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The Cardinals, early balladeers that few remember, recorded 12 singles for Atlantic Records (their only label) between 1951 and 1957. They debuted with "Shouldn't I Know," a willowy ballad featuring a prominent lead guitar, tight harmonies, and a deep bass; lead Ernie Warren impressed listeners at the fade by holding a long note in breathtaking fashion. One of the bird groups, the Cardinals formed in their hometown, Baltimore, MD, in 1946, a year before a more famous bird group from Baltimore, the Orioles. Originally they were the Mellotones. The lineup was Warren, Donald Johnson, Meredith Brothers, Leon Hardy, and guitarist Sam Aydelotte, who also sang. They did the Baltimore bar scene for years, imitating all the ballad and modern harmony groups including the Ink Spots. A recording opportunity came in 1951 when a representative from Atlantic Records inked them after a talent search audition.
Atlantic renamed them the Cardinals to avoid confusion with another Mellotones group that recorded for Columbia Records. The first single "Shouldn't I Know" (1951) mimicked the Orioles' sound; it rode into the R&B Top Ten and took the fellows on tours at big-city venues with other star R&B artists. A second single "I'll Always Love You," a 1951 release, didn't do as well but wasn't a total flop either. They followed with "Wheel of Fortune," a song from their first recording session. It wasn't a scheduled release; Atlantic took advantage of four pop releases of "Wheel..." at the same time by Sunny Gale, Bobby Wayne, Kay Starr, and the Bell Sisters; all cracked the pop Top Ten except Gale's which nailed down the number 13 spot. The Cardinals competed with Dinah Washington for R&B honors and managed a number six R&B showing. Uncle Sam drafted Warren who was replaced by Leander Tarver for the fourth single "The Bump" b/w "She Rocks." James Brown (not "Mr. Please, Please") replaced Tarver who left for unknown reasons; Warren, on a leave, participated in the next session which included six Cardinals. The septet recorded "You Are My Only Love" (1953) and "Under a Blanket of Blue" (1954); both flopped, Atlantic lost interest in recording and promoting the group; that interest didn't return until Warren's service duty ended and he rejoined full-time early in 1954. A new recording session resulted in the Chuck Willis-penned "The Door Is Still Open to My Heart" (1955); the slow ballad with the grumbling bass and smooth harmonies, punctuated by a sax break, became their biggest record. The lineup was now Warren, Johnny Douglas, Brothers, Hardy, and Johnson.
The gigs picked up and the Cardinals toured extensively on shows sponsored by Alan Freed, Buddy Johnson, and others. They appeared with the Ravens, the Moonglows, the Nutmegs, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington and other stars. They hit the Midwest many times. In Cleveland, OH, they played the Circle Theater two or three times, and once did a show at the Uptown in bright orange suits, sharing the bill with Luther Bond & the Emeralds, Arthur Prysock, Tiny Grimes, and others. Atlantic issued six more singles that didn't do well, though a couple are considered classics. The interest in the Cardinals' singing style was waning. About the time Atlantic dropped the final Cardinals single "One Love" (1957), the group had splintered. Warren formed another group before reuniting the originals with different members. The new guys hung in until the early '60s before breaking up for good. Atlantic thought a lot of the group — they recorded 36 sides, though only 24 were released via 12 singles. The 36 singles have not been released as an album.