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The Orioles at the Asbury Park Armory, 1948 | Photo Credit: Joseph A. Carter

Asbury Park Armory important in early years of Rhythm & Blues

The former Asbury Park National Guard Armory, now the VFW post at Lake & Bond, dates back to 1915 and once housed troops heading for World Wars I and II. But in the 1940's and 1950's it also played another historic role. The large hall inside provided space for huge dances, featuring some of the country's leading African American music entertainers. (Asbury Park was a segregated city at that time.) There was no stage in the Armory then, only a large wooden dance floor with an overlooking second floor balcony. Billy Eckstine played there in 1944, with young Dizzy Gillespie in his band. Trade magazines reported bandleader Jimmie Lunceford packing in 1844 fans in September 1946, though we suspect that was an exaggeration.

In July, 1948, a vocal group from Baltimore, Sonny Til & the Orioles, changed the face of American popular music with their vocalization of manager/composer Deborah Chessler's song, "It's Too Soon To Know". The song is regarded as the first Rhythm & Blues vocal group record and the Orioles as the first true R&B vocal group. "It's Too Soon To Know" was an overnight sensation, reaching #1 on the Race Music Charts and #14 on the Popular Charts. Within a year, hundreds (probably thousands) of vocal groups sprang up on the urban street corners of America, imitating Sonny Til & the Orioles and causing Billboard Magazine to change the name of Race Music to Rhythm & Blues.

In the Fall of 1948, the Orioles played the Asbury Park Armory as part of an East Coast tour of a couple dozen one-nighters. African American teenagers filled the hall to capacity. We've been told of teens pulling their friends up through the second floor restroom windows, though with the current configuration of the building we can't imagine how that was possible.

Sonny Til & the Orioles played the Asbury Park Armory at least three times that we know of. At one such appearance in July, 1950, Jerry Blaine, owner of the group's record label Jubilee Records, presented the Orioles with the keys to a brand new Cadillac.

One of the youngsters who caught the Orioles every time they played the Armory was Bobby Thomas. He idolized the group and wanted to sing just like Sonny Til. Bobby went on to form Asbury Park's first recording R&B vocal group, the Vibranaires. He would get to meet the Orioles when they came to the Armory in 1950. Years later in 1966, Sonny Til asked Bobby Thomas & the Vibranaires to become his new Orioles group and play the Apollo Theatre. Bobby sang with Sonny Til & the Orioles until 1975. After Sonny Til's death in 1981, Bobby Thomas formed his own Orioles, a group that later included original Orioles bass singer and player, Johnny Reed.

Of course, the Orioles were just the first of many R&B groups to play the Armory. Pioneer groups like the Ravens and Vocaleers and R&B bands like Freddy Mitchell's Orchestra followed. Over the years, R&B vocal group music evolved into doo wop, soul, disco and then hip hop harmony.

Sonny Til and the original Orioles along with Bobby Thomas have now passed on. Recently, Sonny Til's grandson, De'Sean Dooley, played the part of his grandfather in the musical about the Orioles, "Soul Harmony". The musical ran in Portland OR but may soon be coming to NYC. De'Sean will be singing Orioles songs backed by the acappella group Quiet Storm at the Doo Wop Explosion concert at Monmouth University on February 20, 2016. Ironically, Quiet Storm was Bobby Thomas' last Orioles group.

Contributed by Charlier Horner, Classic Urban Harmony