THE SATURDAY MORNING SONG CHRONICLES - PAGE 32

-- Paul B Allen III: December 14, 2019

THE ORLONS 

It was a very strange time in the history of music. This window of time was the mid-1950s to the very, very early 1960s. Guys like Mitch Miller were having hit records to the point that they were even given their own TV shows. Mitch was a musician, a record producer, and head of Artists and Repertoire (A&R – the guys who find and sign new talent to record companies) for Mercury Records and later for the juggernaut called Columbia Records (now called Sony). 

I actually remember viewing Sing Along with Mitch before I was even in kindergarten. To get an idea of what was passing as the “popular music” (later called Pop Music) of the day, I have presented you with an abbreviated clip from one of Mitch’s shows. The clip also contains the commercials that aired in the show, and they are fascinating in and of themselves. I hope you enjoy the clip. 

So, with songs like Mitch’s version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” being a hit on the radio, you get a good idea of the climate of Pop music at that time. 

But at the same time, so-called, “Race” records (later called Rhythm and Blues, and later still R&B), were being enjoyed by black America, and secretly being purchased, enjoyed, and hidden in the homes of white America by their teenaged children. 

The Beatles had not yet made an impact on the music scene. As a matter of fact, at this time, the guys who would become the Beatles, and the guys who would become the Rolling Stones, were also listening to American “Race” records in England and laying a foundation for what was to come in their own music. 

So, there was this mixture of genre and generations happening in music. On the one hand, you had the nearly sterile music of Mitch, who was appealing to the general white and adult masses, and on the other hand, you had Rhythm and Blues songs like “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton, playing underground, and being embraced by black people, young white teens, and white artists who would make this music their own in varying degrees, and would then go on to introduce their version of it to mainstream white America and the world.

A prime example of this was Elvis Presley, whose later version of “Hound Dog” completely eclipsed that of Big Mama Thornton, whose listening audience was minuscule by comparison. Walk up to anyone in the world and sing, "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," and they will say, "Elvis!" Precious few will say, "Big Mama Thornton." 

So again, we are talking about the time between Mitch and before the Beatles. 

I’m sure you have heard of the Platters (“Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” to name a few) and they were unique in that they had a female brought into the group of four guys. 

Well, there is a group that took the opposite direction. It was a trio of female vocalists, and they added a guy to the group, and then they had some major Pop hits. I remember running up and down our dead-end street singing their songs, as I played.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this three-woman, one man group called the Orlons:   

“The quartet consisted of lead singer Rosetta Hightower (June 23, 1944 – August 2, 2014), Shirley Brickley (December 9, 1944 – October 13, 1977), Marlena Davis (October 4, 1944 – February 27, 1993) and Stephen Caldwell (born November 22, 1942). 

Before they became The Orlons, they were an all-girl quintet called Audrey and the Teenettes. They formed in the late 1950s in junior high school and consisted of Hightower, Davis, and three Brickley sisters: Shirley, Jean, and Audrey. However, after the Brickleys' mother did not permit 13-year-old Audrey to sing in certain nightclubs with the group, she and Jean quit, making the group a trio. 

In high school, the group's three remaining members discovered fellow student Stephen Caldwell, who was the lead singer of a local group called the Romeos. Impressed, they invited him to join the group in 1960 and named themselves The Orlons as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the friendly rivalry they had with a popular group at their high school, the Cashmeres. (Orlon was a brand name for the widely used synthetic fiber acrylic.) 

A high school friend, Dovells lead singer Len Barry [My Note: Len had the hit song “1-2-3” on which the Funk Brothers of Motown secretly played], encouraged them to audition for Cameo-Parkway Records at the turn of the decade. The group took his advice in the fall of 1961, but were rejected at first, although the record label signed the group after two more auditions. Cameo executive Dave Appell appointed Hightower as the lead singer and began writing songs for them.” 

This talented group sang the original background vocals for the mega-hits called, “Mash Potato Time” and also “Give Me Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)” recorded originally by Dee-Dee Sharp. But when the Orlons recorded their first album as a group, they covered these songs by Dee-Dee and had hits with them too. 

What were the other hit songs of the Orlons? Again, this was a strange time in music, and I always looked at their songs as being just this side of novelty songs, but they still had enough R&B in them to make them super enjoyable and contagious songs.

Many of their tunes were about dance crazes of the day, like the Mashed Potatoes, and one of their original songs even started a new dance. It was the first time I had ever heard the word Watusi. Here is a list of their hits:

 “Wah Watusi” (This is one they made up and the Watusi dance was born)

“Mashed Potato Time” 

“Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)” 

“Mama Didn’t Lie” 

“Don’t Hang Up” 

“South Street” 

“Not Me” 

“Crossfire” 

Do you remember these songs? Did you, like me, perhaps hear them played by an uncle or aunt who was maybe ten or twelve years older than you? 

Well, if you did, or did not, I hope you will now enjoy and even be surprised by the songs of the Orlons.

The music in that small window of time was really something else. 

Often in movies now they leave “Easter Eggs,” little hidden gems in the form of extra scenes that usually come in the closing credits of a movie. Here is my Easter egg for you this weekend. My friend, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, had a hit called “The Monster Mash,” and DJs all over the USA, and even around the world, still play it every Halloween. Listen to the background vocals of that song, and then listen to the background vocals of the Orlons in the video above that contains both songs on that one clip, "Mashed Potato Time" and "Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes"). Bobby was paying a tribute to the Orlons in his record which came years later. 

Have a great weekend, and I hope to see you back here next week for another Saturday Morning Song Chronicles.