The Herald, Sharon,
PA Published Thursday, Jan. 14, 1999


Russell is the keeper of Orioles' legacy

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final story in a series of six profiles of some of the people inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Museum, Sharon.

Al "Diz" Russell is best known for keeping the music of the Orioles alive since Sonny Til died in 1981. But he has his own footnote imprinted on rhythm 'n' blues history -- if you take his word for it.

Before Russell joined the Orioles he was in the group the Regals, which hailed from Cleveland, and put out a single on Atlantic Records called "Got The Water Boiling," a song Russell co-wrote.

The verse of the up-tempo tune might be said to boil, but it didn't heat up radio playlists or the charts. Russell and the rest of the Regals made $100 to record the song, and it sank into obscurity.

But according to Russell, one of the people to hear the song was the Cadillacs, and at a Regals show, "The Cadillacs were down there taking notes."

As Russell tells it, the Cadillacs put new lyrics to essentially his tune and scored a mega-hit called "Speedo."

"I wrote 'Speedo,'" Russell claimed. "If you interview Earl Carroll, he'll tell you, 'I stole his song.'"

Carroll is lead singer for the Cadillacs, and picked up the nickname "Speedo" because of the song.

"Got the Water Boiling" has a passing resemblance to "Speedo." "Speedo" is a much more polished tune and the Cadillacs had a much better lead voice than the Regals.

Cadillacs' manager Esther Navarro is listed as writer of "Speedo."

The rights to "Got the Water Boiling" were recently bought by Warner Bothers and the song was re-released. Russell said he has started getting royalty checks from the song -- the first since the song originated 40 years ago.

The Regals, were originally called the Jays, but changed the name after deciding there were too many groups with the names of birds, such as the Orioles. The name Regals was taken from a shoe store. But they had to stop using the moniker because there was a white group also using it, Russell said.

The history of the Orioles goes back to the late '40s, when manager Deborah Chessler discovered a group called the Vibranairs in Baltimore. She changed their name to the Orioles, years before the St. Louis Browns baseball team moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.

The Orioles, considered pioneers of rhythm 'n' blues and doo wop, concentrated on ballads. "He (Til) said he couldn't do a fast song," according to Russell, who owns the trademark to the name Orioles.

Til's quiet but impassioned delivery and the records' sparse backing instrumentation sucked in listeners to his tales of heartbreak and separation. Add good looks to crooning ability and Til -- whose real name was Earlington Tilghman -- was a matinee idol to teen-aged girls.

The group, regulars on Arthur Godfrey's talent show, scored it's first national hit, "It's Too Soon To Know" in 1949, and followed it with "Tell Me So," "A Kiss And A Rose" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve."

The group's classic "Crying in the Chapel" from 1954 was one of the first rhythm 'n' blues crossover hits when it went to number one on the pop chart.

Til's dominance of the microphone was a factor in the disintegration of the original Orioles, Russell said. "Sonny and George didn't get along," Russell said of second tenor George Nelson, who left in 1953. "Sonny was the show. George wanted to sing the complete song (on lead)."

Til also had other things in mind when he fired the rest of the group in 1954.

"Sonny was looking for a new sound with the Regals," Russell claimed. "The old Orioles had a chitlin sound."

Although the national hits stopped after the Regals came aboard, the group started playing better clubs, Russell said.

Til eventually did relinquish the microphone for the song "Live It Up," which Russell led on. "Other than Sonny I was the first to sing a lead all the way through," Russell said.

The Orioles broke up, after the Beatles made the world hostile to doo wop groups. Russell left music and went into business. Til called him up in 1978 and said he was getting the group back together.

Russell said he told Til he wasn't interested, but agreed to help him out when Til admitted he had booked a show but didn't have a backing group.

At the first show, "When I took a bow and came back up they were giving me a standing ovation," Russell said. "That got to me."

Russell said he hadn't planned to re-enter music full time, but when his wife saw him after that show, she knew his water was boiling. "She started getting things together and said, 'Here we go again.'"

After Til died, Russell assumed the leadership of the Orioles. "I didn't want to take over leadership. But a lot of people said, 'Why let it die?' We're like General Motors. The car doesn't stop because all the executives are dead."

Russell's Orioles recently released a compact disc on New Moon of updated versions of Orioles hits. "Just for the heck of it, to make them sound better," Russell said.

Today's Orioles are Reese Palmer, who sang with Marvin Gaye in the Marquees, Skip Mahoney, who had a solo hit in 1972 with "Wherever You Go," and former Flamingo Larry Jordan.

Russell doesn't stick with Orioles music when singing live. The group performs songs made famous by the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers and others that that came before the Orioles, and others who sang at about the same time. "I try to do a history of music in our performances."

Of the original members, bass singer Johnny Reed is the only one still alive. He lives in New Jersey, Russell said. Ms. Chessler also is still alive.

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