From Baltimore, Maryland, they came, crashing into the R&B chart (before it was thus named) with a sentimental ballad titled “It’s Too Soon To Know.” Number one with a bullet and pretty high in the pop chart too. Quite an achievement for an unknown vocal group back in 1948. Better established artists such as Dinah Washington, The Ravens and Ella Fitzgerald rushed out cover versions which also performed well in the R&B chart.
The record may have gone down in the annals of R&B as one of the most important in the development of the music, yet to 21st century ears it’s hard to hear what all the fuss was about. “It’s Too Soon To Know” is much closer to the Ink Spots era of vocal group stylings rather than the rockin’ R&B group performances which The Dominoes, The Clovers and The Five Keys turned out just a few years later. Yet this sweet ballad of uncertain adolescent yearning shifted thousands of units and sparked off hysterical scenes among the huge female following which The Orioles attracted to their live appearances. The performance lacked the pop polish of recordings by the Ink Spots and perhaps conveyed more emotion than the more established group would have done with the same material, and that was enough to mark the record as innovative.
The Orioles were originally The Vibra-Naires, founded in Baltimore in 1947. They were: lead tenor Sonny Til (born Earlington Carl Tilghman), George Nelson (baritone), Alexander Sharp (high tenor), Johnny Reed (bass and double bass player) and Tommy Gaither (guitar). The catalyst which brought about their success was the appointment of local songwriter Deborah Chessler as the group’s manager. She secured them a spot on the Arthur Murray Talent Scouts radio show in New York City by sending in demos of the group singing some of her songs, including “It’s Too Soon To Know.” Although the group didn’t win, they were invited back for repeat appearances thanks to huge audience reaction in their favour.
While the group was in New York, Deborah Chessler used the Vibra-Naires demos to secure a recording contract with Jerry Blaine, owner of the Jubilee label. The group was renamed The Orioles (the state bird of Maryland) and recorded two Chessler compositions for release on a new label started by Blaine, called (It’s A) Natural. “Barbra Lee” b/w “It’s Too Soon To Know” was released on (It’s A) Natural 5000 in July 1948 with the B side quickly becoming by far the bigger seller. Number one spot in the R&B chart plus number fourteen in the pop chart propelled The Orioles into the top twenty selling R&B artists of 1948.
Success attracted the attention of National Records who threatened Jerry Blaine with court action, alleging that his Natural label was a tad too similar in name to their already well established brand. Blaine avoided the court action by closing down Natural and moving “It’s Too Soon To Know” over to his Jubilee label where all subsequent Blaine issues of Orioles recordings appeared.
The big year for The Orioles was 1949 with a string of hits making them the fourth top selling R&B act behind Amos Milburn, Charles Brown and Louis Jordan. All were slow ballads as Jubilee and The Orioles stuck to a winning formula: “Please Give My Heart A Break,” “Tell Me So” (another number one hit), “I Challenge Your Kiss,” “A Kiss And a Rose,” “Forgive And Forget,” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” were the platters that mattered for the guys and their devoted fans. The hits continued into 1950: “Is My Heart Wasting Time,” “At Night,” “O Holy Night,” and “The Lord’s Prayer” were the sellers for that year.
In November 1950 tragedy struck when the group were involved in a car crash while on tour. Tommy Gaither was killed and George Nelson and Johnny Reed were injured. Tommy was replaced by Ralph Williams. 1951 was the year in which The Orioles were toppled from their position as the top R&B vocal group by the arrival of The Dominoes and The Clovers. The following year, in an effort to keep up with the harder rocking sounds of the new groups, The Orioles released “Baby Please Don’t Go” which reached number eight in the R&B charts. Also in 1952 two good bluesy discs, “Barfly” and “See See Rider” saw some chart action.
George Nelson left the group in the spring of 1953, being replaced by Gregory Carroll. In June of that year The Orioles recorded a cover version of the country song “Crying In The Chapel” which became their biggest ever hit, spending five weeks at the top of the R&B charts and reaching number eleven in the pop charts. The follow up, “In The Mission Of St. Augustine,” was their last national hit, reaching number seven in the R&B charts.
A side of "Robe of Calvary" January 1954
From now on the only way was down as a series of “religious” releases such as “In The Chapel In The Moonlight” and “Robe of Calvary” failed to replicate the success of “Crying” and “In The Mission.” Deborah Chessler quit in the autumn of 1954 and a series of departures left Sonny Til as the only original Oriole by the spring of 1955. Sonny recruited a group called The Regals as new Orioles and recorded the last Orioles sides for Jubilee in October 1955.
In May 1956 this second version of The Orioles started a stint for VeeJay which saw the release of three singles to little interest from the public. This group broke up in 1959. In the 1960s Sonny Til recruited several further line ups to sing as the Orioles but by this stage they were very much a “golden oldies” act. As this blog concentrates on the golden years of R&B in the 1940s and 1950s, we shall discretely let the curtain fall on the latter day Orioles while intoning sorrowfully “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.”
For a full account of Sonny Til and The Orioles please get yourselves over to Marv Goldberg’s site. It’s well worth the effort of a couple of clicks.
The Orioles 1947-1955 (Future Noise) - A still available 2CD set with 52 tracks from Jubilee.
Jubilee Jive: Rockin’ With The Orioles (Sequel) – A long out of print CD which features many unreleased tracks. Like the title says, it concentrates on rockin’ tunes recorded by the group for Jubilee. Includes “Barbra Lee” the A side of their first hit. Highly recommended if you can find a copy.
Sonny Til (Solo) featuring Edna McGriff (Sequel) – Another out of print CD. This one features tracks Sonny recorded solo for Jubilee as well as his duets with Edna McGriff.
Jubilee and Josie R&B Vocal Groups Volume One (Sequel) – like the previous two recommendations, this CD is out of print. Part of an excellent series released in conjunction with Blues and Rhythm magazine, this collection includes “It’s Too Soon To Know,” “Getting Tired Tired Tired” and “Teardrops On My Pillow.” Other groups on the disc include The Sultans (“Lemon Squeezing Daddy”), The Marylanders and The Charioteers. If you see this one, grab it.
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Dedicated to REAL R&B, Rock'n'Roll, Blues and Jazz
This is a site dedicated to rockin' 1940s and 1950s music, ripped from vinyl. Some cuts are a bit on the rough side. If you're looking for audio perfection you're on the wrong site baby! If you like what you hear on this site please buy this kind of music. There are many reasonably priced reissues available from web dealers or perhaps from your local record shop, if it still exists. These reissues will be in far better sound quality than the vinyl rips on this site and they will usually have more up to date liner notes and info, so go out and splash a little cash now and again. Help keep those reissue labels going in these difficult times.
No in-print CDs will be posted here. In fact no CDs will be posted here. I will occasionally list recommended purchases to help you hear more from artists featured on the blog.
"The night is the corridor of history, not the history of famous people or great events, but that of the marginal, the ignored, the supressed, the unacknowledged; the history of vice, of error, of confusion, of fear, of want; the history of intoxication, of vainglory, of delusion, of dissipation, of delirium." Luc Sante - Low Life