Shirley Reingold, who managed the early R&B; vocal group The Orioles and wrote their 1948 hit song "It's Too Soon to Know," died of heart disease Oct. 10 at Aventura Hospital in Aventura, Fla. The native Baltimorean was 89.
She was known professionally as Deborah Chessler. In an interview with music historian Paul Horner, she said that she and her mother, Irene, were in New York when a young man proposed to her.
The idea of marriage caught her off-guard, and in talking to her mother in a room at the Hotel Forrest, she said, "It's too soon, it's too soon to know." The encounter led her to write down her thoughts —on bathroom tissue. The resulting song earned her recognition and royalties.
Familiar with Baltimore's music scene, she heard a singer, Earlington Carl Tilghman, and his vocal group, the Vibra-Naires, and the group recorded "It's Too Soon to Know" in 1948. For the next six years, she managed the group, which changed its name to The Orioles at the suggestion of record industry executives.
"They were different," she said in a 1995 Baltimore Sun interview when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "They weren't like the Mills Brothers and they weren't like the Ink Spots. They were their own style. That was what sold me."
While at Lindy's restaurant in New York, she buttonholed recording executives and wound up getting a contract for The Orioles with a Jubilee Records division called It's a Natural.
"A lot of us historians consider The Orioles to be the first rhythm-and-blues vocal group," said Mr. Horner, who lives in Somerset, N.J., and maintains the website classicurbanharmony.net. "After her song hit big, many other imitators sprung up and tried to duplicate The Orioles. A lot of music came together to make rock and roll, but rhythm and blues was a major component."
Born in Baltimore and raised on Eutaw Place, she attended Forest Park High School. As a teen, she sold shoes at the old Kitty Kelly shop on West Lexington Street and immersed herself in Baltimore's popular music scene.
Her husband, Paul Reingold, a retired grocery industry consultant, said she had no formal musical training, but if she had a melody in her head, she would seek out someone to transcribe her song into written notes.
She often received her musical inspiration at night and enlisted friends to help her recall the melody. She frequented the Hippodrome, which had live acts, and the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, where African-American acts performed. She also followed acts to nightclubs.
"Dinah Washington was very helpful to Shirley," her husband said. "She also predicted that Leslie Uggams would become the star she did."
In the 1995 Sun interview, she said The Orioles' first engagement was at Club Caverns in Washington, D.C., operated by Cab Calloway's sister, Blanche Calloway. Then they went to the Club Kavakis. One club had black audiences, the other white, "and they did great in both," she said.
The Orioles, then performing as the Vibra-Naires, landed on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" radio show. After performing in New York to a national radio audience, they lost an applause meter contest to blind pianist George Shearing. But audience response was so great that Godfrey called them back for another appearance on his "Arthur Godfrey Time" daily radio program.
The group soon won bookings at Harlem's Apollo Theatre, Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, the Uptown in Philadelphia and the Howard in Washington, among other venues.
"Their biggest triumph was the Apollo," Mr. Horner said. "The lines went around the block."
Mrs. Reingold and her mother, Irene Chessler, were passengers in the two cars that The Orioles drove as they made numerous appearances from New England to Kansas City, Mo. She escaped injury when one of The Orioles' cars crashed near Essex in 1950, killing guitarist Lloyd Thomas Gaither and injuring two other members.
A longtime friend, Helen Stern, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, said, "It was extremely unusual for a white Jewish woman and her mother to be traveling on the road with a black musical group. The Orioles were wonderful to her. They knew that some of the places they went were dangerous, and they watched over Shirley and her mother."
Mr. Reingold said that by 1954, his wife was exhausted from travel and gave up management of the group.
After leaving management of The Orioles, she became a cashier at a nightclub in the Mount Royal area. She was also a handbag buyer at the old Julius Gutman department store at Park Avenue and Lexington Street.
She later moved to Wilmington, Del., and to Miami, where she performed as an extra in films. But rock music historians rediscovered her several years ago. In 1993, Greil Marcus, a Rolling Stone critic, wrote, "Is this the woman who invented rock & roll?"
Services were Oct. 12.
In addition to her husband of 48 years, survivors include a daughter, Wendy Reingold of Aventura.