THE ORIOLES (By Steve Walker)

Sonny Til (lead and second tenor), born Earlington Carl Tilghman, 18 August 1925, Baltimore, Maryland; died 9 December 1981, Baltimore, Maryland

Alexander Sharp, (first tenor)
George Nelson (second lead and baritone)
Johnny Reed (bass)
Tommy Gaither (guitar)

The Orioles were not the first of the famous "bird" groups - that honour belongs to the Ravens - but in other ways they pioneered rhythm & blues group harmony and were a major influence on much of what followed during the 1950's and early 1960's. Much of this was due their remarkable lead singer, Sonny Til, whose voice, especially on the slow ballads for which the Orioles became famous, was the most wonderful lugubriously sexy instrument.

The Orioles became the innovators of what would later be defined as pure R&B four-part harmony. In his book "They All Sang On The Corner", Phil Groia described the Orioles as having "a mellow, soft second tenor lead, a blending baritone featured as a 'gravel gertie' second lead, a floating high first tenor and a dominant bass." This description would easily fit many of the doowop groups that recorded during the rock'n'roll years which followed.

Sonny Til, who saw combat during the Second World War, returned to his home city of Baltimore upon being discharged in 1946. Sonny had picked up his nickname from his favourite record as a child: Al Jolson's "Sonny Boy." He had joined the army directly from school and, during his three years of service, had sung at various USO shows.

Sonny took work in factories and as a driver/delivery boy but retained his schoolboy yearning to be a professional entertainer - in his high school yearbook he had written that his aim was "to become one of the greatest singers in show business." He would sometimes sing at the amateur shows which were held regularly at Baltimore's Avenue Cafe and it was here that he met the men who would eventually become the Orioles. George Nelson was M.C. at the club, Johnny Reed played bass with the house band and Alex Sharp was another singer who, like Sonny, sang at, and would sometimes win, the amateur shows. Guitarist Tommy Gaither, who occasionally provided an additional tenor voice, completed the quintet.

The guys decided to get a group together and would sing outside the Avenue Cafe at night for dollars and dimes - the classic street-corner group. In the spring of 1948, the group acquired a name - the Vibranaires.

Enter Deborah Chessler, a Baltimore salesgirl who was also a fledgling songwriter. In March of 1948, the first of her songs was recorded: "Tell Me So," by Savannah Churchill (Manor 1123). While the song didn't become a hit this time around, it would later on.

One night, Deborah got a call from a man named Abe Schaeffer, who'd been approached by the Vibranaires in the hopes that he'd manage them. He'd even helped them make some demos, but now he was stuck. Not knowing what to do, he called Deborah (a friend of his sister-in-law), and asked her to listen to them. The group sang "Two Loves Have I" for her over the phone, and she was hooked. She began getting them small gigs and arranged for them to appear on the prestigious Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts Show in New York.

On 26 April, 1948, the Vibranaires drove up to New York and appeared on the Arthur Godfrey show, singing "Exactly Like You," a song that Ruth Etting had made a hit in 1930. They came in third, losing to blind English pianist George Shearing. Since they didn't win, they simply packed up and went home.

What the Vibranaires didn't realize was that they'd made such a big hit (causing the show to receive a couple of thousand phone calls and telegrams) that Godfrey wanted them to appear on his daytime radio show in spite of their loss. A telegram was sent to Deborah, and the Vibranaires ended up appearing twice, probably on 10 and 13 May (Godfrey's telegram was dated 6 May). On the show, they sang "Barbra Lee" (a Deborah Chessler composition) and "I May Be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful)."

Soon, Deborah went back to New York, to try to get some more opportunities for her group. Bringing along the demos that the Vibranaires had recorded for Abe Schaeffer, she met Sid DeMay, and the wheels started turning. DeMay, who had once worked for National Records and who had been a partner with former bandleader Jerry Blaine in Cosnat Record Distributors, was impressed enough to start the It's A Natural label at 220 West 42 Street, just to handle the group. It's A Natural was distributed by Blaine's Cosnat, and Blaine himself may even have been involved at this early point. However, before they recorded, the name "Vibranaires" disappeared into history, to be replaced by the easier-to-spell "Orioles" (to honour the state bird of Maryland). They would soon be known as "The High-Flying Orioles."

