The Orioles to sing again

Vocals: The a cappella harmonies of the Baltimore quintet that struck it big in the 1950s are kept alive by "Diz" Russell and friends.

August 10, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Albert "Diz" Russell's house is a shrine to a bygone era.

The walls of several rooms are covered in black-and-white photographs, posters and framed records. A rough sketch of dancers titled "The 50's" is stretched between two walls across a corner of the living room.

A cappella harmonies drift in from the kitchen where a quartet is practicing as Russell waxes nostalgic from his recliner about the glory days.

Here, in this modest home in Capitol Heights, is what remains of Baltimore's once-famous rhythm and blues group, The Orioles - the group that is memorialized along with Billie Holiday on a faded, billboard-size mural above the boarded-up Mayfair Theatre on Howard Street.

Before the Major League Baseball team claimed the state's bird as its own, a quintet of African-American singers led by Sonny Til made the name famous across the country.

Now under Russell's leadership, the legacy of the group that struck it big in the 1950s and inspired a generation of musicians - in doo-wop, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll - lives on.

Tomorrow, the group, now known as The Legendary Orioles, will perform at the annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival at St. John's College in Annapolis for the 10th time.

"There is a place in vocal group history for The Orioles," explains Russell, 67. Nearly blind from glaucoma and cataracts and with a shock of white hair, Russell moves slowly but sings with ease.

"You have to carry on," he says.

The Orioles got their start singing on Baltimore street corners in the late 1940s, and are credited by some as the first to do so. Til (born Earlington Carl Tilghman on Aug. 18, 1928) organized the group - then known as the Vibranaires - and took them on a radio talent show in New York in 1948. Though they did not win that contest, fans liked what they heard and a record company executive - who suggested they take the name of their state bird - brought them in to cut a record.

The first record sold 30,000 copies in one week, says Russell, who later joined the group. "In those days, that was a lot of records," Russell says.

They first became known for their 1948 hit, "It's Too Soon To Know," followed in 1949 with the hit, "Don't Tell Me So."

But The Orioles might be best remembered for "Crying in the Chapel," their hit in 1953 - the same year the Major League Baseball team came to town and assumed the name as well. Elvis Presley covered that song in 1965 and Russell says he still thanks the King at the group's performances for doing "our song."

When the Orioles were at their peak, Russell was in St. Louis performing with a group eventually known as The Regals.

In 1954, Til had a falling out with the rest of his ensemble - of which only bass singer Johnny Reed is still alive - and approached Russell's group, then in New York, about a merger under The Orioles name.

Though some of The Regals were reluctant, Russell persuaded them to take Til's offer. "We've got the chance to be a great group," he told them.

Though Til had hoped his new group would deliver him from what was then known as "the Chitlin' Circuit" and into the bigger venues, further fame eluded them.

"Sonny Til was a founder of rhythm and blues music but in the process other guys were moving into the business - groups were coming out of the woodwork," Russell explains. "You had groups that were being organized to duplicate the Orioles."

Several other bands took on the names of birds, too, besides The Orioles and a Harlem group called the Ravens, which came together about the same time. There were the Cardinals, the Flamingos, the Sparrows and others.

"There were thousands of vocal groups in the 1950s," says Allen Lee, host of Forgotten 45s on Good Time Oldies 105.7 WQSR in Baltimore. "If you talk to most of them about their influences, they will say The Orioles. The Orioles started the phenomenon, and oddly enough, in Baltimore."

On New Year's Eve 1959, the group was performing in East St. Louis, close to where Russell had gotten his start. There, they called it quits, convinced their time in the spotlight was over. Russell went home to Cleveland, Ohio, and Til went out on his own.

Eventually, Russell moved to Maryland, where he settled down to become a businessman, opening a few eyeglass stores and record shops in the Washington area.

It was not until 1978 that he stretched his vocal chords again.

Til was coming back to town and was able to book a gig in Washington by offering The Orioles. Then he called up Russell looking for a favor - would he sing? Russell had so completely ended that part of his life that he said he had never told his son, who was then 16, that he had been a singer. But on Til's request, Russell agreed to perform again.

"I took a bow and looked up and saw that we were getting a standing ovation," Russell recalls about that first reunion performance. "I said in my mind, `They still like this foolishness.' People looked at us as if to say `Where have you guys been?'"

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