Rich and velvety as grade triple-A chocolate milk, the tenor voice purred:
Does she love me?
Well, it's too soon to know.
Can I believe her,
When she tells me so?
In the beginning, he was a Baltimore teen-ager doo-wopping in neighborhood street-corner symphonies. At the end, Earlington Carl Tilghman, a victim of diabetes, hobbled on crutches to deliver a song in his adopted city of Washington.
Tilghman, better known as Sonny Til, died last week of a massive heart attack. At 56, he was continuing a comeback with his group, The Orioles, which were re-formed in 1978. Sonny Til and The Orioles. Back again.
"Sonny had been a part of the District's life and culture for over 40 years," said Albert (Diz) Russell, a member of Til's group from 1955 to 1960, who later rejoined them.
Now an optician and the owner of three optical stores in Southeast Washington, Russell said: "We had to hold two funerals, one here and one in his boyhood neighborhood of North Baltimore. Both cities wanted to salute him."
At least three D.C. radio stations -- WOL, WHUR and WPFW -- aired special programs featuring Til's recordings and testimonials from friends and relatives.
More than 500 people passed by his bier at a Northeast funeral home last weekend to pay tribute to the man and his music. Politicians, business people, ministers, local celebrities and unabashed fans, many in tears, remembered not only his creamy delivery of love ballads but also his willingness to volunteer his talents for community causes.
"They remember his tirelessness working for churches, schools -- any fund-raiser where he thought he could be of help," said Til's lifelong friend Estelle Smith.
One of his last performances was in November at a benefit for the Shaw Junior High School marching band. "I'll stay here and sing all night if I have to," Til reportedly said.
And over the years, sing he did. Mellow ballads laced with a blues line and the jitty-jitty-jitty, da-dit, dit, dit of black street-corner harmony blended to make The Orioles one of the pioneer groups in singing rhythm and blues. Their blue blazers, white pants and processed hair stirred moans, shrieks, and fainting spells among teen-aged girls wherever the group went during its peak years in the late '40s and early '50s.
"Sonny reached the young ladies with intelligent lyrics that shot straight to the heart. With him, the song was the thing," said The Orioles' former road manager Chester Smith.
"It's Too Soon To Know," "Tell Me So," "What Are You Doing New Years Eve?" and "Crying In The Chapel" were among their most popular songs.
"Sonny's approach was soft and cool while many of the other groups during that period were turning cartwheels on stage and running up and down the aisles," said Russell's wife, Mildred.
Before becoming national head-liners on the old Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts TV program, and before appearing on Dick Clark's first American Bandstand TV show, Sonny Til and The Orioles worked the District's nightspots on the famed "Black Strip" beginning at 14th and U streets NW: the Casbah, Turner's Arena, Bohemian Gardens and, of course, the Howard Theater.
"The group cut its teeth in these places and D.C. audiences responded by flooding Sonny with love," Russell remembered.
"He was Frank Sinatra all over again. Young ladies followed him everywhere," recalled Smith.
The Orioles spawned a flock of groups named after birds: The Cardinals, The Flamingoes, The Sparrows. Their chief rival was Billy Ward and The Dominoes. Like The Orioles, the Dominoes placed an emphasis on the song and its harmony, refusing to let dress or gestures overwhelm it.
But then the flashy groups appeared on the scene to match their teen-aged followers twitch for twitch: James Brown, Little Anthony and The Imperials, The Coasters, Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers. Then Motown leap-frogged the competion with its stylized choreography and arrangements featuring members of the Detroit Symphony. Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Four Tops, and The Temptations wiped everybody out.
The Orioles' star crashed in the early '60s. Til went solo, touring with revues that played England, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia.
"Sonny didn't have a drug habit, he didn't smoke or drink; essentially he was a religious man, a philosophical man," Smith said. "So when the group broke up, he continued to work because he had the need and desire to sing. He'd go anywhere for this opportunity."
It was during this period that personal problems began to plague Til. His second marriage began to deteriorate and he discovered in his late 30's that he had diabetes.
One of his five children, Kristi, 19, a communications major at Pasadena City College, said she feels her father didn't take care of himself properly after his illness was diagnosed. "He worked even harder; he was draining himself," she said. "When he was hospitalized, he entertained in the hospital."
A special one-night Oldies-but-Goodies show at the Howard Theater in 1978 prompted Til to revive the Orioles. At that time he was the only surviving member of the original group. The new Orioles were a hit at the show. The white pants, blue blazers and one-nighters were back. Til and his group reveled in their renewed popularity.
But his continuing battle with diabetes resulted in the amputation of half of his left foot last summer. He added crutches to the act. Often he would sit at the edge of the stage and reminisce about his days working with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. And always, always, with assurance and control, he would ease into his theme song:
Does she love me?
It's too soon to know.
Can I believe her,
When she tells me so? . . .