Sometime in July 1948, the Orioles had their first studio session, at which they recorded six sides: "At Night," "Barbra Lee," "It's Too Soon To Know," "Exactly Like You," "Tell Me So" (the version with the humming bridge), and "I Cover The Waterfront." From the beginning, the style of the Orioles was generally to have Sonny take the smooth lead, with George Nelson doing the bridge with his harsher voice, before returning to Sonny to ooze out the final couplets. The contrast between the voices was the basis of the "Orioles Sound."

Everything was done on one track. At that particular time, there were no musicians playing. (The musicians had gone out on the second A.F.M. strike 1 January, 1948 and technically wouldn't be back until the strike was settled on 14 December; but as time went on, smaller labels increasingly ignored the strike.) So they did their track without any music and later the music was added on.... there wasn't much music, just Tommy Gaither on guitar, Johnny Reed on bass and a piano played by Sid Bass.

In July 1948, It's A Natural issued the first Orioles record: "It's Too Soon To Know" c/w "Barbra Lee," two tunes that had been written for them by Deborah Chessler

Subsequently, she wrote relatively few songs that the group recorded: "Tell Me So," "Forgive And Forget," "I'm Just A Fool In Love," and "I Need You Baby" were all her compositions. She was also co-writer of "Waiting" and "Teardrops On My Pillow."

Introduced on New York's WHOM by black DJ Willie Bryant and his white co-host Ray Carroll, "It's Too Soon To Know" started taking off almost immediately (selling 30,000 copies in its first week). By the time it had finished its 17-week run on the national R&B charts, it had risen to #1 (although only for a single week - 27 November, 1948). More surprising is that it peaked at #13 on the Pop charts. It was such a big hit, in fact, that it was covered by the Ravens, the Charioteers, the Deep River Boys, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Lee Richardson, Savannah Churchill, Marion Robinson, Ronnie Deauville, and the Jimmy Valentine Quintet. The Orioles' version was both a Cash Box "Race Disk of the Week" and a Billboard "Pick of the Week."

In late October 1948, Sid DeMay and Jerry Blaine became partners in Jubilee Music, a company set up to publish songs from the It's A Natural catalogue. Deborah Chessler immediately signed a 5-year contract with Jubilee Music and the Orioles signed a 5-year contract with It's A Natural. Jubilee didn't get the rights to "It's Too Soon To Know," however, since Deborah had already sold them to the Edwin H. Morris publishing house (six publishers had been bidding for it, said the trade papers). Also in October, the Orioles signed, for bookings, with the prestigious Gale Agency.

And then, almost as soon as the It's A Natural label came into existence, it vanished. Sid DeMay's former National Records associates informed him that the name "Natural" was too close to "National" for comfort. Thus, on October 23, DeMay announced that "all future releases of the Orioles .. will be on the Jubilee label". In late October or early November, "It's Too Soon To Know" was re-released on the Jubilee label. The Jubilee label had been in existence since 1946 - it had started as a partnership between Jerry Blaine and Herb Abramson, both former National Records employees, before Abramson left, in early 1947, to help form Atlantic Records.

Sonny Til's voice and style was considered unique and innovative, but Sonny himself quotes several interesting vocal influences - amongst them Charles Brown, Nat King Cole, the Cats and the Fiddle, the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers.

While "It's Too Soon To Know" was climbing the charts, the group hurried back into the studio to record a follow-up disc in time for Christmas - "(It's Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas" which rose to number 8 on the R&B charts.

As soon as the records began selling, the group started touring. They played theatres up and down the East Coast and toured with some of the leading names in Rhythm & Blues. Much has been written about the rigours of travelling, and the constant one-nighters were gruelling. But manager Deborah Chessler was right there with them at all times (and so was her mother).

Despite one or two "misses", the Orioles charted consistently throughout 1949 as their popularity increased. "Tell Me So," "A Kiss And A Rose," "Forgive And Forget," and Frank Loesser's 1947 classic "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" (coupled with a re-issue of "(It's Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas") all reached the R&B charts, although none repeated the feat of crossing over into the Pop lists.

The Orioles were a genuine phenomenon. The girls in the audiences reacted to Sonny in the same way they'd reacted to Frank Sinatra in the late 30's and the way they would later react to Elvis. There was screaming, crying, fainting and above all, attempts to get "souvenirs," like rings, cufflinks, any kind of jewellery, ripped right off the performers.

