Sonny Til and the Orioles
By Ben Ratliff. NY Times December 21 2014
LIVE IN CHICAGO, 1951
(Sonny Til, top right, and the Orioles, counterclockwise from top left, Alexander Sharp,
George Nelson, Johnny Reed and Tommy Gaither in a 1950 portrait)
This is your last transcendent listening experience of 2014.
The singer Sonny Til put heroic anguish in demure ballads about loneliness, pushing his sleepy, wounded voice and inflating a single word into a sunrise. Til and the Orioles, his vocal R&B group, did serious business in the late 1940s; in Harlem, they essentially replaced jazz as youth music, creating fan hysteria at the Apollo. But then something changed. In late 1950, there was a car accident on tour, killing a band member. The singer Clyde McPhatter, with the Dominoes, quickly gained on them in the affections of Apollo audiences. Billboard reviewed a New York show on May 12, 1951, and called them “just about as unmusical and sloppy an act as has been seen hereabouts.” Three weeks later, someone recorded them during a two-week stand at a supper club in Chicago. That’s what you hear on “Live in Chicago 1951” (Uptown), a fascinating and intimate document of two sets on a Sunday night: perhaps the only prime-years recording of the band as it was heard live, a drumless quintet with two of its members doubling on bass and guitar. This is a smaller, quieter and older audience. (No screaming girls.) The band sounds a little deflated but swings through arrangements, soldiering on, the others joking in the margins when Til steps up for a solo. It’s not a commercial-quality recording, but it is a beautifully imperfect one. And Til’s vocals, especially in his signature moves — his great swells of pitch and volume at almost random spots, and often in the final line of a song — are recorded loudly enough that you imagine a cartoon of the microphone stand bending backward from the strain.