Baltimore group from birth of rock will be enshrined EARLY BIRDS

January 12, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Over the years, critics have put forth all sorts of theories about when and where rock and roll began. Some have suggested that the big moment took place in Philadelphia in 1952, when Bill Haley and the Comets knocked out "Rock This Joint." Others will argue that it was Jackie Brentson's "Rocket 88," recorded on Jan. 8, 1951, in Memphis. Then there are those who would point to Roy Brown's "Rockin' at Midnight," cut in New Orleans in January of '49.

But there are an awful lot of people who will insist that rock and roll really began in Baltimore, with a quintet called the Orioles. Fronted by Earlington "Sonny Til" Tilghman, the group took America by storm in 1948 with a single called "It's Too Soon To Know."

As critic Greil Marcus wrote in Rolling Stone, the single "was like Elvis Presley's 'That's All Right,' Aretha Franklin's 'I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),' Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' -- a dead-in-your-tracks what is that?, a sound that was stylistically confusing and emotionally undeniable." On-air, "It's Too Soon To Know" was a mere three minutes long, but its influence lingered for decades, inspiring rockers ranging from the Clovers to Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, and from Elvis Presley to Lou Reed.

Tonight in New York, that achievement will be permanently enshrined as the Orioles are inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They will be introduced by Baltimorean Deborah Chessler, who not only managed the group but wrote "It's Too Soon To Know," in a ceremony that will also honor another Baltimore native, Frank Zappa, as well as the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Al Green, Neil Young, Martha and the Vandellas and Janis Joplin.

Of the original five Orioles, only Johnny Reed, the group's bass, will be in attendance tonight. The others have long since died: Til in 1981, baritone George Nelson in '68, tenor Alexander Sharp in '59, and guitar ist Tommy Gaither in '50.

Still, Chessler, 71, remembers the first time she heard them sing as vividly as if it were yesterday. "I heard them on the telephone," she says, over the phone from her home in Aventura, Fla. "I got a telephone call from a friend, and he told me he had five fellows that he had made a demo record for. They sang into the telephone, three songs, and my mother was standing behind me while I was listening. She said, 'Are they good?' I said, 'No -- they're great!' "

Although Chessler was just 25, she had already made a name for herself by writing "Tell Me So," which was a hit for singer Savannah Churchill. "The disc jockeys were laying on it, and every time they played it, they said, 'Hometown girl Deborah Chessler,' " she recalls. "So that's how he heard about me."

This quintet, then known as the Vibranaires, was something else, however. "They were different," she says. "They weren't like the Mills Brothers and they weren't like the Ink Spots. They were their own style. That was what sold me."

Chessler wanted to get the group into the studio, but not because she was looking for a hit. She wanted the group to record so it could get work. "You know, they had daytime jobs," she says. "But it was a singing group, and they wanted to sing."

So she got the group a deal with a division of Jubilee Records called It's a Natural. One of the first orders of business was to change the group's name. "Nobody liked the name 'The Vibranaires' -- including the Vibranaires," she says. "So we came up with the Orioles because they were a singing group, the oriole was a bird, we were right out of Baltimore; what could be better?"

With its new name in place, the quintet cut its first sides, "It's Too Soon To Know" and "Barbara Jean," both Chessler compositions. Then, before that first single was even released to radio, Chessler took demo pressings around to club owners in hopes of getting the guys some work.

"This was a help, knowing that they had a label," she says. "And it did, it helped. The first job they started was at the Club Caverns, in Washington, D.C., run by Blanche Calloway -- that was Cab's sister. Their second job was in Washington at a place called the Club Kavakis. The Club Caverns was a colored club, the Club Kavakis was a white club, and they did great in both."

But they did even better once "It's Too Soon To Know" hit the airwaves. "When that record came out, it was like an overnight smash," says Chessler. Unlike today, the only means the record business had of breaking a record back then was radio. "If you got it played, that was wonderful. Then, if you got calls in, that was even better," she says. "With the Orioles' first release, the phones didn't stop."

The group had other successes, too, including its own version of "Tell Me So." But by far its biggest hit was the 1953 million-seller, "Crying in the Chapel." One of the very first crossover hits, it topped the R&B chart for five weeks, and climbed to No. 11 on the pop charts.

Although the original lineup disbanded in 1954, Til continued to record and perform and released his last recording in '81. Reed, long retired from the music business, lives in an RV park in North Hollywood, Calif.; Chessler, now Mrs. Paul Reingold, has been out of the music business for years.

But the music the Orioles made? That, rest assured, will endure, so long as the words "rock and roll" still mean something to music fans.


hear the Orioles' "It's Too Soon To Know" and "Crying in the Chapel," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6137 after you hear the greeting.


A brief look at the careers of the late, great Frank Zappa (left) and his fellow Hall inductees appears on 7E.

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