It was back to the studios on 17 February, 1950, when they cut some sides using violins, an innovation in R&B music: "You Are My First Love," "If It's To Be," "I Wonder When," and "Everything They Said Came True." Why didn't it start a trend then (as the Platters would several years later)? Sonny is quoted as saying: "We were the first group that recorded with strings. That meant more musicians would have to be on the stage when we appeared, and it got too expensive."

On the 26 May, they began a week's stay at the Apollo, along with bandleader Buddy Rich. Whereas they once sang for $15 apiece, they'd now be paid $5000 for the week (up from $500 the year before). They'd soon be paid the same in the other big venues: the Howard, the Royal, and the Earle.

The Orioles didn't use much choreography in their act. Sonny and George had a dip step that would bring George to the lead mike (where Tommy Gaither and Sonny Til normally were), and take Sonny to the group mike (with Alex Sharp and Johnny Reed). Sometimes Alex would do some steps during a sax break. What Sonny did do was croon love ballads, making love to the microphone. His crooning drove the girls wild. Bob Schiffman, son of the owner of the Apollo, recalled that when Sonny appeared, he would be greeted by such expressions of undying love as "ride my alley, Sonny." In fact, in an age when there was usually a fast "A" side and a slow "B" side, of the Orioles' first twenty records, only four sides were up-tempo. This was one of the vital ingredients in the formula of their success.

Throughout 1950, the Orioles toured extensively. They were doing so well (and making Jerry Blaine so much money), that Blaine presented them with a new Cadillac when they played Asbury Park that month. It was reported that he'd recently given the group a $50,000 royalty check on top of that.

Despite their continuing popularity, and a regular output of newly recorded material, their name does not occur in the charts during 1950 and 1951. For a detailed look at the Orioles' complete recording sessions and record release data, please refer to Marv Goldberg's 4-part tour de force (c/w pictures) at: from which much of the information for this feature was taken.

Success appeared to stretch endlessly towards the horizon, but tragedy was just around the corner. Tommy Gaither was at the wheel on 5 November, 1950, when the touring car (a long 1948 Dodge with yellow "Orioles" inscribed on each side) crashed into a drive-in restaurant, killing Tommy and injuring Johnny and George, who were removed unconscious from the wreckage. Also in the car was the Orioles' valet, Sonny "Redcoat" Woods, who, after the accident, returned to his native Detroit to become a founding member of the Royals/Midnighters. (Sonny Til and Alex Sharp, along with Deborah Chessler, were in another car.) Tommy had taken a curve too fast and lost control of the car, which had careened across the highway, rolling over three times before crashing into the restaurant in the Essex section of Baltimore. They were on their way home from a gig in Hempstead, New York and were going to spend some time in Baltimore doing a little Christmas shopping before their next appearance, at Turner's Arena in Washington, D.C. The two cars had been travelling together, but Alex (who was driving Sonny's car at the time) lost track of Tommy. Not knowing about the accident, Sonny, Alex and Deborah went to their homes. When they learned about it, they all went to City Hospital to identify Tommy and see George and Johnny.

On their next engagement (at Turner's Arena), only Sonny and Alex were able to perform as the Orioles. Sonny began singing "My Buddy," but couldn't finish it (Alex did). Then they picked up two new members to replace their injured and missing colleagues. Charlie Harris, from Philadelphia knew all of the Orioles' songs on piano, so he was hired. Ralph Williams, a guitar player was from St. Louis, by way of New York. Ralph usually only played guitar, but he would sing second tenor (as had Tommy Gaither) when they needed an extra voice. Charlie Harris wasn't a singer, just an accompanist.

It didn't take George Nelson long to return after the accident, but Johnny Reed was out for about three weeks. The Orioles were at the Earl Theatre when Johnny hobbled in, and was standing in the wings watching the show. Duke Ellington spotted him and pulled him onstage, while Sonny announced his return. The crowd went wild.

On 26 November, they took time out from an engagement in Detroit (with Duke Ellington) to do a benefit show at the Starlight Ballroom in Baltimore for Tommy Gaither's widow. It was arranged by Baltimore DJ Chuck Richards. That's when they introduced the song "Pal Of Mine," as a tribute to Tommy. On 25 December, the Orioles played Convention Hall in Atlanta. Ten percent of the group's earnings (matched by the promoter) were turned over to Tommy Gaither's widow.

