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JUBILEE 5084; MAY 1952



What is this?

Somebody’s idea of a practical joke?

A way to tease increasingly frustrated Orioles fans who’ve tired of the endless string of sad-sack romantic laments with the exact same perspective and arrangements that have occupied both sides of most of their singles going on five years now?

If so it’s not funny. If the stereotypes are right then rock fans have a tendency to be dangerous maladjusted people for liking this music in the first place, so it’s probably not wise to taunt them like this.

But on the off chance this is a legitimate release that lives up to its title and delivers on the promise of something a bit more edgy than their usual fare, then our question is… what the hell took you so long?


Stand In Empty Spaces
They say “timing is everything” but in this case it is misleading, confusing and strains credibility to find out that this song was actually cut way back in July 1951.

To put that in perspective, this was two months BEFORE they cut Baby, Please Don’t Go, the bluesy adaption that presented The Orioles in a much different, and much more aggressive, light than normal and not coincidentally marked their return to the national charts this past winter.

So just glancing at the release dates you’d naturally assume that Barfly was cut after that single had climbed the charts and in the process let Jubilee Records know that their old milquetoast approach was officially stale.

Truthfully that was something they should’ve figured out long before this but at a glance it would appear that the success of that one consequently pushed them to record more songs in a similar vein to their reigning chart entry. This meant something with grittier vocals by Sonny Til and where Ralph Williams was allowed to, and in fact encouraged, to contribute far more prominent guitar lines to add a somewhat dangerous undercurrent to their usually more genteel performances.

This record in fact has both of those things, yet it wasn’t conceived as a follow-up to a likeminded hit because that hit hadn’t even been recorded yet, let alone released or climbed the charts.

What that shows is The Orioles themselves seemed to have been getting restless about doing so much sniveling, begging and crying about heartbreak over the last half decade and were at last willing, and quite possibly very anxious, to go out on the town for a change… even if it WAS to moan some more about a breakup.


I’m Always Hanging ‘Round
If you were to be placing bets on which scenario was more likely to pass muster with Jubilee’s owner Jerry Blaine – either recording more diverse subject matter but with the same basic atmospheric and arranging touches, or cutting songs like this which find them still down in the dumps about lost love but displaying that with a far more forceful delivery, you’d have almost certainly gone with the former.

As long as a record sounds similar to past glories, that’s usually enough to convince conservative record companies to go along with a slight tweak in another department.

Instead The Orioles take the opposite approach on Barfly and shake up their approach by having Williams’ play some vibrant lines on his electric guitar that seemed almost designed to send shockwaves through their typical audience who weren’t used to such things out of them.

The fact that this came out after they’d displayed it elsewhere obviously removes the shock value to a degree, but hearing it restores your faith in their artistic dedication if nothing else.

Williams is the early star here, not that he’s breaking new ground or dazzling you with his virtuosity, but he’s playing a good array of licks, some melodic, some more designed to jolt you with their fierce tone, but all well chosen and fitting seamlessly into the arrangement which is busier than usual as piano and the more diverse backing vocals by the other Orioles.

Now here comes the issue with this record and this approach which may not be shared by all listeners but definitely is noticeable enough to stand out and so it has to be mentioned… and that’s Sonny Til, one of early rock’s best vocalists, sounds more ordinary doing this type of song than his usual woe-is-me approach.

The question therefore becomes is this simply because we’re so used to him pouring his heart out with tears in his eyes on virtually every other song, or is it because songs like that suit his voice and technique better?

It’s probably a combination of those, but on Barfly, while he’s good, he’s also not as distinctive as usual. If you didn’t know this song but were aware of The Orioles from their biggest hits, it’s questionable whether you’d even guess it was him. Yet the strained, slightly hoarse voice he’s using here is perfectly appropriate for a song where he’s out all night drinking away his sorrows. He sounds worn down both physically and emotionally which is the right image to create for the content.

As for that content, this is another Rudy Toombs composition – and another that centers on drinking, his personal vice, but also his inspiration for many of his best tunes – and while the setting and sort of muddled unfocused thoughts he gives Til to convey are accurate enough, they aren’t quite memorable enough as lines to leave a deeper impression.

Johnny Reed’s bass interjections are great to hear though, bringing a much different texture to the performance than George Nelson’s sometimes interminable baritone interludes, while the overall mindset here as an anguished Sonny wails about his plight and sounds genuinely affected while wondering “If my baby miss me too”, elevates this over the rudimentary story line, maybe because like a lot of things, real life stories tend to be rather basic at their core.


A Million Folks Pass By
For all our hang-wringing over the repetitiveness of The Orioles catalog, they’ve earned back a lot of our admiration as of late simply by trying different things.

Though it may all be housed under the banner of something casually reckless, there’s more under the surface that makes it both a typical Orioles topic, yet a more inventive way of covering the same ground.

Obviously anything that switches things up a little is welcome in their catalog, but while this definitely is good enough for an A-side, it might be more interesting to envision an alternate career path where songs like Barfly had adorned their B-sides from the start.

Diversity is always an asset in any field and considering that it’s taken so long for The Orioles to find that out for themselves has deprived us of a lot of experiments they might’ve been ideally suited to try along the way.

This isn’t reinventing the wheel or anything but does provide another sign that the group is in the midst of an unexpected second act resurgence and while their lack of more dynamic interplay might make them sound slightly antiquated for Nineteen Fifty-Two, this is still something that is a welcome sight for those who may have been on the verge of giving up on them.

The lesson of course is you gotta keep things fresh if you want to stick around.


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