Tags

No tags :(

Share it

IT’S A NATURAL 5000; JULY, 1948

 

Re-Issued As JUBILEE 5000; AUGUST, 1948

 
 

 

In an undertaking of this scope (lest anyone forgot, that scope is the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll, song by song – give or take a few – from the very beginning of the genre through to the present), there are certain benchmark records that loom so large over the horizon that they become downright imposing to actually sit down and review them when they finally come up.

Records of such magnitude that the accompanying essay takes on far more importance than any other. They don’t come along often but when they do, in one (hopefully) coherent discourse, I somehow need to convey the significance of a record that quite literally changed the world.

This is just such a record.
 

A One-Sided Love Would Break My Heart
Among the most prominent first limbs sprouting out of the trunk of rock ‘n’ roll’s family tree had come just a month into rock’s existence when The Ravens entered the fray and emerged with a genuine hit, Write Me A Letter, featuring smooth harmonies with a sly, jubilant delivery. It was a sound that, while different that what had preceded it in the field, was intrinsically tied to the same spirit that had fueled those earlier records by artists such as Roy Brown and thus appealed to much of the same market. Right away it was accepted as being simply a variation on the emerging style which broadened the rock scope immeasurably.

But that limb’s growth had been stunted already, for although there’d been subsequent vocal group records released over the next eight months, including a few additional strong sellers by The Ravens themselves, thus far there had been no major impact in that realm outside of the group that started it. The longer it took for reinforcements to arrive and solidify that sound within the larger rock parameters the less likely it became that’d the vocal group sound would remain a viable subgenre of the field. Who was to say that with no wider movement growing around them that limb wouldn’t be quickly pruned from rock’s tree altogether?

But fear not because finally in July 1948 some new birds were perched in its branches, singing in the morning air.
 


 

Can I Believe Her If She Tells Me So?
The Orioles rise from unknown amateurs to superstars was astonishingly quick. In the span of just about four months they did what it’d take most groups, even most legendary groups, years to do. Formed as the Vibra-naires in the spring of 1948 by lead singer Sonny Til and a handful of singers he met through competing against them in local amateur shows in their hometown of Baltimore, they managed to cut some demos through a local entrepreneur who put them in touch with an aspiring songwriter named Deborah Chessler whose first composition had just been recorded in March by Savannah Churchill.

Chessler, a young white Jewish girl who worked full-time at a shoe store and still lived with her mother, turned out to be a perfect match for them as despite her background her songs were written more in the black idiom. When she listened to them sing over the phone she knew immediately they were exactly whom she needed to do justice to her songs.

The group asked her to become their manager and somehow, with the type of youthful drive borne out of blissful ignorance at just how difficult all of this was supposed to be, she was able to get them on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show, one of the most popular radio shows in America.

The premise of Godfrey’s program was simple: So-called talent scouts (usually someone directly connected to the aspiring talent, a shill in other words) would present an amateur performer of some kind… musicians, singers, comedians, etc… on the show and they’d do their number over the air in front of a studio audience and an applause meter in the studio would determine the winner. That would get the act an additional showcase on Godfrey’s morning show to essentially promote themselves to anyone interested in hiring or signing such an act.

If it sounds familiar it’s because American Idol and The Voice, or before that Star Search, are simply Godfrey’s premise recycled with a few minor tweaks.

The show aired nationally each Monday night at 8:30PM when radio was still the dominant form of entertainment (television, like rock ‘n’ roll, was in its infancy still, though Godfrey would add a TV version that December and it’d go on to become equally popular in that format, in fact becoming the top rated show for 1951-52 and ranking in the Top Three for three consecutive years). The Vibra-naires appeared on May 3, 1948, roughly a month after first forming, and just two or three weeks after hooking up with Chessler. They all took the train up to New York for the show, on which they lost to pianist George Shearing who went on to great acclaim himself.

They returned to Baltimore the same night, their shot at glory perhaps over.

Yet while the studio audience had been only mildly impressed the radio audience was much more diverse (were there ANY blacks allowed in the studio? It’s doubtful) and Godfrey’s phones promptly lit up. That Thursday Chessler came home from working at the shoe store and found a telegram waiting for her stating that Godfrey wanted the group to appear on his morning radio show… the very next day!

Back to New York they went, sang the same song they had on Talent Scouts, and hopped right back on the train and made the four state trek back home again. Oh, by the way, being amateurs they didn’t get PAID for any of this, including even train fare. But as a result they were able to get valuable exposure which other artists with even more experience would kill for.
 

Is It All A Game?
Chessler doggedly returned to NYC on her own with the group’s demos a week later trying to use their appearance on the show to land them a record deal. Amazingly she managed to do just that when she was steered towards Jubilee Records by (get this)… a comedian she met in a deli… with whom she later wrote a song with that was recorded by another major singer! (You can’t make this stuff up, folks, truth is definitely stranger than fiction!).

Anyway, Jubilee’s owner Jerry Blaine signed them, then in fact created a new label expressly to record them (It’s A Natural Records – which didn’t last long following complaints from National Records that the names were too close for comfort). He also renamed the group The Orioles (Maryland’s state bird and easier to spell than the contrived Vibra-Naires) and only now, after that whirlwind first six weeks since forming, did they all get a chance to breathe… but not for long.

