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With the ascendency of rock vocal groups over the past few years, one of the biggest dilemmas we’ve come across is just what material was best suited for these acts to sing in a rock ‘n’ roll setting.

Most groups didn’t house their own prolific songwriters while in-house writers for independent labels were still rare and of drastically inconsistent quality.

So that meant there was bound to be a lot of songs pulled from established sources… either traditional standards, or stylistic re-workings of outside genre compositions, or cover versions of recent pop noisemakers.

This happens to be all three of those and since any ONE of them can be a troubling sign for the resulting recording, chances are going three for three is bound to be disastrous. Yet not only is this one really impressive, it’s actually pretty influential when it comes to establishing the vocal group outlook going forward.


Come On Sweetheart, Let’s Try It Over Again
In the 1920’s blues and nascent jazz were a lot closer than they’d be just a few years down the road when the former became more rural and simplistically crude by design, while the latter took on a more refined elegance to set it apart from its own seedier origins.

Before that change took place a lot of the biggest blues acts of that era were singing in front of jazz musicians with a vocal delicacy that belied the sordid reputation of the blues genre.

One such singer was Bessie Smith, the Queen Of The Blues, who recorded this song in 1929 with James P. Johnson backing her on piano, creating an intimate setting for what is a rather pitying vocal performance on her part.

What I mean is, she’s soothing her man’s ego even though the mere fact he requires such reassurance tells us – and her – that he’s really not worth it. She’s almost treating him like a small child who got bullied at school. She’s apologizing to him, telling him he’s the only one for her, yet the growl in her voice at times shows that she’s just putting him on for the sake of maintaining the relationship status quo.

More than a decade went by before it was more radically recast by jazz star Erskine Hawkins with a more softhearted vocal by Jimmy Mitchell who nevertheless seems to treat the rift as a nothing more than a misunderstanding and sounds as if he’s a little put out by having to reconcile over something he didn’t consider a big deal. As such he’s delivering it in a way that’s aiming to comfort her so that he simply won’t have to face the fallout from her overreacting again down the road.

The Orioles though may have gotten the impetus for cutting their version of Don’t Cry Baby from Tony Bennett, who as we post this in July 2023 just passed away at the age of 96 this week but who in 1952 was a star of the highest magnitude. That his rendition of the song had been released two years earlier technically precludes it from being a cover version, it’s likely his popularity at this current time had Jubilee Records combing his back catalog for something applicable for their group.

On the surface it was a strange choice to make if that was the case, for Norman Leyden’s ostentatious arrangement on that record is a far too brassy and melodramatic, turning it into a showpiece performance utterly devoid of meaning, even if Bennett’s technical prowess stands out all the same.

But whatever the thinking behind the decision to record such a composition, The Orioles smartly take this in an entirely different direction than all of those aforementioned turns, one which is best suited for their own skill set as well as rock’s overall approach. In the process they make it far more melodic and rhythmic, while at the same time laying into the lyrics with a vulnerable sincerity that set the tone for so much of doo wop’s future perspective when it came to love.


You Know I Always Will
In those other versions of this song the singers appear to be far less concerned with the feelings of the one they supposedly wronged than they are with their own selfish desires.

Whether it’s Smith being slightly condescending, Mitchell projecting a sense of weary tolerance or Bennett ignoring the girl’s reaction entirely and trying to impress any eavesdroppers in this domestic dispute with his more over-the-top stylings, the end result is the lyrics mean something different in all of those than they do in this aching performance by The Orioles.

Maybe that’s to be expected, after all Sonny Til made his living expressing doubt, concern and a good deal of self-inflicted pain in his performances and his work on Don’t Cry Baby is no exception, as he seems emotionally wounded by having caused his girl to doubt his desire for her.

It’s certainly effective in conveying that impression, even if in real life I have my doubts this will do anything but make her respect him less for folding like a house of cards at the slightest sign of dissatisfaction and pushback from his sweetheart. But in doo wop circles this kind of tender mea culpa would quickly become standard operating procedure for groups large and small.

Til, as always, is ideally cast as somebody more fearful of being thrown overboard by a girl of high standards and so his apologies are entirely heartfelt, giving this a feeling perched somewhere between weak and thoughtful… yet vocally he sounds really good, probably because he’s so used to sucking up to whatever girl he’s involved with at the time.

With the discreet melody of Don’t Cry Baby being accentuated far better by this style of singing, aided by the wordless harmonies of the others including a strong bass vocal backing (and a reasonably good interlude) by Jimmy Reed, the effect of it is to almost invert the entire lyrical focus, as they may be trying to placate the girl with the words, but wind up using them to keep Til himself from breaking down and sobbing in anguish.

For once the backing arrangement on Jubilee’s recent output is understated and subdued, giving Buddy Lucas’s sax some atmospheric lines that exist mainly in the background but set the tone well, while the piano and drums are prominent without being overbearing. Best of all there’s no organ or steel guitar in sight.

Though The Orioles have had more than their share of great records to date, with most of them there was always something that felt as though it was at least on the verge of taking a turn for the worse with their arranging choices, even if they pulled back at the last minute on many of the before they went over a cliff.

But here the execute they entire thing – vocally, instrumentally and in their production choices – with as sure of a hand as they’ve ever shown, which is not only welcome but is also something few could’ve seen coming.


I Place No One Above You
In this style of music atmosphere often supersedes the message, or rather makes a slightly discomforting position more tolerable by the presentation, and this is no exception.

We’ve railed against Sonny Til being such a hapless lovelorn simpleton so many times before as he begs, pleads and whines for a girl’s interest, yet here on Don’t Cry Baby as he more or less does the same to ensure he keeps the one he convinced to sleep with him, he’s doing so with a vocal confidence that belies his character’s comparative lack of confidence and maintains the decidedly tricky balance necessary to pull it off.

In other words, like a consummate actor he took on a role that had seemingly had been done definitively in other performances and turned it on its head and came up with something just as powerful, if not more so, proving once again that rock ‘n’ roll could in fact re-write the rules as they went along.


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