The Orioles Biography

This highly influential vocal group was formed in 1948 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Along with the Ravens, the Orioles were considered the pioneers of rhythm and blues vocal harmony. The group members were Sonny Til (Earlington Carl Tilghman, 18 August 1928, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 9 December 1981, USA; lead), Alexander Sharp (b. 1919, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 1970; tenor), George Nelson (b. Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 1959; baritone), Johnny Reed (b. 16 July 1923, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 18 June 2005, Lakewood, New Jersey, USA; bass) and guitarist/second tenor Tommy Gaither (b. Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 5 November 1950, USA).

Originally known as the Vibra-Naires, the group (with original bass vocalist Richard Williams) made their debut on the Manor label in March 1948 with the track ‘Tell Me So’. The newly renamed Orioles (to honour the state bird of Maryland) launched their career with the quiet, languorous ballad ‘It’s Too Soon To Know’, which went to number 1 in the R&B charts (number 13 pop) in late 1948. The song was written by Deborah Chessler, the group’s manager, and she wrote many of their subsequent hits. Most Orioles hits followed the same formula of Til’s impassioned tenor lead with sleepy vocal support and almost invisible instrumental accompaniment in which the music was felt rather than heard. These included the US R&B hits ‘(It’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas’ (number 8, 1948), ‘Tell Me So’ (number 1, 1949), ‘Forgive And Forget’ (number 5, 1949), ‘Crying In The Chapel’ (number 1 - and a pop number 11, 1953), and their last R&B chart record, ‘In The Mission Of St. Augustine’ (number 7, 1953). Gaither died in a car accident in 1950 and was replaced by two new members, Ralph Williams (guitar/second tenor) and Charlie Harris (piano). Nelson left in spring 1953 and was succeeded by John ‘Gregory’ Carroll. As the hits began to dry up the group began to struggle, and in early 1955 Reed was the next member to quit. He was replaced by Maurice ‘Tank’ Hicks but shortly afterwards the Orioles folded. Sharp and Reed went on to work with various Ink Spots groups. Til formed a new Orioles from members of another group, the Regals, but could not revive former fortunes, although he continued to use the Orioles name up until his death in December 1981. The group was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1995 with sole surviving original member Johnny Reed accepting the award. Reed himself passed away in June 2005.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.