When Diz Russell took over the leadership of the Orioles after Sonny Til's death in 1981, he knew it was going to be a challenge. "Living Sonny Til's legend down was quite a job," he says, over the phone from his home in Capitol Heights. "Those were big shoes to fill."
Russell became an Oriole in 1954, when Til disbanded the original group. "Sonny had Alexander Sharp, Johnny Reed and George Nelson," he says. "George didn't last for about three or four years, and he was replaced by Gregory Carroll. Gregory's on 'Crying in the Chapel,' the big hit.
"I was with a group called the Regals," he continues. "I met Sonny in St. Louis, and he said, 'If you're ever in New York, man, look me up.' By the time I got to New York, we had gotten to the Apollo, won the amateur show, and we were on our way."
That was when Til caught up with Russell, and things were not well with the Orioles. "I don't know what the disturbance was in the group," Russell says. "I never have, because Sonny never discussed it. But he had a problem with that order of people, so what he did, he literally joined the Regals. He said, 'I can't work with these guys I'm working with. Talk to the guys and see if they'll join me and become the Orioles.'
"When we opened in October in the Apollo, we became the Orioles."
Russell spent five years with Til and the Orioles before life on the road became too much. "I came back home and got into business, because at that time I didn't see any use of going through this," he says. "I didn't own anything. That used to be my problem -- I didn't own anything. I was always on the road.
"So I sort of resigned and went into retirement or whatever you want to call it, and I didn't really go back at it until the Howard Theater opening here around 1978."
When Til died, Russell's initial instinct was to call it quits and retire the Orioles for good. But the group's audience didn't want to let go like that. "When he died, he left me with five or six gigs, and these people started calling," Russell recalls. "So I just continued on with it. I got the guys who were necessary, and the band was still there. I said, 'Let's go play this out,' and we continued on with the Orioles."
Russell says there hasn't been any boom in business since the Orioles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this January. "It helps, but it doesn't help in a way," he says. "Most people that you find that have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they still have to get it on their own."
Not being an original Oriole, Russell himself wasn't inducted, nor did he attend the awards banquet. "I hadn't gotten a ticket," he says, adding that the Hall of Fame told him that admission for the event was $500. "I said, 'I wouldn't pay $500 to come to New York to see that. You must be crazy.' "
Besides, Russell would rather look to the future. His Orioles are in the studio, working on a new album the group hopes will be out in the spring. "We're recording all of the old tunes over again, the Sonny Til tunes and whatnot, with a different twist," he says. "Some of them, we're updating the harmony; some of them, we're throwing a little jazz in, some we're throwing a little gospel in. We want to have a CD that rounds up everything."
When: Saturday, Oct. 14, 4 p.m.
Where: Baltimore MicroBrew Music Festival, Baltimore Yacht Basin, 2600 Insulator Drive
$ Call: (410) 833-0285