Philly soul pop
Philadelphia’s the Orlons are best remembered for their three million-selling singles from the early sixties. Two of them can be found here as the titles of the albums combined on a single compact disc reissue, The Wah-Watusi and South Street. No doubt the original album with other big hit, “Don’t Hang Up”, which appeared on the band’s second record, will be released someday by Collectors’ Choice. In the meantime, these 24 cuts will have to satisfy fans of soulful Philly pop from that era.
Despite having one male member, Stephen Caldwell, the Orlons really had the classic girl group sound. (Think of the Exciters as a parallel entity.) The quartet’s first big hit “Wah-Watusi” was one of the many dance related songs that sprung up after the success of the Twist. The three female members of the Orlons had previously sung back-up on Dee Dee Sharp’s dance sensations “Mashed Potato Time” and “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)”. Caldwell sat out of the sessions in protest because he thought the Orlons should have been allowed to record the songs first because the band was with the label longer. The Orlons cover them both here and sing the heck out of them, suggesting Caldwell was right.
While dance tracks like “Wah-Watusi”, “Mashed Potato Time”, and “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)” may have lacked lyrical depth, they did rock. The songs urged teens to express themselves physically and the suggestiveness of having sexy black performers urge white adolescents to do so was acknowledged as lewd by many at the time. While the tunes may appear tame to modern ears, critics of rock and roll in general thought the kind of dancing encouraged was wild and would lead to risqué behavior.
The other topic the Orlons sang mostly about on its first album was romantic love, in the guise of covers of other girl group hits like the Shirelles’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “I Met Him on a Sunday”, and the Chantels’ “The Plea” and “He’s Gone”. Like the dance songs, these passionate declarations could only lead to one thing—sex. While this was often guised in the idealized cloak of marriage (check out “Happy Birthday, Mr. Twenty One” for a good example), the implications were always clear.
The other album here, the Orlons’ third release, shows how much music had changed in such a short time. The dance crazes had ebbed in popularity and the folk revival was the latest fad. The Orlons begin with a cover of the Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In” and offer renditions of everything from John D. Loudermilk’s “Big Daddy’s Alabamy Bound” to Kid Ory’s “Muskrat Ramble”. The biggest difference in the group was the introduction of Caldwell’s “froggy” style of singing, which is given prominence somewhere on almost every song here.
Think of “South Street”, where Caldwell’s low vocals are used to contrast the singing gals by croaking “Oh baby” and such at relevant times. This gave the Orlons a sound distinct from other girl groups of the era, but it did not last. Caldwell left the group less than two years later and the band never had another big hit.
Incidentally, “South Street” was the first introduction of the term “hippies” in popular parlance. The song begins with the line, “Where do all the hippies meet?” But “hippie” in 1963 did not mean the same thing it did later, although it did refer to hip, bohemian individuals. “South Street” is the best track on the album, and covers of “Mister Sandman”, “Don’t Let Go”, “Charlie Brown” pale in comparison to the original versions.
Collectors’ Choice has done another fine job of repackaging the albums with original artwork and informative liner notes. The albums are recreated in dynamic mono and sound full and fresh. Fans of Philly pop and girl group aficionados will enjoy the twofer, but my guess is most listeners would prefer to hear the two hit singles on hit compilations and feel little need to hear the rest—which is not all that different from when the albums were first released. The Orlons always were best known as a singles band.
// Notes from the Road
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