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JUBILEE 5055; APRIL 1951



In a lot of ways the spring of 1951 seems to almost be the temporal junction point of the entire rock ‘n’ roll space time continuum.

There are landmark records being released left and right, countless important artists making their debuts, or at least releasing their first really important singles, and weirdest of all there’s a recurring element of era manipulation popping up wherein new records are blatantly stealing from old records far more than you’d think was likely in something as forward looking as rock ‘n’ roll.

Now in the midst of all this comes one of the first rock vocal groups, The Orioles, right on the heels of the first sighting of their future doppelganger in many ways, The Five Keys.

You’d think this would make for a natural comparison between the two ballad-centric groups and how that style might be at risk for being overrun by more vigorous vocal group records, but no, because for the first time in a long while The Orioles cross us up by releasing something uptempo, albeit ripped off from years before.


In For A Long, Long Ride
There have been more reviews on The Orioles on these pages than virtually anybody, thirty-two if you’re keeping score.

Though their best work during this span can stand with any artists of the era they’ve also released a lot of subpar sides owing to their – or their label’s – pop aspirations and the tendency to repeat formula with one heart-wrenching ballad after another, all using virtually the exact same components.

Complain though we might, you can’t claim it’s done them in when they’ve managed to score seven national Top Ten hits plus a whole lot more which were huge regional hits, particularly up and down the East Coast. It may be mind-numbingly repetitive at times but clearly somebody was still interested in that sound.

Yet over the last five months it’s obvious things are changing in this style of rock. Not that balladry is at any risk for being cast aside, The Four Buddies’ two hits were both in this same realm after all, but rather that there have been the sudden infusion of more varied approaches by a lot of new groups which have already made waves and as a result the stark emotional ballads of The Orioles were at risk for a downturn.

Maybe that prospect explains why The Orioles finally are deviating from their long established path with the truly unexpected arrival of Happy Go Lucky Local Blues.

You can hardly blame them if that’s the case and so for the first time in two years The Orioles are taking a shot at something with a little more pep to it even if they have to travel back to last decade to find a song they’re comfortable with.


Been Looking For You Everywhere
The first thing many rock fans of 1951 would think when they heard this playing was… wait a minute, why does this sound vaguely familiar?

Well depending on how old you were, how heavily invested in music your elders were, there’s a good chance you had heard it before as an instrumental under the same name by Duke Ellington back in the mid-1940’s in his expansive Deep South Suite, one of many ambitious projects he undertook as music’s most visionary architect.

If you peaked slightly into the future from our point in time you’ll know that within the year one of the key riffs from that record would be lifted by saxophonist Jimmy Forrest and released as Night Train, the eternal strippers anthem. As a result this record by The Orioles is essentially the link between one of the dozen or so most important figures of Twentieth Century music and… the midnight show at the Boom Boom Room in Pasadena.

Sign me up!

It’s a strange choice for the group to make however, not just because it comes from such an unlikely and distant source, but because they had to re-conceive it for a vocal performance and prior to this The Orioles themselves had shown little interest in penning original songs, much less radically adapting something far outside their comfort zone.

It’s not hard to figure out where they came up with this idea though, as back in December they’d been on the same bill with Ellington and hearing it played while they were in the wings would surely make an impression on them.

Though Sonny Til gets a co-writing credit along with their new pianist Charles Harris, both presumably for the lyrics while the Duke gets no credit at all for the music, the basics are the same from Ellington’s masterpiece, a percussive ringing piano rattling your senses followed by a warm liquid bass pouring out of the speakers like molten lava and when the proper song begins you get a clicking rhythm track that replicates the train heading down the line.

The real change though comes when we find that in place of horns we have The Orioles’ voices being used in a much different manner than we’ve heard before.

As Long As I’ve Got The Fare
There’s a much more congenial spirit here, each voice contributing in different ways from Alex Sharp’s high pitched trilling representing the train’s whistle to the way the entire group gets to sing vocal refrains with actual words, showing their blend was a lot more vibrant than on the more tediously paced showcases for Til.

Sonny is still out front of course, but he’s not crooning for once, nor is he dejected about failed relationships and he benefits greatly from the change. He’s exhibiting a more melodically rhythmic delivery that is really engaging and makes you wish they took their songs out of low gear more… although with more modern structures than this one has.

The lyrics are trying – with some success – to encapsulate the role trains played in the previous generation where they held the promise of taking you to new and distant, and presumably more hospitable, places while also showing how men and women saw in that mode of transportation a way to better their romantic prospects by expanding the number of potential partners rather than focusing strictly on those in the immediate vicinity.

As a result Happy Go Lucky Local Blues is less of a plot driven story and more of broad overview of a moment in time that was rapidly becoming obsolete. Because the music itself was also from an earlier time AND an earlier style, that is inevitably going to keep rock fans in 1951 who had more pressing matters in front of them in their own lives from fully embracing, even if it was intriguing enough to take a listen.


This Train Is Really Gone
Whether or not The Orioles were genuinely interested in providing their fans with a history lesson or merely hoping that the song was familiar enough and catchy enough to give them a hit, they do their jobs well. The song paints a distinctive picture and the sound of the record is captivating, particularly if you’ve grown tired of The Orioles’ usual act.

But for all of its charms Happy Go Lucky Local Blues inevitably belongs to another time. While The Orioles themselves sound really good and you admire they way they used their voices in place of instrumental elements which shows they were more artistically creative than they may have appeared to date, the fact remains that at a time when they needed to update their sound and look ahead to keep up with the radical changes taking place around them, they wind up looking back instead.

In the end it’s both a strange anomaly and a welcome change of pace, not anything they could ardently pursue further maybe but something we can at least be glad they tried once.


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