Touring continued to take a toll. In April, 1951 a second tragic accident was narrowly averted when the car in which Sonny Til, George Nelson and Alex Sharp were travelling was sideswiped by a truck on a highway on the outskirts of Chicago. Although the car was forced off the road, skilful handling of the wheel by Sonny, who was driving, saved the passengers from possible serious injury.

Fatal and near-fatal car accidents weren't the only problems that beset the popular group. Here is an excerpt from a 1952 article by Sonny in "Tan Confessions" (entitled "Why Women Go For Me"):

"One night, at a dance in an eastern city, I stepped out to the microphone with my fellow Orioles. I opened my mouth to take the lead in "Baby Please Don't Go". A pretty, teenaged girl pushed through the crowd about the stage, looked into my startled eyes, and fainted dead away. Ten minutes later, when she gained consciousness in a dressing room, she tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists.... That almost turned out to be a fatal thing for me. Even though I had nothing to do with influencing her to leave home and follow the Orioles, I got blamed for it. The girl's mother threatened to report me to the FBI.... We finally managed to persuade her to get on the train and go back home. I sent our valet along to buy her a ticket and take her home. He had so much trouble with her that afterwards he told me: "I'm going to quit the Orioles if I have to put up with this." Afterwards, she said her mother had put her up to telling lies on me so they could sue me and get some money."

Sometime in March 1951, Sonny Til recorded a couple of solos: "My Prayer" and "I Never Knew (I Could Love Anybody)." The Orioles weren't entirely absent, however: Ralph Williams was there on guitar and Johnny Reed played the organ. A few days later, on 20 March, the Orioles finally got around to waxing "Pal Of Mine." in tribute to Tommy Gaither - it was released in April.

February 1952 saw a return to the R&B charts with "Baby, Please Don't Go." The song had been written and recorded by Joe Lee Williams back in 1942. It had spawned (or would spawn) versions by Lightnin' Hopkins, Leroy Dallas, Billy Valentine, Billy Wright, Muddy Waters, and Rose Mitchell, as well as the Orioles. The group had undoubtedly recorded the up-tempo "Baby Please Don't Go" (released in October 1951) in direct response to the massive business being done at the time by the Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man" and the Clovers' "Don't You Know I Love You."

On 11 June, 1952, Sonny Til was paired with 16-year-old Edna McGriff, another Jubilee artist, to record half a dozen duets. Back in April, Edna had had a smash R&B hit with the Korean War lament, "Heavenly Father." However well-intentioned the pairing might have been, their voices didn't blend all that well, and none of their duets ever charted.

In the spring of 1953, George Nelson left the Orioles for good, sometime before "Crying In The Chapel" was recorded (he subsequently died of an asthma attack around 1959). George had developed a drinking problem, and occasionally didn't make a recording session. Since a trademark of the Orioles was George singing the second bridge, anytime that he's not heard, he wasn't at the session. When he didn't show up, Ralph Williams sang the fourth part.

George Nelson's place in the group was taken by Gregory Carroll, who had previously been with Baltimore's Four Buddies and thus knew the Orioles well. Gregory is first heard, as echo and second lead, on "Don't You Think I Ought To Know," the flip of "Crying In The Chapel."

In June 1953, Jubilee released "One More Time." The flip was "I Cover The Waterfront," a tune that the Orioles had recorded at their first session, back in July 1948. This was a song that had been commissioned for the 1933 Claudette Colbert movie of the same name, but hadn't been finished in time to be included. However, when it was recorded by Ben Bernie, it became a big enough hit that subsequent prints of the movie had the tune added to the soundtrack.

The Orioles version of "Waterfront" is my personal favourite by the group and, although it didn't chart, is well worth seeking out if you enjoy this sort of music. In fact, many of the non-charting Orioles ballads are as good as, if not better than, those which made the R&B lists: "At Night," "I'd Rather Have You Under The Moon," "Dare To Dream," "Don't Tell Her What's Happened To Me," "I Miss You So," "Till Then," "You Belong To Me," "Secret Love," and "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me" are fine examples of the Orioles' craftsmanship.