Their first recording session was scheduled for the end of June and Chessler had to write new songs expressly for the occasion, as original material was seen as crucial to get them off the ground. Then the group had to rehearse those new songs constantly until they had them down cold. It was the first time that any of them, Chessler included, had stepped foot in a recording studio.

Naturally the first song they cut would alter civilization forevermore.
 

If It’s So
The record is shocking in its simplicity. Cut during the still ongoing recording ban (meaning no session musicians were allowed), only group member Tommy Gaither’s lightly strummed guitar really is audible among the scant instrumentation, though Johnny Reed’s plucked double bass (he also sang bass) and a piano are on it too, and thus the only thing to really carry the tune are the five voices themselves and they’re more than up to the task.

It’s Too Soon To Know is achingly slow, there’s barely any forward momentum at all, yet melodically it’s disarming, stepping lightly as it climbs the proverbial ladder up the scales, instantly memorable in a gently swaying, almost lullabye-esque sort of way.

Yet as captivating as it is musically, easing you into a dreamy helpless trance, where it really stood out was lyrically. It’s brilliant.

Chessler had written it while on that trip to New York after a man she hardly knew who took her around that day told her he was in love with her. Back in the hotel room, Chessler’s mind still reeling from the unexpected, and seemingly unwelcome, revelation sprung on her, she wrote the song in the bathroom – on toilet paper no less! – and the words that sprang forth captured all of the uncertainty, confusion and fear of the moment with astounding clarity.

Though she was startled, if not shaken, by his come-on, the song she crafted from the experience managed to turn those feelings into ones where the participants were in fact hoping such a declaration was true, but – whether due to inexperience or fear – couldn’t be sure.

From the first time he rehearsed the song Chessler said that Sonny Til “sang it like he’d been singing it all his life”. That immediate and thorough comprehension of the underlying feelings that she expressed was what made the recording so special. In turn THAT was what connected with the audience like nothing before in the rock field quite had. It came off sounding like a personal revelation delivered from singers in not much different circumstances than the ones who bought the record.

They too were unsure of just what love entailed, how to tell it was genuine, whether or not these feelings would last or fade away. Rock music over the decades has unerringly found the right connection with the right ears at the right time, a shared perspective between artist and audience that elevates it beyond mere transient entertainment to something much deeper and more lasting. Reflecting the audience’s own inner thoughts back at them is as sure a way to everlasting acclaim as anything, and It’s Too Soon To Know was rock’s first case of peeling back the bravado and boastfulness of previous records to reveal the vulnerability which still beset so many listeners.

That vulnerability is evident in every word Til sings, sounding at times as if he’s still thinking of just how to express these thoughts while he’s singing, reaching for a word or a phrase to convey how he feels and finding it just as the next line starts…

Is she fooling, is it all a game
Am I the fire or just another flame?

It’s almost ethereal.
 
 


 

The Orioles harmonies behind his tentative lead add to the aura without drawing attention away from the sentiments themselves. When he starts to bear down harder it’s ever so slight – A one sided love would break my heart / She may be just acting or playing a part – yet in that moment the listener could sense his urgency.

The word that got used most was “soulful”, and it was exactly that. Not gospel-esque soul, like Roy Brown, but the deep inner torment of a heart on the verge of either rapturous joy should the declaration of love wind up being true, or the brink of torment if they were insincere.

Even George Nelson’s weightier baritone singing the same lyrics in the bridge only adds to the suspense, as one envisions Til collecting himself off to the side and trying to maintain his composure for when he returns for the climax, not near hysteria as one might expect, but rather melancholy despair because the questions he asked have gotten him no concrete answers. As it fades he – and by extension we – are no closer to knowing the truth than we were at the beginning.

In life most of us are no closer to knowing – for absolute certainty – the answers to whatever emotional queries plague us and so the song ends as it should, giving no artificial reassurance, but simply allowing everyone hearing it to know that they aren’t alone in their pondering of life’s eternal questions.
 

I’ll Live On
The effect was incalculable. Here was a group not much older, if at all than those hearing it (Til was just 23, while the youngest member, Alex Sharp, was 20). The Orioles weren’t a professional group, separated from the audience by the trappings of the industry, they were just as inexperienced in this whole game as the listeners were, relatable by their very amateurism.

As befitting that connection the rock audience embraced The Orioles in a way that was almost personal in nature, claiming them as their own with an intense devotion that made them superstars in the young black community. It’s Too Soon To Know topped the Race charts by the fall and in Sonny Til rock now had its first sex symbol, someone who was soon inducing pandemonium with female fans at every appearance. Over the next few years hordes of their followers formed groups of their own, modeling themselves on The Orioles and spreading the sound even further as more and more branches began sprouting off the now sturdy vocal group limb.

Rock ‘n’ roll had been building a groundswell of support to this point but here’s where it truly exploded, pushing rock’s appeal far beyond merely the musical tastes of its audience. Now rock music was becoming an identity and The Orioles were ones who belonged to, and now best exemplified, this young and vibrant generation… their generation.

The rock generation.
 
 
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 Ravens (September, 1948)