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JUBILEE 5026; APRIL 1950



In not quite two full years on the scene The Orioles have released a lot of really good (and often great) records which have set the bar on vocal groups pretty high thanks to the emotional leads of Sonny Til which formed an indelible connection with the young rock audience who were seeking idols to call their own.

At other times however The Orioles have reduced their approach to formula, too often seeking to duplicate the exact sentiments and structural approach of their greatest triumphs.

That the same basic aural template can bring about such divergent responses – innovative and inspired at their best, shallow and trite at their worst – has made the group endlessly frustrating to cover, for even when they succeed artistically thanks to a particularly well-written song, the more closely they stick to precedent the more inevitable their creative and commercial decline appears to be.

So in an effort to be helpful (albeit seven decades too late) we’ve urged them to mix things up from time to time and pointed out the simplest way to appear fresh might just be to add different instruments to go beyond the dreary predictability of a lightly strummed guitar and tinkly piano that have framed virtually all of their two dozen entries on these pages.

We’ve pleaded with them to hire a saxophone or two to breathe some life into the arrangements and to enlist a drummer to inject some actual rhythm to their records. Anything up to and including a marching band and bagpipes would at least allow a song or two they cut to stand out from the rest and give us a respite from being wrapped in the same sleepy aural haze every time out.

Well, they finally listened to us and went all out in hiring not one new accompanist but multiple instrumentalists to bring something new and different to the table. That being said however this is definitely not what we had in mind!



If You Know How I Care
Quite naturally we’ve encountered a lot of firsts during rock’s early evolution that showed just how rapidly the genre was trying out different approaches and seeing what was adaptable for their needs.

From instrumentals to group vocals, protest songs to Christmas records, rock was busy trying everything on for size, keeping and refining what they liked while discarding the ideas that were better left to other genres.

Among the most crucial decisions rock had been making from the start were in deciding which instruments best conveyed the attitudes they were experimenting with. Though you’d think what worked well and what didn’t might be pretty apparent at first listen, the truth is settling on a basic lineup hasn’t always gone smoothly.

Early on the horn sections had to prioritize their membership with the tenor sax forcibly pushing aside the trumpets while at the same time emphasizing the dirtier sounds coming from their instruments via a series of rhythmic honks and wild squeals rather than adhering strictly to a more standard melodic accompaniment.

Meanwhile the importance of the back beat gradually became apparent once the drummers began laying off the brushes and started thumping the bass and cracking the snares to provide more excitement which in turn helped to better frame the declarative vocals so many songs used.

When guitars started getting spots to show off their wares it took awhile from them to shed their lighter jazzier inclinations and start playing with a rougher edge, but once they’d established that sound others quickly began picking up on it until that line of attack became more prominent across all of rock with far more explosive breakthroughs still to come.

But while it made sense that those instruments would have their roles re-imagined over time in order to give rock more options for creating the kind of sonic mayhem the entire style seemed inclined to pursue to satisfy their audience’s craving for a a brand of music skirting the edge of civility at times, it didn’t seem likely that in 1950 many rock fans were saying I Wonder When dainty string sessions are going to start making their way into rock ‘n’ roll!

For anyone who WAS wondering – and hoping – that it wouldn’t be long, you’re in luck thanks to The Orioles’ decision to make their pop-leanings even more apparent than we’d deem advisable if they wanted to keep our attention.


The Day And Night And Then…
Despite the fact that a lot of rock history looks down upon heavily orchestrated arrangements and regards it as an unwelcome intrusion to the hedonistic image they celebrate, there’s been a lot of ink spilled over the years trying to pin down the first time strings worked their way into a rock vocal group record.

In reverse chronological order this “advancement” in musical class has been variously attributed to The Drifters’ #2 smash There Goes My Baby from 1959, The Platters’ chart topping Twilight Time (1958), The Five Keys This I Promise You (1957) and a session for The Moonglows that included I’ll Stop Wanting You, This Love and Love Is A River (rec. 1956, but which didn’t get released until 1958 on EP).

No doubt there are others which qualify as well, and to be fair in the non-vocal group realm of rock Ivory Joe Hunter had records with string sessions throughout 1949, but unless something is unearthed that pre-dates this release by The Orioles, then the “winner” in this ignominious sweepstakes of first rock group to use strings goes to I Wonder When.

Needless to say though, first or not, it’s hardly anything to be proud of.

Because certain instruments are so identifiable with particular styles of music it can be exceedingly difficult when trying to first adapt them to a totally new and unrelated style to break free of that image. Part of this is due to just the impression those instruments conjure up, but it’s also due to the lack of inventiveness when it comes to re-thinking the way in which they might be used.

Here The Orioles are saddled with an arrangement that just as easily could’ve been used for Margaret Whiting, Vic Damone or Nat “King” Cole and other pop singers who were the epitome of vocal restraint. Of course this means that The Orioles’ greatest attribute – the tortured emotionalism of Sonny Til – is going to be severely hindered, forcing him to tone down his despair to fit into the one-size fits all package.

It doesn’t quite work. Oh, Sonny still sings this well from a technical point of view, his voice adding a nice warble at times to try and inject a little more personal feeling to it, but there’s only so much he can do without upending the entire production.

If We’ll Ever Meet Again
To be fair Sid Bass actually does a good job in blending the strings in with The Orioles typical approach… though come to think of it that may be a backhanded compliment of The Orioles’ typical conservative arrangements too. In any event the violins aren’t overbearing by any means and if they do tend to leave the rest of the group with little more to do than offer a few “oohs” and “ahhs” in the transitions, well maybe that’s also for the best, since at least we don’t have to suffer through another unimaginative George Nelson bridge delivered in his shaky baritone.

So we’ll compliment them here for handling this alien concept for rock with a fair amount of tact – and even give them an additional tip of the hat just for the sheer innovation (if you can call it that) which allowed them to be “first” in dressing up rock ‘n’ roll for the class picture – but that’s as far as we’re willing to go.

The main goal of rock ‘n’ roll has always been to give voice to the outsider in society, specifically the generation coming of age who by virtue of their youth and race aren’t welcome in high society. The goal of rock essentially is to flaunt the differences between the factions, not to try and assimilate.

Due to their reliance on unadorned ballads The Orioles have always veered closer to the mainstream than most rock acts are comfortable doing, but because Sonny Til delivered them with such aching pathos he’s usually managed keep them rooted on our side of the tracks. As long as they kept applying that emotional pressure consistently you could usually tolerate the general conservatism of their packaging… but not so on I Wonder When where it becomes impossible to ignore.

The entire INTENT of utilizing a string section is to exude class and in the independent music field it was a pretty blatant strategy of making them more acceptable to outside parties, a potentially bigger and more lucrative market. That may seem like a natural and perfectly understandable goal until you realize striving for that audience would mean they’d no longer be trying to appeal to us, the market and culture that needed them most.

In the future rock producers would figure out how to appropriate some of these classy overtures by using a far more dramatic style of arranging to make the strings seem poised to strike rather than to caress the audience, thereby allowing them to be subverted for rock’s own nefarious purposes, but we’re clearly not there yet.

So that’s why, even though they managed to pull it off with some grace, we can’t find much solace in their attempt here when the very act itself means downplaying the unique and unapologetic cultural differences that rock was actively trying to force on the mainstream against systematic opposition. Rule number one in rock is very simple – never compromise – and here The Orioles do just that and are forced to adapt themselves to a pop arrangement rather than forcing those mainstream ideals to adapt to THEM.


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