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When glancing over the titles of songs on the docket for possible inclusion in the roll call of rock releases from February 1952, this was one that seemed likely to be the first one cut.

Not that The Orioles aren’t among the most important rock vocal groups of all-time, but rather that in their constant flirtation with pop music sensibilities they’re often pushing the limits on what is acceptable to still be called rock ‘n’ roll.

When they go right out and cover a rising pop hit that was bordering on a novelty record the chances that this would wind up being tolerable for rock sensibilities were approximately one in a million… and even that might underselling it by half.

Naturally, just to mess with our minds and ensure we never jump to conclusions again, they wind up turning this into something surprisingly worthwhile.

Will wonders never cease?


Floats On High
Unlike rock ‘n’ roll where female singers were still a decided minority, pop music of the early 1950’s was practically dominated by female artists.

With the commercial decline of long time pace setters Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, the male pop music roster was busy restocking its shelves, trying to discern who might make good long-term bets for stardom out of such promising candidates as Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher and Johnnie Ray (yes to all) who were just starting to make waves, and Don Cherry and Richard Hayes (not so much).

The female side of the equation though was running on all cylinders now with Patti Page, Doris Day, Kay Starr, Mary Ford and Georgia Gibbs wracking up hits left and right.

Jo Stafford had been around longer than most of them, first scoring big in 1945 with four Top Ten Hits. She was still getting chart action as the Nineteen Fifties dawned but not quite as high as in the past and so there was probably every reason to think that, like others who’d been big in the 1940’s (Margaret Whiting or Peggy Lee), her spot on the All-Star team would be taken by someone else.

But Shrimp Boats put an end to that talk, as it gave her a #2 hit and led to a career resurgence which resulted in her best year in 1952 and extended her heyday for a few more years beyond that.

The odd thing about it though was this wasn’t the type of song you’d expect to put her back on top. It was a novelty tune of sorts, utilizing two drastically different tempos and styles, one of which featured the kind of group sing-along technique that you envision taking place at some hackneyed community theater show run by smiling airheads.

In other words the idea that The Orioles and their usual dour passivity would be able to turn this schmaltzy frivolity into something that wasn’t mortifyingly embarrassing, let alone something actually artistically interesting, was about as likely as Jo Stafford having a torrid affair with Wynonie Harris and converting to rock ‘n’ roll.


Their Sails Are in Sight… Or Were They Hoping “Sales” Were In Sight?
In February of 1952 you’d be hard pressed to have not heard the Jo Stafford hit with its waltz time chorus that was annoyingly catchy, kind of like the common cold in a kindergarten classroom.

Written by Stafford’s husband, bandleader Paul Weston, it was aggressively dramatic in its presentation and though it’s certainly not devoid of melody by any means, it chooses to hit you over the with it from the start, practically turning the record into a lethal weapon to the senses.

By contrast The Orioles slow it down, tame it down is more like it, and take what was a garish production and turn this monstrosity into… wait for it now… actual music!

The transformation is nothing short of remarkable. Kicking it off with Buddy Lucas’s saxophone providing a sultry backdrop we get bass Johnny Reed adding a non-scripted vocal ad-lib of the title while high tenor Alex Sharp lets wail over the top of it with a wordless cry.

No, that hardly makes much sense in relation to the story, but the story is stupid and anything would improve having to listen to them try and make sense of that. Of course when Sonny Til comes into the picture he’s got no choice but to relate the story as written, but he wisely chooses to slow it down to the point of inertia, almost delivering a gospel tribute to these ocean-faring tradesmen like he was singing at their funeral.

Truthfully I think that was their intent. They needed a familiar prototype to redeem it from its ridiculous origins and the solemn drawn-out delivery followed by hand-clapping and testifying of the faster-paced sections is a brilliant decision. Of course nobody at a funeral is likely singing about Shrimp Boats, unless the funeral is being held underwater by the crustacean family who lost a loved one to these aquatic hunters, but it works surprisingly well this way, especially with the other Orioles getting their chance to handle the chorus on their own.

Lucas’s sax solo with the clapping and back-beat accentuated is nothing short of terrific, carried out while Reed is tossing in nonsense interjections turns the funeral into a revival meeting. They come back for another chorus and we never do hear from Sonny again, which is even better, for as great as he sang – truly one of his better lead performances from a sheer vocal technique perspective – the message, whatever it is, hits harder without another slow interlude as was found in the absurd original.

I don’t think there’s any question that The Orioles were either fed up with these “suggestions” by Jubilee’s imbecilic owner Jerry Blaine and decided to essentially send up the pop song rather than do it straight… OR, if you prefer, they realized that doing it straight offered them absolutely no commercial advantage and so they took their time to radically re-arrange it just to stand out and keep their careers from sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Either way, the results are shocking… both for the pop market who rightly felt they were being mocked by these uncouth rockers, and for the rock fan themselves who cringed at seeing the title but, provided they kept an open mind, would be pleasantly surprised to get something that was so alarmingly different… and so good on top of that.


There’s Dancin’ Tonight
The Orioles have virtually as many records reviewed on these pages as any artist in rock’s first four and a half years, and while they have more than their share of really high marks, they also have more subpar grades than almost anyone.

Regular readers don’t need to ask what’s responsible for this extreme dichotomy in their scores. When they release soulful records that delve deep into the angst of love in meaningful ways, they’re rewarded for it. When they skew towards shallow pop that treats love like a mere song topic with no consequences, they’re roundly criticized.

So to think that covering a pop novelty song of all things… something that is designed not to be taken seriously to begin with… is going to get them anything but scorn from us, would be wishful thinking on their part. Yet here we are telling you that their version of Shrimp Boats is not only aesthetically good, but it’s also a sign of radical creative thinking that we’d lost hope of them possessing.

Yeah, I can’t believe it either.

If you’d have told me I’d be heartily recommending THIS record with a straight face, you could’ve knocked me over with one of The Orioles’ feathers. What’s next, Professor Longhair singing Mario Lanza?

Actually come to think of it, that might not be more stunning a development than this turns out to be.


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