Inductees: Sonny Til (vocals; born August 18, 1928, died September 9, 1981), Tommy Gaither (guitar; born 1930, died November 5, 1950), George Nelson (vocals; birth date unknown, died 1959), Johnny Reed (vocals; birth and death dates unknown), Alexander Sharp (vocals; birth and death dates unknown)
The Orioles have been called “the first R&B vocal group.” Formed in 1947 as the Vibranaires in their hometown of Baltimore, they changed their name to the Orioles (the Maryland state bird) a year later. These five street-corner harmony pioneers imparted a skilled, soulful edge to the standard pop-crooning style of the day, and their appearance marked a shift in popular taste from big bands to small vocal groups. The Orioles established the basic pattern for the doo-wop sound: wordless, melismatic harmonies surrounding the tenor vocals of Sonny Til (born Earlington Carl Tilghman) and George Nelson’s baritone. Their string of hits included three #1 R&B singles in the late Forties and early Fifties: “It’s Too Soon to Know,” “Tell Me So” and “Crying in the Chapel.”
The Orioles began to make a name for themselves with performances at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and on Arthur Godfrey’s talent show. From 1948 to 1954, the Orioles cut 121 sides for the Natural and Jubilee labels, including such vocal-group classics as “I Need You So” and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.” Music historian Greil Marcus has likened the Orioles’ debut single, “It’s Too Soon to Know,” to Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right,” “Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in that it came out of nowhere: “a shock...a sound that was stylistically confusing and emotionally undeniable.” The song was written by their manager, Deborah Chessler, who also penned “Forgive and Forget,” a Top Five R&B hit.
While the Orioles’ singles fared well on the R&B charts, orchestrated covers by white pop singers tended to be the versions that made the pop charts - with the notable exception of “It’s Too Soon to Know” and “Crying in the Chapel,” which reached #11 and #13, respectively. (A decade later, Elvis Presley covered “Crying in the Chapel” in a version faithful to the Orioles for his gospel album How Great Thou Art.) “It’s Too Soon to Know,” which went to #1 on Billboard’s R&B Jukebox charts and #2 on the Best Seller chart, was a watershed recording in the history of American vocal-group music.
The Orioles’ breakthrough triggered the formation of more vocal groups who sang in a similar style and also adapted bird names. Among them were the Penguins, the Flamingos, the Falcons and the Robins (later the Coasters). At the height of the Orioles’ popularity, an automobile accident in 1950 claimed the life of one member (Tommy Gaither) and seriously injured two others (George Nelson and Johnny Reed). Nelson left the group shortly thereafter, and he and Gaither were replaced by Gregory Carrol and Ralph Williams, respectively. The reconstituted lineup had some of their biggest hits over the next few years, including “Baby Please Don’t Go” (1952) and “Crying in the Chapel” (1953).
More personnel changes ensued after 1954, with lead singer Til keeping the name alive with various Orioles ensembles. The Orioles – often billed as Sonny Til and the Orioles - went on to record for a variety of labels, including Vee-Jay and RCA. Diz Russell, who joined in 1955 and left at the end of the decade, leads a latter-day version of the Orioles, including former members of other well-known harmony groups. There is also an outfit called “Sonny Til’s Orioles,” though Til himself died in 1981.