Asbury Park Armory: A Key Figure in the Early Years of Rhythm & Blues

The former Asbury Park National Guard Armory, now the VFW post at Lake & Bond, dates back to 1915, and once housed troops heading to World Wars I and II. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, however, it played another historic role. The large hall inside provided space for huge dances, featuring some of the country’s leading African American music entertainers (at the time, Asbury Park was a segregated city). 

Orioles at the Asbury Park Armory, 1948
The Orioles at the Asbury Park Armory, 1948 | Photo Credit: Joseph A. Carter

There was no stage in the Armory then, only a large, wooden dance floor with an overlooking balcony on the second floor. Billy Eckstine played here in 1944 with young Dizzy Gillespie in his band. Trade magazines reported that bandleader Jimmie Lunceford packed in 1,844 fans in September 1946, though this could have been an exaggeration. 

In July, 1948, a vocal group from Baltimore, Sonny Til & the Orioles, changed the face of American pop music with their vocalization of Deborah Chessler’s song, “It’s Too Soon to Know”. The song is regarded as the first rhythm & blues vocal group record, and the Orioles were labeled as the first true R&B vocal group. The song was an overnight sensation, reaching #1 on the Race Music Charts and #14 on the Popular Charts. Within a year, hundreds (if not thousands) of vocal groups sprang up on the urban street corners of America, imitating the group’s performances, leading Billboard Magazine to change the name of race music to rhythm and blues. 

In the fall of 1948, the Orioles played in the Asbury Park Armory as part of an East Coast tour and pulled a couple dozen one-nighters. African American teenagers filled the hall to capacity. We’ve been told that teens pulled their friends up through the second floor restroom windows to see the shows, though with the current configuration of the building we can’t imagine how that was possible. 

Sonny Til & the Orioles played at the Asbury Park Armory at least three times that we know of. At one such appearance in July, 1950, Jerry Blaine, owner of the group’s record label Jubilee Records, presented the Orioles with the keys to a brand new Cadillac. 

One of the youngsters who caught the Orioles every time they played was Bobby Thomas. He idolized the group, and wanted to sing just like Sonny Til himself. Bobby went on to form Asbury Park’s first recording R&B vocal group, the Vibranaires. He would get to meet the Orioles when they came to the Armory in 1950. In 1966, Sonny Til asked Bobby Thomas & the Vibranaires to become his new Orioles group and play the Apollo Theatre. Bobby would sing with Sonny Til & the Orioles until 1975. After Sonny Til’s death in 1981, Bobby Thomas formed his own Orioles, a group that later included original Orioles bass singer and player, Johnny Reed. 

Of course, the Orioles were just the first of many R&B groups to play the Armory. Pioneer groups like the Ravens and the Vocaleers, as well as R&B bands like Freddy Mitchell’s Orchestra followed. Over the years, R&B vocal group music evolved into doo wop, soul, disco, and then hip hop harmony. 

Sonny Til and the original Orioles, along with Bobby Thomas, have now passed on. Recently, Sonny Til’s grandson, De’Sean Dooley, played the part of his grandfather in the musical about the Orioles, titled “Soul Harmony”. The musical originally ran in Portland, Oregon. Recently, De’Sean sang Orioles songs backed by the a cappella group Quiet Storm at the Doo Wop Explosion concert at Monmouth University in February 2016. Quiet Storm was Bobby Thomas’ last Orioles group. 

Contributed by Charlie Horner, Classic Urban Harmony.