Tragedy struck in November 1950. The group was traveling in two cars near
Baltimore. Gaither drove one, with Reed and Nelson as passengers. He took
a corner too fast and lost control of the car, which rolled down an embankment
and crashed into a drive-in restaurant. Gaither was killed and Nelson and
Reed were severely injured. Til and Sharp, in the other car, were not near
enough to witness the accident and only heard about it when they arrived
home. For a short time, only Til and Sharp performed as the Orioles, but soon
added two new members, guitarist/second tenor Ralph Williams and pianist
Charlie Harris. Nelson returned in a few days, and Reed a few weeks later.
Just a year after their tragic accident, the group were involved in another
accident in Akron, Ohio, but there were no injuries. In 1952, they had another
R&B hit with blues song "Baby Please Don't Go", which was an early 45rpm
issue available only on red vinyl.
Early in 1953, George Nelson, who had a drink problem, left the Orioles, and
was replaced by John "Gregory" Carroll, formerly of another Baltimore group,
the Four Buddies. In June 1953, they recorded a version of Darrell Glenn's
country song "Crying In the Chapel". This was to become The Orioles' biggest
hit, staying at # 1 in the R&B charts for five weeks in August and September,
and reaching # 11 on the pop charts. It was also to be their last big hit, with
only a version of "In The Mission Of St. Augustine" later in the year reaching the
Williams left the group briefly in late 1953, and in 1954 the group's manager
Deborah Chessler quit. In February 1955, Reed left and eventually joined a
version of The Ink Spots. He was replaced by Maurice Hicks. Williams and
Harris left soon after. The group continued a short time, but then disbanded.
Around 1947, Sonny Til sang regularly in amateur shows at the Avenue Cafe in
Baltimore, where he met Nelson, Sharp and Gaither. They decided to form
agroup, calling themselves The Vibra-Naires, and aspiring songwriter
Deborah Chessler became their manager. In April 1948 the group appeared
on the Arthur Godfrey radio talent show in New York, with Richard Williams as
bass singer, but he was then replaced by Johnny Reed.
The group won a recording deal with the "It's A Natural" record label, a
subsidiary of Jubilee Records, and changed their name to The Orioles in
honor of the state bird of Maryland and in emulation of another popular group,
The Ravens. In July 1948, they recorded Chessler's song "It's Too Soon To
Know", with Sonny Til taking lead vocals. The record reportedly sold 30,000
copies in its first week, rising to #1 on the national R&B charts in November
1948, and leading to cover versions by artists such as the Ravens, Ella
Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. It was also one of the first "race" songs to
cross over into mainstream markets, reaching # 13 on the pop charts.
The Orioles then began touring widely, and started recording for the Jubilee
label. Their next smash hit was "Tell Me So" in 1949, which again reached # 1
in the R&B chart but this time failed to cross to the pop charts. Other hits
included "Forgive And Forget" and "Lonely Christmas".
In performance, The Orioles were a phenomenon, with girls in the audiences
screaming, fainting, and attempting to reach their idol Sonny Til in particular.
They differed from groups like the Mills Brothers and the Delta Rhythm Boys in
that they made vocal music with limited orchestration and accompanied only
with the guitar of Tommy Gaither and the bass Johnny Reed. From 1948 to
1954, they cut over 120 sides for the Natural and Jubilee labels. By late 1950
they were major stars, although their supply of hit records had dried up.
History of The Orioles...
Sonny Til (lead tenor)
Alexander Sharp (high tenor)
George Nelson (baritone)
Johnny Reed (bass vocals and double bass)
Tommy Gaither (guitar).
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