PRINT March 1984


IN LATE AUGUST, 1948, a bizarre, almost silent record began playing on Maryland “race music” stations; soon it spread up and down the East Coast and across the country. It seemed to come out of the ether, not so much carried by the airwaves as floating upon them, and no one knew what to make of it—except that it stopped time, and stopped hearts. It was “It’s Too Soon to Know,” the first single by the Orioles, five black men from Baltimore, led by a 23-year-old truck driver who called himself Sonny Til.

Though Til continued to perform almost until his death in December, 1981, the Orioles disappeared much earlier—the original group had disbanded in 1954. They had been a huge success, releasing as many as eight records a year, formally breaking into the white hit parade with “Crying in the Chapel” in 1953, their influence so pervasive they could be heard in the voices of virtually every other early doowop or vocal harmony ensemble and as well in the ballad singing of Clyde McPhatter and Elvis Presley. And if the title can be awarded with any precision, which it probably cannot, they were the very first rock ’n’ roll artists. Earlier black harmony groups like the Ink Spots or even the Ravens had made their music on the terms of conventional, dominant social and esthetic values, surrendering every hint of cultural or individual autonomy; the Orioles were members of a population excluded from the American mainstream who, motivated by desire for money, self-expression, and public recognition, made highly individualized urban folk music received by a young, multiracial mass audience not yet organized by a racist, oligopolistic entertainment business. That, in sociological language, was the formula for rock ’n’ roll. As the first artists to make the formula work, and to find in its terms the means to a new kind of music—as the first artists to embody a process all pop music listeners are now part of—the Orioles should now be easy to hear. But they are not.

“The only accompaniment,” Bill Alexander has written of the Orioles’ most distinctive records, “was a guitar played so quietly its only purpose might have been to prevent the group from [coming] to a complete stop. Sonny Til seemed to withdraw himself from the situation, refusing to become involved. Til’s wavering tenor [was] a strange echo of ghetto experience. The harsh, fast life produced a slow, gentle response.” Framed by high, drifting moans that faded almost before they could be apprehended, with the ghost of a falsetto somewhere in the background, Til’s voice was so emotionally distant, so aurally crepuscular, that it did not sound like singing at all. It was a voice that seemed to treat the forming of a word as a concession, the voice of someone less singing than thinking about the possibility of singing, as if to say—“What would it mean to care?” The Orioles’ influence on better-known performers now makes them accessible mainly as commodities: you can buy new reissues like Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (Dr. Horse, Swedish import) or For Collectors Only (Murray Hill, a five-LP boxed set). The music remains as bizarre as it ever was.

At any rate this is what I hear today. I was three in 1948, and my only memory of black music from that time is of “Open the Door, Richard,” a joke tune that in early 1947 was a top-ten pop hit for no less than five artists, among them Count Basie (#1) and the jump-blues bandleader Louis Jordan (#7). This was the musical context. Within it, the weirdness of “It’s Too Soon to Know,” “Tell Her So,” and “A Kiss and a Rose” was profound. As a weirdness whose appearance as would-be pop music was aimed not at an excluded group but at everyone, it was weirdness geometrically compounded. It was the old mole, the young termite, that in the next few years would root the mountain down, leaving the context in ruins, finally to emerge shouting and dressed in flashy clothes as the cultural explosion of rock ’n’ roll.

By 1956 Little Richard could make the words “Slippin’ and Slidin’” into a metaphor for that explosion: a Whitmanesque yawp that contained every sort of revolt and celebration. All of young America was ready for it, and it was every sort of hit. But in 1948 slippin’ and slid in’ were not words in a song, but the esthetic the Orioles practiced. Their failing tones, their hesitations, the songs that seemed to be made out of lacunae, Sonny Til’s always aborted wish to commit himself, his inability to believe that anyone would ever make a commitment to him—these made a metaphor too, a metaphor for the evasion of confrontation with any word, any sign, with things-as-they-were. It was delivered whole, with a passion so patently repressed it suggested less revolt than suicide. When Til sings, lifting every second phrase almost into onomatopoeia,

Though I’ll cry
When she’s gone
I won’t die
I’ll live on—
If it’s so
It’s too soon
Way too soon
To know

you don’t believe he’ll outlive the song.

Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’” indeed begins right here. As words on a lyric sheet it too is about evasion: the slippin’ and a-slidin’, peepin’ and a-hidin’ of a woman stepping out on her man. But the message of the voice and the band that transformed those words was one of unrestrained, unmeasured freedom. Coming out of Little Richard’s throat the words “slippin’ and slidin’” seemed to signify first of all a new dance, and if at first that dance was contained by a dance floor, within moments it was a new way of walking and a new way of talking—a new way to live. It’s harder to hear that the Orioles’ esthetic was also a version of freedom, because it is not the sort of freedom American culture celebrates. We don’t celebrate the freedom to peep and hide, to burrow beneath the city of things-as-they-are. “It’s Too Soon to Know”—if, as Guy Debord has written, the revolutionary is one who knows how to wait, what title could have been more perfect?

The Orioles were in their time but not quite of it. That mainstream late-’40s musical context is suggestive: the domination of the radio by the broken-beat ditty “Open the Door, Richard” affirmed the monolithic power of white America’s idea of the black American, or any American who did not fit the dominant representation. But the dominant representation itself is even more suggestive. In the last few years the detritus of late ’40s and early ’50s American advertisements has been increasingly appropriated by collage fanzines (from the professional publications of the Church of the Sub-Genius to the kitchen-table Tacky World), and what they show is so single-minded, so organized, that it looks like a quotidian art project commissioned by the CIA. It’s not just that every person pictured is white, middle class, and well off—blacks in 1984 TV commercials are white, middle class, and well off. It’s the sense of confidence that is so unsettling. The smiles on the faces of the men are smooth, easy, unruffled; the fulfillment of every desire is taken for granted. The smiles on the faces of the women are, to be sure, pursed, even a bit determined, but most of all certain. In the illustrations to “You Can Beat the Atomic Bomb,” published in 1958 in The Family Physician, we see a couple fleeing radioactive fallout: they are dressed for a night on the town.

It would be specious to connect the Orioles’ beautiful refusals to the Bomb—but perhaps not so to connect those refusals to the orchestration of confidence that accompanied it. That orchestration did not include the Orioles, and thus Sonny Til became an artist of the reverie, always one step removed. Til wonders what it would mean, what it would feel like, to love, to be loved, to hurt, to be hurt, to say no, to say yes. Because he was imagining, he was allowed more purity than real life ever offers: his music was an emotive utopia, where everything could be felt and nothing could be done. The distance in the performance was inescapable, and it had to be at least subconsciously apparent to those who heard him.

Sonny Til fantasized, he explored his fantasies, and he had to communicate to his audience the possibilities of fantasy, the possibility that the real world could be different from the apparent. There was no confidence; there was only an erotic concentration on loss, failure, and despair. In 1948, it was a shock. In 1984, rock ’n’ roll has remade the world of music, but not the world, and the Orioles sound as queer as they ever did. The difference is that after thirty years of rock ’n’ roll, the music of the Orioles is no longer a “strange echo of ghetto experience.” It is a strange echo of modern life.

Greil Marcus