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Though we’ve touched upon this topic when we’ve encountered The Orioles thus far, we haven’t really addressed the issue head on… until now. Since it will be a dominant factor in their output going forward we might as well not waste any more time in getting to it merely to let them bask in the glow of their rapid ascent to the top of the rock music world.

We’re talking of course of the group’s reliance – over-reliance really – on nearly identically structured songs. Their catalog would soon be filled with similar sounding aching emotional ballads with sparse instrumentation, a baritone led bridge and the overall pacing of 93 year old motorists out for their weekly Sunday drive.

Because that approach had WORKED the first time out beyond anyone’s wildest imagination with It’s Too Soon To Know, currently sitting a top of the Billboard Jukebox charts, it’s hardly surprising they plowed the same field hoping for another bountiful crop this time out.

Those reading the last review know they got just that with It’s Gonna Be A Lonely Christmas, an immediate holiday classic and a Top Ten hit in its own right.

But those reading that page also know that the Christmas tune wasn’t the song The Orioles or their manager and record label were counting on to make the big splash. THIS one was and in that regard it failed.

The reasons for that lack of success aren’t hard to find.

When Day’s Done
These types of records, even at their best, are a tenuous proposition. The elements they require to connect and leave a mark on listeners are far more vague than booting tenor sax solos, insistent piano pounding and exuberant shouting of risqué lyrics that define the wilder side of rock. Those don’t always work either of course, but even when their ingredients are misjudged – whether over or underdone – there’s usually something about them that will grab your attention and in many cases even the failures have something memorable about it to bring you back for more.

But ballads, especially such fragile, intimate ballads as this, need to stir sympathy to pull you under its spell and that’s a much more delicate balancing act. The best ones seem to do so effortlessly which only makes all those which fail seem either dreadfully overwrought or far too shallow. An uptempo side can be great without being artful, in fact oftentimes they’re little more than workmanlike efforts that somehow capture the appropriate freewheeling spirit that rouse the body but not the mind, but ballads require more of an artist’s touch making it somewhat of a musical soufflé which doesn’t take much to go wrong and have the whole thing collapse on it self.

That Sonny Til sang these types of songs with so much sincerity from the very start meant they were more likely to find a receptive audience. Females worshipped Til, making him rock’s first unquestioned sex symbol, as his sly good looks, ravaged emotional state and the accompanying vulnerability he displayed along with his mesmerizing voice pulled girls in like an aphrodisiac. Males meanwhile saw his success with the ladies and wanted to elicit that type of primal response of their own and so a generation of up and coming singers took their cue from his delivery and hoped to score with the same rate as he seemed to be doing.

It promised to be a winning proposition for all involved. The measures of success may be different for each entity, after all the record company didn’t care how many girls Sonny Til laid or how many boys worshipped the ground he walked on, but rather were interested in merely how many records he sold.

The answer was, he sold a lot.

But the question WE have to ask is always a bit more complex than those surface facts and figures. We’re not particularly interested in how busy Sonny Til’s social calendar was looking, nor how many were members of his fan club, and though we’re cognizant of the need for big sellers to keep being able to make more records as well as to shape the future of rock music, what we’re focused on is primarily how do those records sound? In what direction do they take the artist in question as well as the larger rock movement going forward?

All of the dates Sonny might line up, either for dance halls to play for a crowd or shapely lassies to see after the show, wasn’t going to be enough to offset a stylistic repetitiveness or aesthetic downturn in our eyes.

To Me You’re Everything
But of course at this stage, sometime in the fall of 1948, probably October when they cut eleven sides over a few days, what they all were focused on was what was currently storming up the charts and how they could try to recapture that mood in the hopes it would keep them in clover.

Okay, that’s understandable I suppose, if not exactly ambitious or confident about their ability to connect no matter what type of song they do, but what they would soon discover as they kept returning to the same prototype over and over was that because the songs themselves were so naked in their presentation there was no room for missteps if they wanted to connect.

To Be To You, aside from its clever but clumsy title, was a record that needed to be perfect in every detail to work.

To start with the lyrics have to speak to the audience’s own concerns and do so in a way that isn’t trite or bland, as these are, but rather strike a balance between down to earth and poetic. The perspective offered, the details that bring it to life, a clever turn of phrase aren’t just welcome, they’re all but required in the best ballads as there’s much more scrutiny on lyrics than there are for uptempo scorchers where sometimes the words come so fast and furious they’re little more than gibberish.

