Overlooked and Under Appreciated - The Cardinals

The Cardinals are one of the founding members of the era of the "bird" groups that came in the wake of the success of the Orioles. Like their mentors, the Cardinals also hailed from the city of Baltimore. The group was formed in early 1947 and at that time was called the Mellotones which was quite a common name for a vocal group. There are on record eleven such named groups with recordings dating from 1951 to 1963, including sides done by the Mello-Kings and Tune Drops. For three years the group was a local favorite playing many of the area clubs and music revues. Soon after New Year's of 1951 the vocalists were given an audition for Atlantic records, and reportedly label founder Herb Abramson liked what he heard and the group was signed up.

The Mellotones became the Cardinals to avoid confusion (and possibly a lawsuit) with one of the other Mellotones. At this time the group consisted of lead singer Ernest Warren; Meredith Brothers and Jack Adelotte were the tenors; Donald Johnson on baritone; and Leon Hardy on bass. In March of 1951 the Cardinals first release was recorded. The lead ballad was called "Shouldn't I Know" b/w "Please Don't Leave Me". From the very beginning Ernie Warren proves his worth as one of the very finest lead tenor voices ever. The group shows that it has moved away from their earlier style derived from the Inkspots and Delta Rhythm Boys. They deliver the song in a deeper and blusier fashion, with the harmonies more out in front than before. Also giving the performance a big boost is the work of bass voice Leon Hardy. For a first time outing the Atlantic side was a huge success. After the initial hit recordings of the Ravens and Orioles, the Cardinals were among a group of talented vocal groups that seemed to take over the R & B trend during the rest of 1951. The second release by the cardinals was "I'll Always Love You" b/w "Pretty Baby Blues." At first it was thought that the A-side would be the ballad 'Love You' but it was the assumed B side of "Pretty Baby Blues" (actually an R & B cover) that got the publicity and the airplay. It was not enough to generate nearly the sales that their initial side had done however.

The Cards third release, Atlantic 958 in late January of 1952 was the signature tune the group had been looking for. "Wheel of Fortune" was a well known tune with eight competing versions in the popular music field. Into this crowd came the Atlantic version and its sound captured the R & B market plus some pop fans who heard the extensive airplay of this recording. The label claimed that this was their fastest breaking hit ever (I love the Atlantic ad stating "this great quartet version" coupled with a picture of all FIVE members of the group). Ernie Warren gives another great lead performance as the group reverts to a more pop sound on this release, and how about Leon Hardy's "voice of doom" intonation on the second bridge ? This was one of the all time great vocal group sides of the early fifties. Warren now was on active military duty and was replaced by Lee Tarver on lead. At the end of the summer the next release by the group appeared - "The Bump" b/w "She Rocks". By now the Cardinals were making the rounds of the old TOBA circuit-The Apollo (NY), Earle and Uptown(Philly), Royale (Baltimore), Howard (D.C.), Regal (Chicago), and Fox (Detroit). However the next release by the Cardinals would come nine months later, with Ernie Warren back on lead vocal. This was "You Are My Only Love" b/w "Lovie Darling", which unfortunately developed little sales or airplay. The worst was yet to come.

One year after the last Atlantic side was released, "Under A Blanket of Blue" a ballad that had its roots in the 1930s with Warren on lead saw the light of day. There has never been any clear cut explanation as to the long lapse between releases by the group on the part of Atlantic records. One possibility is the time and effort given to the two top level groups on the label-The Drifters and The Clovers, and the uncertainty of Ernie Warren's availability due to his military obligation. Neither "Blanket" or its flip side, "Please Baby" did anything much to enhance the fortunes of the quintet. Ernie Warren returned to the Cardinals full time in the spring which gave them a lift. However it was to be another eight months until the Cards entered the recording studio once again.

After the holidays of 1954, the Cardinals finally got some time in the recording studio once again. It had been a long time between sessions and the group got to work with a sense of urgency and pride at not letting the scene develop without the sound they had so carefully put together. In early February Atlantic released the first side from that session (their first in two years) - "The Door Is Still Open" a lovely ballad written by singer-writer Chuck Willis, and the flip was "Misirlou". The ballad A side quickly established itself as a huge hit and was getting widespread airplay. The huge success of this record was very instrumental in the renewed interest in the group and the great public acceptance of the Cardinals at their headlining appearance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in early May. The tune "Door" maintained its hit status throughout the summer and produced a pop hit cover by The Hilltoppers for Dot. The strength of this tremendous best seller put the Cardinals in the position as one of the most traveled R & B acts during the year of 1955.

Late summer of that year bought forth the next Atlantic release, a unique cover of the Wrens "Come Back My Love" which was paired with "The Two Things I Love". The Cardinals were a featured act as part of Alan Freed's Labor Day Review at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. Sharing the bill were the Harptones, Nutmegs, Nappy Brown, and Chuck Berry. It was the largest grossing in person show up to that time. Near the end of the year Atlantic issued another Cardinals side "Here Goes My Heart To You" b/w "Lovely Girl". Despite the group's wide touring successes and recent hit recordings, these two sides did very little to dent the sales charts. The label waited until the spring of 1956 before releasing the next pairing by the group. The A-side was the ballad "Offshore" a lovely tune that had been a pop hit instrumental recently by Leo Diamond. The flip side of this Atlantic recording was "Choo Choo". The ballad side was one of the best efforts by the group, and seemed tailor made for their style. However once again, sales were disappointing and doubts about the ability of the quintet to maintain their staying power in the wake of the sudden popularity of teenage vocal groups were being voiced.

"The End of the Story" b/w "I Won't Make You Cry" was the subsequent pairing by Atlantic that was issued in August of the year. Sales were minimal and the scene was not much better for many of the veteran R & B groups at this time. The A side was to be "Cry" but it seemed to fade without a trace and got very little airplay now that the young groups in the wake of Lymon & The Teenagers, and rock-a-billies in the wake of Elvis ruled the airwaves. The group finally decided that they had run their course and the time had arrived to end the association. They had been together intact as a unit for a decade, and the changing face (and age) of the R & B field that they had known was very different from the one in which they began. The partnership was dissolved as the year ended, and within a few days Atlantic released the final side by the Cardinals for that label. The last record was "One Love" b/w "Near You" on #1126, and sadly to say this release also met the fate of those released since "Come Back My Love", which is to say it quietly disappeared without a trace. In the ensuing months and years there were sporadic attempts to re-ignite the group and its popularity, but these efforts were for the most part unsuccessful. But there are always the memories.

As one of the pioneering "bird groups" of the late forties, the Cardinals certainly blazed a trail that many followed. Not as revered or as productive as their Baltimore brothers the Orioles, they did however give many great memories to the fans of this music. They are fondly remembered today by the many fans and collectors of vocal group music of the 40s and 50s, and a definitive collection of their recordings is most certainly a must-have as a sound of the time in R & B history.

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