The Orlons: The Wah-Watusi / South Street

Terrific early-60s Philadelphia vocal pop

The Orlons were a Philadelphia high school singing group who came to Cameo-Parkway Records on a recommendation from Len Barry of the Dovells. After a couple of flop singles they hit it big with the Kal Mann and Dave Appel’s dance tune, “The Wah-Watusi” in 1962. The single and debut album of the same name are highlighted by the terrific lead vocals of Rosetta Hightower, starting with the group’s excellent cover of “Dedicated to the One I Love.” Hightower doesn’t sing it with the power of the Shirelles’ Shirley Owen, but invests just as much heart and soul into the lyrics. Hightower also shines on the group’s cover of Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time,” and its reprise, “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes),” each of which the group had backed on the original hits.

The group’s lone male vocalist, Stephen Caldwell, steps up front for “Tonight,” taking the group closer to doo-wop, as does Hightower’s pleading cover of the Chantels’ “The Plea” and the crooning “I’ll Be True.” Caldwell adds some wonderful bass singing behind the female duet cover of Johnnie and Joe’s “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea.” The backing harmonies are brought forward to introduce a heartbroken cover of the Chantels’ “He’s Gone,” and the Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday” is given a zesty, Latin twist by the drummer.  Like all of the Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway acts, the vocal group’s ace-in-the-hole was the house band, which provided incredible rhythm backing and fat-toned sax solos.

The group’s third long-player (their second All the Hits is still awaiting reissue), named for their third top-10 hit “South Street,” sounds more like a Coasters album, with honking sax and a slate full of novelties that includes the Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In,” John D. Loudermilk’s “Big Daddy,” Slim Gaillard’s “Cement Mixer” and the Coasters’ own “Charlie Brown.” Ironically, the latter is among the most soulful of the lot, with great harmonies and hypnotically rising piano figures. The album has a throwback feel amplified by covers of the band band-era “Between 18th and 19th on Chestnut Street” and Kid Ory’s jazz-age “Muskrat Ramble.” Stephen Caldwell is heard mostly in his low, growling “frog voice,” which feels tired by album end.

The group hits a gospel soul groove for Mann and Appell’s “Gather ‘Round” and introduces another dance with the R&B “Pokey Lou.” Those looking for an overview of the Orlons time at Cameo-Parkway are directed to the 2005 Best Of, which includes all eight of their charting singles (including their second Top 10 “Don’t Hang Up,” which is missing here) and a dozen more tracks. Fans who want to listen more deeply will truly enjoy this two-fer, particularly for the terrific material on the debut. Collectors’ Choice reproduces the original 24 tracks in radio-ready mono, both front and back album covers, and adds new liner notes by Gene Sculatti. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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