During the same month (June 1953), the group recorded what would become their biggest chart success, "Crying In The Chapel" which was released in July c/w "Don't You Think I Ought To Know". By the middle of August, "Crying In The Chapel" was a monster hit all around. Charted versions were by June Valli (pop), Darrell Glenn (country; son of the song's writer, Artie Glenn), Rex Allen (country), and the Orioles (R&B). There were also versions by the Four Dukes, Ella Fitzgerald, and Rosetta Tharpe. And let's not forget Elvis' hit version in 1965. The Orioles' record remained at #1 (R&B) for 5 weeks and rose to #11 on the Pop lists.

Later in 1953, the group entered the R&B charts for the last time with "In The Mission Of St. Augustine", one of a series of quasi-religious records that they released following the outstanding success of "Crying In The Chapel".

In the autumn of 1954, Deborah Chessler, who had been as important to the Orioles as any of their members, decided to leave to get married.

By the beginning of 1955, the Orioles, who had become such a major inspiration to so many R&B vocal groups, began to find themselves priced out of the theatre bookings by those very same groups, who were often willing to work for a fraction of the big money that the Orioles had hitherto been able to demand.

In February, 1955, they had just finished an engagement in the mid-west, when Johnny Reed quit the group. His replacement was Maurice "Tank" Hicks, who had been a sometime member of the Four Buddies, with Gregory Carroll.

Shortly afterwards, Ralph Williams and Charlie Harris decided to leave, so the Orioles were left without any musical accompaniment at all. This meant that they had to hire a band, which depleted profits even more. Soon after that, it was all over: Alex, Gregory and Maurice all quit too. Said Sonny: "We decided to disband because we weren't making enough money. We didn't have as many bookings because here are all these little groups working for peanuts."

With the break-up of the Orioles, Alex became a tenor with Al Jackson's Fat Men, and then with an Ink Spots group (he was touring with them when he suffered a fatal heart attack in the 1960s). Johnny Reed also worked with some Ink Spots groups, and Ralph Williams went with the Five Blind Boys as guitarist (and ended up back in St. Louis with his own guitar school). Gregory Carroll went into the production end of the business, but continued to do lucrative background work in New York, as part of the aggregations that Abel DeCosta (of the Cues) put together whenever he'd get a call from a recording company requesting background singers.

So in mid-1955, Sonny found himself without a group. Although he'd done solo work before, he preferred to stay with a group concept. Some time before, at a show in St. Louis, he had been on the same bill with a group called the Regals, who were into modern harmony. This fascinated him, and he figured there was a lot to be learned from it. When Sonny contacted the Regals, he found that they'd be willing to become his new Orioles.

After that, there were about six months of rehearsals, and very few gigs, as the Regals learned the Orioles' material, and Sonny learned how to sing like a Regal. Sonny agreed that it would be best if all their material were rearranged in modern harmony style. Therefore, if you went to see the Orioles in 1955, all their big hits would have sounded a lot different to you.

The New Orioles recorded a few more sides for Jubilee before switching to Vee-Jay in 1956, where their biggest selling recording was "Happy Till The Letter". The sound of the Vee-Jay Orioles is strange when it's compared to the glory days on Jubilee. Actually, Vee-Jay had no idea what to do with the Orioles; pushing them as a pop group turned out to be a big mistake. The sound wasn't R&B, it wasn't modern harmony, and it wasn't really pop. They were trying to hit the tremendous new teenage market, and ended up foundering. The material they were given was terrible, but it brought in money and did give them two Vee-Jay recording sessions (although Vee-Jay seemed to lose interest in the group soon after signing them). In June of 1958, it was announced that Sonny had been signed as a soloist by Roulette, although he continued to appear with the Orioles.

Throughout the 60's and 70's Sonny Til continued to work, both as a solo act and with various "Orioles" conglomerations, one of which saw Sonny singing with Gerald Gregory, formerly of the Spaniels.

The end of an era occurred on December 9, 1981, when Sonny Til passed away from a massive heart attack at the age of 56. The Orioles, and especially Sonny Til, were the root influence on perhaps thousands of aspiring singers. In their day, they were the best.

In January, 1995, the Orioles were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Johnny Reed, the only surviving member of the original Orioles at that time, received the award (presented to him, fittingly, by Deborah Chessler herself). (only up to the end of 1950)

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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please contact Dik de Heer at

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