The Kennedy Center

The Legendary Orioles


The Legendary Orioles are part of an ongoing African-American tradition of quartet singing with roots in the late nineteenth century. Quartets emerged in the South as a sacred music innovation when various groups û such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University û began a concert-style re-arrangement of earlier slave spirituals. Local church congregations further adapted these songs, drawing influences from popular music styles of the day. Small groups of four or more singers, each responsible for singing a ôpartö such as bass, alto, lead, and tenor, became a mainstay in churches across the country. In the 1930s, the secular world was introduced to the quartet tradition, as numerous singers shifted their focus and their repertoires from religious to worldly concerns such as love, heartbreak, hard times, and hope for the future. Current Orioles group leader Albert ôDizö Russell describes this phenomenon as ôsubstituting æbabyÆ for æJesusÆ.ö Groups such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots captured the popular imagination by combining influences from the sacred quartet tradition with jazz and rhythm and blues sung in a close harmony style. They are credited with introducing the open-throated ôoohö and ôahö background sound to quartet singing and with attracting both black and white audiences.

The Orioles were influenced by these groups and were also innovators in their own right. They are generally recognized as the first, and one of the most influential, popular rhythm and blues quartets to emerge in the post-World War II era. The original group, initially named the Vibranairs, was formed in Baltimore in the late 1940s around charismatic crooner Erlington ôSonny Tilö Tilghman, who sang lead and second tenor. Other members included Alexander Sharp, George Nelson, Johnny Reed, and Tommy Gaither. In 1948 they recorded their first hit record, ôItÆs Too Soon To Know,ö and over the next few years the group had several crossover hits including the renowned 1953 recording, ôCrying in the Chapel.ö The song was later recorded by Elvis Presley.

The Orioles group now includes Diz Russell, bass baritone; Reese ôSilver Foxö Palmer, baritone tenor (formerly of the Moonglows); Larry Jordan, baritone tenor (formerly of the Veltones); Eddie Jones, tenor (a singer/guitarist with the Jones Family gospel band); and Skip Mahoney, baritone tenor and falsetto (formerly of Skip Mahoney and the Casuals û a 1970s vocal group). The group is backed up by the Young Bucks band.

The Legendary Orioles