Earlington Tilghman created one of the most influential vocal groups of all time when he formed the Vibranairs in Baltimore after World War II. Tilghman was better known as Sonny Til, a charismatic tenor who loved rich arrangements and had a knack for picking (and writing) great material.
Other members included Alexander Sharp, George Nelson, Johnny Reed, and Tommy Gaither. The Vibranairs soon became The Orioles, and in 1948 they recorded their first hit record, "It's Too Soon To Know." They toured endlessly on the strength of that single, and others like "Tell Me So" and "A Kiss and a Rose," becoming legends of the "Chitlin Circuit," the network of clubs and theaters open to black performers in the days of segregation. In 1953 The Orioles had their biggest hit, "Crying in the Chapel" (a tune later recorded by Elvis Presley), and were the toast of their new hometown, New York City.
Albert "Diz" Russell had landed in New York in 1951 with his vocal group The Four Jays. They would sleep on the docks at night, while during the day making the rounds to club talent buyers and booking agents.
They met jazz singer Eddie Jefferson, who introduced them to Duke Ellington in one memorable Brill Building meeting. The Duke hired the Four Jays to perform at a club called Snooky's, where their one-night stand turned into a year's engagement. Boxer Joe Louis heard them at Snooky's and got them into the Apollo, and it was there in 1954 that they ran into Sonny Til, who really liked what he heard.
Til was having disagreements with the other Orioles, and was looking for a new sound and new talent. He fired The Orioles and asked the Four Jays (who had since changed their name to the Regals) if they would consider becoming The Orioles.
"I thought, 'They're established already, this makes sense,' " Russell says. "But I want to tell you, it was Sonny who joined the Regals, we didn't really join the Orioles, even though that was the name we used after that." With the popular name, the band hit the road, constantly touring over the next decade, but never having another substantial hit.
The Orioles broke up in the mid-'60s, when sophisticated doo-wop groups weren't finding an audience. Russell left music and went into the eye care business in Washington D.C., where he had family. He returned to the stage only after Til called him in 1978 saying he was getting the group together for one show. The reception they received at that concert convinced The Orioles to give it another shot.
Then when Til died in 1981, Russell decided to keep the Orioles going. "We're like General Motors," says Russell. "The car doesn't stop because all the executives are dead." And what a car it's proven to be: the Orioles have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
Today's Orioles are Russell, with Reese Palmer, who sang with Marvin Gaye in the Marquees, Skip Mahoney, who had a solo hit in 1972 with "Wherever You Go," Royal Height and Eddie Jones (who also plays lead guitar and fronts the soul band Eddie Jones & the Young Bucks).
The Legendary Orioles were one of the first rhythm and blues groups ever. Influenced by celebrities such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, they fused traditional pop songs with gospel style and arranged blues and gospel material with smooth harmonies, resulting in a style that appealed to a wide audience. In 1949 they recorded their first hit, It's Too Soon to Know, written by their manager, Deborah Chessler. In 1953 their recorded their multi-million seller, Crying in the Chapel. They went on to become the most popular recording group in the rhythm and blues field, garnering national as well as international publicity. Their songs have become classics over the years and include the famous What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? And Tell Me So. IN the late 1980s they added "Legendary" to their name.
Their stellar performance credits include appearances with The Four Tops, The Supremes, Jackie Wilson, Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra, Ann-Margaret and Connie Francis, In 1993 they sang for President Clinton's inauguration. Two year's later they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their latest CD. The Orioles Sing for Lovers Only, has been noted for the doo-wop sound that has made them legends over the past fifty years.