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Normally a Christmas record for a rock act, even one which had scored huge with the first holiday themed original in this field two years back, wouldn’t be cause for a review of much depth.

After all, with a song like this we’re hardly analyzing the songwriting or the artistic intent… it’s a commercial grab, a way to entice fans to check out something in the midst of the Christmas music onslaught each year that isn’t meant for their parents generation or their white neighbors across town, but rather is intended for them.

That’s a nice story but hardly requires much work to sort out.

But this record… more specifically this record at this TIME… is a much bigger story than any of them knew it’d be when they recorded it just a month earlier.


Fall On Your Knees
One unusual thing about rock history is what we collectively remember about it even if certain events happened well before our time. For many people it’s when a hit record came out, for others it’s when a specific style was dominant, but another less pleasant bit of information that takes a prominent place in fans’ storehouse of knowledge is remembering precisely when major artists passed away in the prime of their careers.

In other fields people die young of course, Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing of colon cancer at 43 in 2020 being the latest reminder that time is all too short, but in rock ‘n’ roll a premature death seems somehow far more… romantic… providing almost a fitting ending for their eternal legacy even.

They wrote songs about The Day The Music Died memorializing Buddy Holly’s demise. The grave site of Jim Morrison is a tourist attraction. The suicides of Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain are looked at less as mental health crises brought about by the pressures of their careers and more as iconoclasts going out on their own terms. Meanwhile each generation seems to be in for a night where chills run down your spine at the news another rock icon was brutally murdered… Sam Cooke in 1964, John Lennon in 1980, Marvin Gaye in 1984, 2Pac in 1996 or XXXTentacion in 2018.

We celebrate death in rock ‘n’ roll lore in ways that doesn’t always happen in film or literature. The posthumous releases of everyone from Otis Redding and Janis Joplin to Aaliyah and Juice Wrld soar up the charts and serve as a reminder of what’s been lost.

Though most casual rock histories point to Johnny Ace’s self-inflicted death Christmas night 1954 as rock’s first tragedy, the truth is four years earlier rock lost its first notable artist when The Orioles’ guitarist Tommy Gaither was killed in a car crash that severely injured fellow group members Johnny Reed and George Nelson who were traveling together from a concert in New York, heading home to Baltimore for a much needed day’s rest before going back out on tour. They were just three miles outside of the city limits when the car flipped after Gaither took a turn too fast, killing him instantly.

Just like death follows rock music around like a long ominous shadow, so too does sadness infiltrate the otherwise happy season of Christmas, a time when those without loved ones to share the holiday with can feel particularly depressed. Oh Holy Night may speak of rapturous elation thanks to the arrival of some people’s designated savior but much of the music it’s wrapped in has always sounded solemn and grave… never more so when the record became The Orioles latest release just at the moment tragedy struck.

Hear The Angels Voices
Jubilee Records basically have had their entire operation funded by The Orioles success the last three years, a good deal of which was thanks to their previous two holiday offerings, It’s Gonna Be A Lonely Christmas from 1948 which became the first rock Christmas standard, and 1949’s What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve which was the second standard for this time of season to come from rock circles.

In fact the latter was paired with a re-issue of the former in 1949 which became a hit again and they’d keep re-issuing that pairing for years so the company clearly had more than doling out a gift for their fans in mind when it came to this year’s new release… or rather something older, as in a hundred and three years old.

O Holy Night as it is officially spelled (The Orioles added an H to the first word) came about in 1847 when Adolphe Adam took a then four year old French poem and set it to music and in short order it became one of the most enduring Christmas songs in history.

It’s also one of the prettiest, regardless of your views of the specific subject matter (the flip side was a straight rendition of The Lord’s Prayer, that may have been more popular with Orioles fans at the time).

Melodically this song takes you from a somber contemplative delivery in the low range to soaring heights as it goes making it a difficult song for even good singers to handle, which is why the most vocally gifted rock acts like Jackie Wilson, Aaron Neville, Jerry Butler and Mariah Carey took extreme pride in tackling it and showing off their skills. But The Orioles more than hold their own with their rendition, using wordless harmonies of the group to give Sonny Til an ethereal foundation to build from.

Til’s voice out front is both strong and delicate, navigating the song with tenderness and conviction. The others buttress his lead at times, adding their voices in delivering the lyrics at a few junctures, the first of which is a little awkward maybe but the second interval makes up for it as their blend on the “Fall on your knees” section is magnificent, leaving you breathless when capped off by Alex Sharp’s high tenor trailing off alone after the others have bowed out.

The song sways effortlessly, that melody remaining just as mesmerizing a century after its inception as it will likely be a century down the road. The Orioles (or Jubilee’s producers) wisely leave the voices mostly unadorned, giving just a faint hint of piano to keep them on track. Gaither ironically sits this out, though vocally he may well be included as he often was called upon to do to fill out the harmonies, but while the results are impressive the events of the day naturally overshadowed it and made this their first Christmas offering to miss out commercially at the time and subsequently be overlooked in the years since.

The aesthetic results though speak for themselves.


The Stars Are Brightly Shining
The Orioles were sometimes criticized, more in the years since than at the time, for being “sloppy” or “amateuristic” in their deliveries behind Til, but this shows that when given a tight arrangement and more than just throwaway parts they could easily step up their game making this one of the better rock renditions of a truly heavenly song you’ll come across – simple, unpretentious and sincere.

Though there’s be more releases in the upcoming months from The Orioles that still featured Gaither, including one that wound up serving as a tender commentary on his demise when viewed through the lens of his death, Oh Holy Night serves as a fitting tribute to him in its own right, as well as providing sterling evidence that these rock acts had the musical chops and overall respect of the material to do justice to songs of this nature.

For a group who were still all but kids – Gaither had been by far the oldest at 31 – they’d already done more to change the course of music than most major acts twice their age and because of the style they performed they got begrudging credit when they were among the biggest and most reliable stars in their community.

But that community adored them for it and now that one of them was gone it may have helped to bind the two entities together all the more.


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