R & B group
The Orioles formed in 1946 and developed a style widely considered the forerunner of doo wop music. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they are regarded as the first R&B vocal group. Led by Sonny Til, the original group consisted of Alexander Sharp, tenor; George Nelson, baritone; Johnny Reed, bass fiddle; and Tommy Gaither on guitar. Originally named the Vibranaires, the Baltimore, Maryland, vocalists caught the attention of Deborah Chessler, a local merchant who wrote music. She became their manager and wrote many of their hits. She arranged for them to sing in a contest on the television show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. The group lost the contest to piano player George Shearing but captured the attention of a New York record company executive, Jerry Blaine, who signed them to the newly formed It’s a Natural record label. After signing the contract, the group changed their name to the Orioles, in honor of Maryland’s state bird. They began making a name for themselves by regular performances on Godfrey’s talent show and at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
The group recorded “It’s Too Soon to Know” in 1948. Written by Chessler, the song went to number one on the R&B charts and number 13 on the pop charts. It was the first time that an African American group crossed over to the pop charts with what was considered at the time to be “race music.” Shortly after the single’s release, National Records complained about the name of Blaine’s new label, so he rereleased the song on Jubilee Records. At the end of the year they recorded “(It’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas,” which reached the R&B top ten.
In 1949 the Orioles quickly followed up with a string of hits including “Tell Me So,” a song that used a wordless falsetto accompanying the lead vocal, a sound that would later become a mainingredient of doo wop style. Other hits included “A Kiss and a Rose,” “I Challenge Your Kiss,” “Forgive and Forget,” and a rerelease of “(It’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas” with “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” on the B-side. Most hits surrounded Til’s emotional tenor with wordless backup vocals and light instrumental background. Previous successful African American groups, such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, had provided music to entertain white audiences. The Orioles differed from groups like these with music that was mainly vocal music, without a large backup band. The Orioles had a sound that was considered “race music,” yet they achieved popularity with white audiences as well as African American. Their trademark sound combined traditional music with gospel, arranging pieces with smooth harmonies that were appreciated by a broad audience.
By 1950 the Orioles were the most popular R&B vocal group in the country. Their appearances were steadily sold out, and during a radio show in Savannah, Georgia, the group was mobbed by fans and had to retreat
For the Record…
Members include Gregory Carroll (joined group, 1953), baritone; Tommy Gaither (born c. 1919; died on November 5, 1950), guitar; George Nelson (born c. 1925; died 1959; left group, 1953), baritone; Johnny Reed (born c. 1929), bass fiddle; Alexander Sharp (born December 1919; died January 1970), tenor; Sonny Til (born Earlington Carl Tilghman on August 18, 1928; died on December 9, 1981), lead vocals; Ralph Williams (joined group after Gaither’s death), guitar.
Group formed as Vibranaires, 1946; recorded first big hit, “It’s Too Soon to Know,” with It’s a Natural Records, changed name to the Orioles, 1948; scored hits with “Forgive and Forget,” “Tell Me So,” “(It’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas,” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” 1949; “Crying in the Chapel” became a hit on R&B and pop charts, 1953; group disbanded, 1955; Sonny Til retained group name, continued on with other artists until his death, 1981.
Awards: Induction, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1995.
for their own safety. While in Lexington, Kentucky, in September, fans rushed the stage. The show had to be stopped until order could be restored. Disaster struck when the group was traveling later that year. On November 5, 1950, Gaither, Nelson, and Reed were involved in a car accident five miles outside of Baltimore. Gaither was killed, and Nelson and Reed were injured. Til and Sharp, traveling in another car, were not injured. The group cut “I Need You So” in tribute to Gaither. Ralph Williams was chosen as the replacement for Gaither.
“Baby Please Don’t Go” was the new Orioles’ first big song in 1952, and it hit number eight on the R&B charts. In 1953 Nelson decided to leave the group; he was replaced by Gregory Carroll. That same year “Crying in the Chapel” was the group’s most successful hit, spending five weeks on the R&B charts and reaching number eleven on the pop charts. The hit eventually went gold. Twelve years later, Elvis Presley had a hit with his own version of the song. “In the Mission of St. Augustine,” recorded in 1954, was the group’s last big hit. At that time, the successful group was beginning to break up. Sharp and Reed decided to leave the Orioles to join the Ink Spots in 1955. Retaining the Orioles name, Til formed a new group, primarily with members of the Regals. He continued to sing lead with a variety of different backup singers, but the success of the earlier group was never reclaimed. Til crooned with various groups of the Orioles, performing concerts and rerecording the group’s old hits, until his death in 1981.
Forty years after the Orioles broke up, in a ceremony in New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on January 12, 1995, the Orioles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only one member of the group, Johnny Reed, was still living when the group received this honor. The music of the Orioles kept audiences singing along and tapping their feet for many years after the group dissolved. The group broke new ground in developing R&B vocal harmony with the wordless patterns that later became the doo wop sound. From 1948 to 1954, the Orioles cut 121 sides for Natural/Jubilee Records, and the sound of doo wop has been forever established in history.
“It’s Too Soon to Know,” Natural, 1948.
“Forgive and Forget,” Jubilee, 1949.
“Tell Me So,” Jubilee, 1949.
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” /“(lt’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas,” Jubilee, 1949.
“Moonlight,” Jubilee, 1950.
“I Miss You So,” Jubilee, 1951.
“Crying in the Chapel,” Jubilee, 1953.
“In the Chapel in the Moonlight,” Jubilee, 1954.
Greatest Hits, Collectables, 1991.
The Orioles Sing Their Greatest Hits, Collectables, 1991.
Jubilee Sides, Bear Family, 1993.
Jubilee Jive: Rocking with the Orioles, Sequel, 1996.
Door Is Still Open, New Moon, 1997.
Best of Jubilee and C.P. Parker Years, Collectables, 2000.
Gribin, Anthony J., and Matthew M. Schiff, Doo-Wop: The Forgotten Third of Rock ‘n Roll, Krause Publications, 1992.
Murrells, Joseph, The Book of Golden Discs, second edition, Barrie & Jenkins Ltd., 1978.
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Volume III, Macmillan Press Limited, 1986.
“The Orioles: Biography,” SonicNet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/ai_bio.jhtml?ai_id=13675 (December 6, 2001).
“The Orioles—Biography,” Yahoo! Music, http://musicfinder.yahoo.com/shop?d=hc&id=1802126390&cf=11&intl=us (December 6, 2001).
“The Orioles: Early Influence,” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, http://www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.asp?id=161 (December 6, 2001).
“The Rhythm and Blues Vocal Groups,” The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, http://www.history-of-rock.com/VocalSound.htm (December 6, 2001).
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