‘Soul Harmony’ Highlights Origins of R&B Pioneers

The first production of Soul Harmony in Portland in 2015 | Photo provided

The 1950s were certainly not years known for strides in equality.

But amid the decade’s teeming racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and many other -isms, a new genre of music was born thanks to a white Jewish woman and a group of five black musicians.

Soul Harmony: The Story of Deborah Chessler, Sonny Til and the Orioles tells the true story of Chessler, a shoe saleswoman in Baltimore with a talent for songwriting, and Til, the lead singer of a group that became known as the Orioles who brought the lyrics to life. Together, they birthed a new harmonic sound that went on to inspire groups from the Temptations to Boyz II Men.   

Created by Portland, Ore., duo Alan Berg and Michael Allen Harrison, who are both Jewish, the musical will run at Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center in West Chester from June 20 through July 1.

Berg and Harrison have worked on Soul Harmony for the last seven years. A fully mounted production in Portland in 2015 received several Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards (like Philly’s Barrymore Awards), including Best New Musical and Best Score.

Deborah Chessler

As they continued to refine the production, Berg met and interviewed several key figures, such as Thelma Sharp, Orioles member Alex Sharp’s widow, as well as Chessler’s daughter, Wendy Reingold, and Chessler herself before she died in 2012.

Berg first came across the story of Chessler and Til (born Earlington Carl Tilghman) in a class he taught in the early ’80s at a synagogue about “Jews Who Sing the Blues.” He discovered a Greil Marcus Rolling Stone article that detailed the story of Chessler and Til, who, with the Orioles, are commonly credited as the first rhythm and blues vocal group.

“They managed to connect across lines in the what was called the most segregated city in the country at the time — segregated for African-Americans and segregated for Jews,” Berg noted. “So how did this happen, that’s our story, and what was the impact?”

Harrison had never heard the story of these musicians, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, prior to Berg introducing him to Marcus’ essay.

It seemed to be a forgotten piece of not just musical history, but American history, said Harrison, who wrote 12 original songs for Soul Harmony.

“They were the ones who changed the face of American music,” he said, “because the popular music was big band and Frank Sinatra and all that stuff, and then when they got back from the war, they started this new sound and harmonies.”

The Orioles performed at the Apollo Theatre | Photo provided

He noted the group’s influence on the later sounds of Motown, doo wop and even the harmonies of the Beach Boys.

“This was the group that started it all, and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know this story.”

With “Too Soon to Know,” Chessler, whose real name was Shirley Reingold, wrote a No. 1 record on the rhythm and blues chart (then called “race records”) — on a piece of toilet paper. “Without the toilet, we do show that in the show,” Berg noted.

In addition to being a songwriter, Chessler became the group’s manager, which was significant as she was white and she was only in her early 20s. Her mother Irene helped her in managing and touring with the group, which she did through the mid-’50s.

“So imagine two white Jewish women and five young black harmony singers birthing a new genre of music and facing the challenges of anti-Semitism and racism of the time,” Harrison said, “and how they brought people together through their music.”

The group reached massive success with songs like “Crying in the Chapel” and “Baby Please Don’t Go,” several of which are featured in the musical.

“Every time anybody in the world slow dances, they should thank Sonny Til and the Orioles,” Berg laughed, “because these are the guys who invented the slow dance.”

For the cast, being a part of the production has personal ties.

Monica Rodrigues and De’Sean Dooley in ‘Soul Harmony’ | Photo provided

De’Sean Dooley grew up listening to the music of Til, his grandfather. Being a part of this production has allowed him to rediscover parts of his grandfather’s life, whom he never met as Til died in 1981, and create new relationships with his family.

He remembers his father playing Til’s music around the house growing up. However, he noted, while he was familiar with his grandfather’s story, he was not with Chessler’s.

Through the show, he’s learned about their friendship and experiences touring what was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” which were performance venues mostly in the South deemed safe and acceptable places for African-American musicians and entertainers to perform.

Dooley hopes the story inspires others to learn more about the group and “just keep the music going.”

“It’s still relevant to today’s culture,” he said, “and I feel like everybody can learn something from this show and gain something from it.”

Like Dooley, Monica Rodrigues, who plays Chessler, admired the duo’s close relationship.

While she admitted she was unfamiliar with the Orioles and Chessler before joining the production, which she and Dooley were part of in 2015, she noted the mutual passion for music that sparked such a deep friendship between them stuck out most.

“That’s something that I find so beautiful about the show is that the music is what brings everyone together in these times when everything was so very segregated and it’s crazy to even think a white Jewish woman and a group of black men could actually work together,” she said, “and [to] come together over music and their mutual hardships is really beautiful.”

Rodrigues noted Chessler can also be considered a “pioneer” of today’s feminist  movement as she took on a leadership role during a time when most women were not taken seriously.

“I hope [audience members] walk away singing the songs of the Orioles and remembering their music and Deborah’s contribution to musical history,” Berg said. “That’s why we’re doing the show; we want that story back in history.” 

mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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