Earlington Tilghman created one of the most influential vocal groups of all time when he formed the Vibranairs in Baltimore after World War II. Tilghman was better known as Sonny Til, a charismatic tenor who loved rich arrangements and had a knack for picking (and writing) great material.
“I never thought I would be this old,” Diz Russell said.
Sitting on the worn black leather couch in his sunlit Capitol Heights, Md., living room, the 81-year-old singer was surrounded by reminders of a long, busy life . Framed photographs, record covers and concert posters hung below a red sign proclaiming “THE LEGENDARY ORIOLES.” There was a black-and-white portrait of the band members from the 1950s, with a fresh-faced Diz in the middle. Here was a photo of Diz sitting on a committee for longtime mayor Marion Barry — “my buddy,” he said.
But mostly he nodded and smiled behind tinted glasses as his wife of 59 years, Millie Russell, explained the mementos on their wall. The nostalgia-heavy decor of Millie’s careful selection is largely lost on Diz, who became blind from a cataract at age 55.
Since then, Millie, 75, has been watchful. When Diz shuffled out of the room and came back with white foam around his lips, she furrowed her brow. “You didn’t do too good of a job shaving,” she said, getting up to wipe the cream from his chin.
They met backstage at the Howard Theatre, when Millie was 13 and Diz was 19. Millie was in the crowd for a show with Jackie Wilson, and she spotted a jeans-clad fellow on her way out. He told her that he was a singer.
“You don’t look like a singer to me,” she retorted.
Diz responded with a chuckle, “Honey, you better believe it.”
They married four years later, shortly after Diz joined the Orioles, the band widely recognized as the first R&B vocal group and credited with popularizing the musical style in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Although the version of the group that Diz sang with was considered its second generation — after frontman Sonny Til broke away from the original Orioles and started a new combo, tacking on the “Legendary” to distinguish them from the baseball team — he still recalls the band being in hot demand wherever it went, selling out shows in Texas, Michigan and at their home base in Baltimore…
For 34 years, Millie has been Diz’s band manager. For 26, she’s been his eyes. More recently, she’s become his memory.
The diagnosis of early-onset dementia came almost a year ago, although there were signs before then. Sometimes the name of a close friend would draw a blank, or Diz would claim to have misplaced a piece of clothing that he never owned. As bandmates brought their equipment inside for their weekly Friday rehearsals, Diz still held a shaving razor in his left hand as if he’d forgotten to put it down.
When Diz rambles about his past, Millie tends to roll her eyes and swat the air, as if his distorted memories were swarming like flies. But when she vocalizes her disagreement with his version of history, he’s quick to contest.
“I know this,” he said through gritted teeth. “I lived this.”
But Millie doesn’t trust those stories anymore. She winced recalling Diz stumbling on the lyrics to “Baby Please Don’t Go” — one of the group’s greatest hits — while performing at Echostage last November. He skipped the second verse entirely and went straight to the last.
The band kept playing as if it was business as usual, and likely no one in the audience noticed, but for Millie the incident was searing.
“I won’t let him embarrass himself like that,” she said. The band’s 68th-anniversary celebration at Mr. Henry’s restaurant on Capitol Hill was to be Diz’s last major performance before going into “semi-retirement,” a dignified term for a plan to suspend all but the occasional cameo.
After so many decades as her husband’s right hand, Millie admitted that she was also ready for a slower pace. A sense of injustice dogs her view of their relationship.
“You think if it was the woman who needed so much help, the husband would stay?” she said.
“She’s steadfast,” Diz nodded.
“A man is weak,” Millie said. “And I’m tired.”
But the band will stay in Russell hands. After Millie retires as manager, their 52-year-old son, Christopher, will take up the mantle….Read the Rest Here…
A very early hit by the group in 1948 –