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JUBILEE 5055; APRIL 1951



It’s doubtful anyone reading this two decades into the Twenty-First Century knew Tommy Gaither, the guitarist of The Orioles who died in November 1950 in a car accident that injured two of his bandmates.

But then again it’s also doubtful that many of The Orioles fans in 1951 had known him personally either. Those who saw them live certainly had seen him playing, had heard his name introduced from the bandstand, maybe even had a brief encounter with him between sets as they crossed paths to the bar or the bathroom, but they didn’t know him.

Yet the other Orioles did and it’s their very real – and still very raw – emotions that are going to be what lingers on for eternity to all those who listen to this record which was cut in tribute to their fallen friend.


True Friends Depend On Us
This is understandably a hard record to review… not that we can’t simply focus on the singing, the arrangement, the lyrics and its place in the larger rock world of the time… but rather we can’t avoid thinking about what was going through their heads while recording it.

Most people encountering this song will have lost somebody close to them, some who may have been very young like Gaither, and while each person deals with loss differently, the underlying emotions remain the same when someone is taken far too soon. Shock, anger, grief and emptiness mix together, one feeling rising up and pushing another down only for them to reverse course until you don’t know quite what you feel at any given time.

That Gaither died on the way back from a tour with them, excited to be back home in Baltimore so they could go Christmas shopping and sleep in their own beds for a change, made it all the more difficult to process. This was something directly involving all of them and so there may have been some perverse guilt they were feeling, as if there was something any one of them could have done to have prevented the accident.

Being public figures, even in a relatively insular world such as rock ‘n’ roll at the time, you’re both sharing that grief with others who loved the group and read the headlines and yet at the same time you are being watched to see how you handle it from afar. Being singers who specialize in songs about romantic loss you are almost expected to use your music to comment on it, or to soothe the pain or to pay tribute to your friend and colleague.

It’s not an easy thing to do, especially for kids in their mid-twenties. They weren’t songwriters themselves for the most part and so they needed to find a song that could express all of this in a way that was genuine without being exploitative, sincere without being mawkish, and commercial without using his death in an effort to boost sales.

With all of those seemingly conflicting aims, what’s surprising is that Pal Of Mine manages to pull it off with a fair amount of class, even if hearing it and picturing the all too real human beings in that studio processing this in the moment makes it a much tougher listen than most songs are ever intended to be.

At Your Call I Will Always Be
They’d first performed this at the benefit concert in Baltimore for Gaither three weeks after his death but they waited a few months to record it, maybe because they knew they wouldn’t be likely to get through it easily without some distance between the accident and the recording date.

The intent of Pal Of Mine, provided you know the story behind it, is pretty clear but of course the song wasn’t written for that purpose and so while the lyrics are applicable to the situation, they aren’t specifically about him, or even about death, but rather about paying tribute to someone they all loved.

With Alex Sharp’s chilling high tenor the lone voice in the spotlight backed by an ominous humming guitar of Gaither’s replacement Ralph Williams the effect is downright chilling.

As Sonny Til’s voice haltingly comes in drawing out the title line you fear you might break down before the first chorus if you let yourself think too deeply about the circumstances. But the vague, slightly simplistic, lyrics lessens the impact and allows you to better be able to treat this almost in the abstract, save for the line about “driving cares and despair away”, which is unintentionally eerie considering the manner of his death came in a car.

The first half of the record is magnetic as Til is naturally singing in a slightly different manner than his normal woe-is-me romantically isolated soul routine, as he clearly is digging a little deeper into his own personal well of emotions to bring out the meaning in it.

But as it goes along it begins to let that poignancy slip away just a little. Maybe it’s the nature of the composition itself which, absent the real-life events, would be somewhat indistinguishable and awkwardly sentimental at that.

It’s also the inclusion of a dramatic spoken word bridge referring to God which no doubt is heartfelt but can’t help but come across as a little stilted when hearing it on record rather than at a memorial service. There’s even a few moments where the line is blurred between platonic friendship and something vaguely resembling romance (“to have and to hold”), which considering Til’s long history of romantic expressions might cause you to do a double take when hearing it.

Still, the sincerity in it all is evident and when they close it out with the same dramatic bolero rhythm behind Sharp’s wordless soaring cries it definitely has the desired impact making it a record that probably is going to be sparingly taken off the shelf in spite of its overall quality.


You’re For Me, I’m For You
We can never know for sure what role outside circumstances played in the lives of a group of individuals who came together, found stardom, dealt with tragedy as well as the growing demands of their fame and responsibilities, but I don’t think it can be written off as coincidence that it was around this time that The Orioles began to show signs of fracturing.

The month before this was released Sonny Til cut his first solo sides and while bandmate Johnny Reed played organ on them and they were done with the blessing of the group, it showed that there was different options available for them depending on their stature within the outfit itself.

At the beginning of this month the group got in yet another car accident, sideswiped by a truck on the highway in Ohio while Sonny was driving, and while they avoided catastrophe in this case the rigors of the road – traveling thousands of miles in cars that were packed to the gills with equipment and luggage while surely getting on each other’s nerves – surely took its toll on them all.

In the months to come baritone vocalist George Nelson, who handled the bridges in their songs, began to drink more and more and while it’d take more than a year to come to a head, his role in the group was now becoming far more tenuous, adding to the issues they were all dealing with.

Maybe none of that was the direct result of Tommy Gaither’s death or maybe some of it could be attributed to it in a roundabout way, but Pal Of Mine marked a definite end to what could rightly be called the rise of The Orioles.

Though they weren’t destined to fall just yet and had some huge records still to come, it was obvious things had changed. To that end it was strange but somehow fitting that with this performance they seemed to be marking the transition of the group’s fortunes even if at the time all they thought they were doing was saying goodbye to a friend.


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