Yet even if you were to express the right sentiments in a disarming way you’d still only be halfway home, for in such songs the melody takes on even greater importance and it needs to match those words with unerring precision, where each note chosen leads down a path that will seem at once startlingly fresh yet also comfortably familiar. If it doesn’t connect immediately you run the risk of winding up completely adrift and as soon as the listener’s mind wanders for so much as a second you may never be able to get their attention back.

To Be To You falls short in both of those areas. There’s nothing about either the words or melody that will stick in your mind once the record ends. Indeed having heard it on repeat over and over I wouldn’t be confident to convey what it was even about, what the circumstances of the plot were, or how it was resolved and I doubt Sonny Til would’ve been able to tell you either and he was the one singing it.


Like Living In A Land Where Dreams Come True
As for the music, the most you could reasonably say in its favor is that it’s pleasant and unobtrusive, but that’s just another way of saying it’s also totally unmemorable and I’d defy someone to confidently hum a few bars even an hour after listening intently to it.

All which means the ONLY thing left to rescue it from the discard pile is Sonny Til himself and his momentary commitment to conveying his heartache. That he manages it as well as he does is remarkable considering what little he has to work with.

His tenor, as always, is a mixture of vulnerability and soulfulness, starting out here in an almost whispered intro where he’s expressing the narrator’s uncertainty and doubt. As he goes along his voice swells with passion, growing in confidence which offers a nice contrast before returning to the airy tenderness that was becoming his stock in trade.

That shift in his delivery, which he repeats later on, in effect taking the role of the chorus in what is a structurally meandering composition, is what sells it as well as it does but that really provides all there is to recommend it, even just marginally.

There’s nothing else to it. The piano supplies the only notable accompaniment and it sounds transported from the Biltmore Hotel bar at ten past three in the afternoon. As is shaping up to be an unfortunate trademark with them, there’s no room for an instrumental solo of any kind, maybe something they felt was necessary to pretend they were following the musician’s union recording ban edict, but it set a dangerous precedent in that it meant every song used the same limited textures, never allowing for different colors to be added.

Thus the only prominent sound besides Sonny’s voice were the other Orioles wordless harmonizing. They do it well enough but there’s nothing about the vocal arrangement designed to stand out either, about the only moments that are even noticeable in this regard are the few times the group is given a chance to briefly soar in unison, but it doesn’t last and never leads anywhere but back to the same lurching, barely moving melodic progression.

As a result it nearly puts you to sleep. Even concentrating hard as it plays you barely take in any of the details, assuming it even has details. Like an imperceptible breeze on a warm day, it may exist but it won’t even ruffle your hair.

And Always You Are To Me…
You can see why Orioles manager Deborah Chessler and Jubilee Records chief Jerry Blaine chose to release To Be To You as the follow up to It’s Too Soon To Know, their goal being simply to not stray too far from the source of their initial success.

But with a handful of other sides they’d cut which would have much longer afterlives, including one monster hit, much of which contained either slightly different attributes or simply much stronger lyrics and more distinctive melodies, which all were passed over at the time to put out THIS – a slight song with modest musical goals that it still fails to reach – is utterly baffling.

Of course they didn’t suffer from their poor choice at all because the B-side, (It’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas, a far better song with a much more vital storyline, connected immediately with the expectant fanbase and was propelled onto the charts by the end of December.

But because the theme of that song was now just as quickly out of date Jubilee saw no point in keeping that on the market as the New Year rolled around and so, clearly still having faith in THIS song in spite of the lackluster response it’d gotten thus far, they re-issued To Be To You with a new B-side in January, hoping now that TWO fresh hits would spur the group’s fans into giving this another shot.

They didn’t.

Oh well, Jubilee Records likely didn’t lose any sleep over it. Nobody scores a hit with each and every side they release and their success to date had surpassed all of their hopes going into this last summer. If this particular song failed to hit its mark it wasn’t a travesty. If the worst response it got was for listeners to say it was mildly pleasant, unobtrusive, well-sung and already fairly characteristic of the group, what’s so awful about that?

But to me this was a portend of what would always plague them, a lack of artistic ambition beyond that initial burst of creativity. Already they were playing it safe, taking no chances, showing no burning desire to continually raise the bar, to prove themselves in different ways. In a nutshell from this point forward when they should act bolder to shake things up they are content to be timid.

Two records into their career and formula was already setting in and while at times it was a formula that they did as well as anyone when they had the right material, it was also intrinsically a tough one to really improve upon and keep fresh. This one shows just how hard that task was shaping up to be.


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