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JUBILEE 5071; DECEMBER 1951

 
 

 

Who would’ve ever predicted this prior to the fall of 1951?

The Orioles, a vocal group which rode one basic approach, that of a perpetually insecure Sonny Til pouring his heart out over a sparse backing, not only breaking free of that limited perspective but doing so multiple times in a few months?

Honestly, if you had said in the middle of 1951 that rather than ramp up a run for the Presidency Of The United States that General Dwight Eisenhower was going to join a circus as a juggling clown it wouldn’t be that much more shocking.

Come to think of it, when he WAS elected President the next fall and had to deal with a drunken lunatic in his own party attempting to subvert the Constitution and throw half of the country in jail on trumped up charges of Communism, maybe Ike wasn’t that far off from holding that position of a juggling clown.

So yeah, The Orioles switch to an uptempo group with complex vocal arrangements probably was a more shocking development after all.
 

 

Wake Up Baby
Let’s run down a few stats here just to put this transformation in perspective.

Prior to August 1951 we reviewed a total of 36 sides by The Orioles, some of them among the best records of their day, and yet only four of them deviated from their usual ballad fare in a significant way.

Popular though they remained in many quarters for their succession of ballads, that was a sure way to limit expanding your audience… which is a problem considering their weakest slow songs had a tendency to put even some of their most passionate fans to sleep.

Yet in August of 1951 they cut an interesting uptempo cut with Hold Me! Squeeze Me!, even if it was just a rip-off of another group’s big smash from earlier in the year.

But they followed this up in October with the fantastic Baby, Please Don’t Go, a fairly radical reworking of the blues standard which added stinging guitar, saxophone and Sonny Til’s impassioned lead alongside more robust vocal support of the others and got their biggest hit in years as a result.

A month after it was released and starting to draw interest they were back in the studios clearly looking to take advantage of that to a degree with songs like How Blind Can You Be, a cover of the recent – tremendous – effort by first time entrants The Falcons featuring Goldie Boots the first female led rock vocal group.

Though it’s got a title that invokes images of Til whining incessantly about another missed chance at love, it winds up being a prime example of their evolving sound featuring prominent group vocals that almost relegates Sonny Til to a secondary component.

This wasn’t just a head-turner for those used to the same ol’, same ol’ from The Orioles, this was enough to make your head explode.
 


 
 

Walking In A Beautiful Haze
First thing’s first… the vocal arrangement. In the past The Orioles records were dominated by Sonny Til to such a degree that the others, save for George Nelson’s baritone taking the bridge and sometimes Alex Sharp’s floating high tenor in the background, were often barely noticeable.

Yet on How Blind Can You Be? they are the main focal point of the entire record, singing in unison to start with telling the girl in question – and surely a few drowsy listeners anticipating the usual ponderous pace – to “WAKE UP!”. They’re convincing at it because they might be the only rock group on the scene who needed to use that phrase at every show they did.

Bass singer Johnny Reed, who rarely is heard doing more than humming on their records, responds with a wonderfully deep rolling voice before handing it back to the others who sound invigorated by their chance to be in the spotlight.

Where’s Sonny Til during all of this? Who knows, but he doesn’t seem to mind his delayed entrance when he finally makes his first solo appearance almost thirty seconds in… and even then all he’s doing is closing out the first stanza before stepping aside again.

What’s so incomprehensible is how much The Orioles deviated from The Falcons original How Blind Can You Be. Theirs wasn’t exactly a slow ballad, but certainly more restrained and longing than this take on it and you’d envision The Orioles slowing it down even further to take advantage of Til’s usual approach and to play up the heartache that he specialized in. Instead they turn it on its head and the results are well worth it.

The record has a shimmering quality with the different vocal attributes being highlighted, topped off by a saxophone transition to a spoken word comedic trade off between the others trying to figure out why this girl they like is oblivious to their valiant efforts to get her.

Unfortunately the song does have a few missteps, starting with the fact they go too light on the instrumental support, save for the sax part which moves quickly to the background for the spoken section. Had they let Ralph Williams slash away on the guitar some during the bulk of the song instead of just on the lead-in, or replaced the timid drummer with someone cracking the skins, or simply dug a deeper groove with the rhythm section in general, it’d have really transformed this into something special.

You see their tendency to fall back to something more sedate briefly leading up to that bridge where their group vocals become so mild they almost vanish before your very eyes. Thankfully they pull things together and Til’s voice when he’s in the spotlight is as great as always, even if it falls just short of what it might’ve been had they had the guts to take things a little farther.
 


 

Why Don’t You Elevate Your Mind?
In most cases we try and divest ourselves of expectations going into a record and judge it in a neutral context, but I gotta admit that’s pretty hard to do here.

The truth of the matter is our expectations do play a part in everything in life. An huge upset win in a sporting event leaves a much more lasting memory than that same team winning a game they were heavily favored to win.

So too is it with music, where artists build a body of work over time and we more or less know what they’re capable of. When they’re able to constantly catch us off guard with new innovative ideas and those ideas wind up working just as well as their past releases in a much different style, we always are going to elevate the group as a result, touting their mastery of all these approaches.

Hopefully though the score for How Blind Can You Be is a fair one for those who knew nothing of their past efforts and could care less about how unexpected something like this was from The Orioles. It IS a great record because of the vocal arrangement and their blend and while we’re a lot happier to hear it because of the repetitive arrangements and downplaying of the others in the mix on past efforts, I don’t think we’re overrating how good this one actually sounds as a result.

Yes, it still could’ve been better and though it gets the same score it’s not quite as good as The Falcons original, so maybe we’re giving it the benefit of the doubt and bumping it up a half point to give it a slightly higher mark, but that’s something we do all the time for ancillary reasons as a lot songs fall between scores and we need to make a decision one way or the other.

Let this be a lesson though to those who tend to skew conservative in their creative endeavors… if you take a risk, you’ll be rewarded for it more times than not, especially when it comes to making music that forces us sit up and take notice.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(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:
 
The Falcons (ft. Goldie Boots) (October, 1951)