Rhythm and blues took wing in the twilight of the swing era as vocal groups like the Ravens, Crows, Sparrows, Swans and Flamingos gained popularity. And of all the "bird" groups, Sonny Til and the Orioles often soared the highest.

"Crying in the Chapel," "It's Too Soon to Know," "I Miss You So," "Tell Me So" -- there was no shortage of hits for the Baltimore group some 35 years ago. Til's soulful tenor made certain of that. Originally a member of the Vibranaires (which lost out to George Shearing on the "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" show in 1948), Til became one of the most imitated balladeers of the early '50s. His work with the Orioles bridged the swing era harmonies of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots and the more sophisticated vocal arrangements of rhythm and blues and, by extension, soul music.

He was, says Albert (Diz) Russell, an original.

"Nobody ever really sang on the street corner until Sonny came along," Russell says. "He was the beginning of vocal rhythm and blues."

Which is one of the reasons why Russell, who first joined the Orioles as a baritone in 1954, decided to keep the group together after Til's death in 1981. Now based in the District, the Orioles will join a Washington R&B success story, the Jewels, in "An Evening of Rhythm and Blues" tonight at the Smithsonian Institution's Baird Auditorium.

Along with his wife Millie, who now manages the Orioles, Russell originally doubted whether the market for traditional R&B was strong enough to support the group without Til. If the quartet was to continue, they decided, it would have to be a polished, first-class act, and succeed on its own merits.

Six years later, the Orioles are still going strong.

"Our purpose is now to carry on the legend and legacy of the Orioles," Russell says. "We meet a lot of young people interested in the music business ... and I think with our 40 or so years of experience, we have something to share."

The Orioles had their share of trials and disappointments -- months at a time on the "chitlin circuit," traveling by car from New York to Mississippi, and back.

"A lot of places in the South didn't have black hotels," Russell recalls. "We'd hook up with these rooming houses. The goal back then for a lot of black performers was to play the white houses {clubs and theaters} ... because the pay was much better. So were the living conditions."

When the rock 'n' roll era dawned, things got even tougher. Til and the group simply didn't adjust to the changing scene, Russell concedes. Vocal groups were coming out of the woodwork. Clubs could book three groups for the cost of the Orioles, "and that's what happened. It was the beginning of the end for Sonny."

Til wandered throughout the '60s, assembling a facsimile of the group now and then. Nearly a decade passed before Russell, now a Washington optician in business with fellow Oriole Jerry Holman, heard from him again. Finally, the Orioles were reunited.

In addition to Russell and Holman (who sings baritone/tenor), the group now consists of tenor Richard Knight and baritone Charles Battle. Although they are entertainers first Russel hopes the Orioles help make people -- especially younger listeners -- more aware of the R&B tradition. Just last week, for example, he gave a lecture on the music at the Smithsonian. And in concert the Orioles frequently stress the R&B roots that nourished hit-makers like Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

Requests for Motown classics and new tunes by Richie or Billy Ocean are all part of a typical show for the Orioles these days, he says, but the heart of the group's repertoire remains its own hits, songs that have aged remarkably well.

Still, doesn't he ever tire of singing songs that made the Orioles famous?

"No, that's our lifeblood," he says with obvious pride. "That's why we're up there."