stars as the result of their soulful balladry and the dye was cast… though they would cut some more uptempo material in the coming months, the majority of their output, and all of their A-sides from now until late 1951 would come from their emotionally longing ballads.
 

 

It didn’t wind up hurting their careers but certainly may have hurt the depth of their legacy some. Though The Orioles are still revered for the best of those ballads, including of course the flip of this that set them off and running, the scope of their work that gets focused on today remains somewhat narrow by nature. Ironically they became stars by filling a specific niche and sticking to it rather than being allowed to – encouraged to – show their versatility more.

You wonder if this had been designated as the B-side from the start, a casual throwaway type tune, something done to show them in a but different light but not expecting anything to come from it, if they’d have gone back to this pace a bit more frequently in the future. Had they delivered it without the lame punch-line maybe this would’ve become a hit on its own, and so ultimately might the high hopes for – and subsequent perceived failure of – this (even though it WAS certainly popular with their fans, once those fans were brought in by ITSTK) given them pause going forward.

That they DID have the right idea from the start, coupling a heart wrenching ballad with something a bit more lively and lighthearted, shouldn’t be passed off so quickly. That the particular approach used FOR that uptempo cut fell short doesn’t completely detract from the enthusiasm evident in their deliveries. They missed on just two things their first time out – they chose the wrong side to push at first and they thought the gimmick aspect here would sell this when what they should’ve focused on was having them sing something that had lyrical staying power past the first listen. But while their first misstep was easily rectified by merely turning the record over, thus giving them the hit they craved, the second misstep was more damaging to the song in question and that’s ultimately what we are forced to focus on when reviewing it.

So therefore, in the end they were right… She Is Only Three
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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