Articles

FOUR LADS ON A LITTLE WHITE CLOUD

This quartet of Toronto choirboys say a prayer each night before they prance out into the spotlight of a big-time career keynoted by the delighted shrieks of thousands of fans no older than themselves

ERIC HUTTON May 15 1952
Articles

FOUR LADS ON A LITTLE WHITE CLOUD

This quartet of Toronto choirboys say a prayer each night before they prance out into the spotlight of a big-time career keynoted by the delighted shrieks of thousands of fans no older than themselves

ERIC HUTTON May 15 1952

FOUR LADS ON A LITTLE WHITE CLOUD

Articles

This quartet of Toronto choirboys say a prayer each night before they prance out into the spotlight of a big-time career keynoted by the delighted shrieks of thousands of fans no older than themselves

ERIC HUTTON

AT TEN past ten every night, when most good choirboys say their prayers and go to bed, Connie Codarini, Bernie Toorish, Jimmy Arnold and Frank Busseri say their prayers—and go to work.

This consists of trotting onto a night-club stage under the name of the Four Lads, a quartet esteemed just this side of adulation by, seemingly, all North American teen-agers and a sizeable percentage of adult devotees of hot singing.

“When you pray backstage in a night club you’re going to take a kidding from some of those characters,” said Codarini. “But I don’t think we could sing otherwise. Monsignor Ronan made it part of our natures to pray before singing.”

To that extent, and to the extent of their deep gratitude for hard-learned lessons in harmony, counterpoint and solfeggio gained at that unique, exacting academy of music known as St. Michael’s Cathedral Choir School, the Four Lads are still Toronto choirboys. But in other respects they have come a long way. A long way, for example, from that night not so long ago when they touched the first pinnacle of their professional career: “twenty bucks —all in cash” for singing at a dance in a Toronto community hall.

Today their names are on half a dozen records

playing follow-the-leader on juke boxes and discjockey hit parades across the continent. They have survived the heady experience of being besieged in a theatre for three days running by overwrought bobbysoxers (“We nearly starved to death until we hit on the idea of tossing autographed photos out a window so that one of us could sneak out for coffee and sandwiches during the scramble”). Their personal-appearance bookings stretch into what amounts to perpetuity in show business. They are part of a package under General Artists Corporation management, with Johnnie Ray, the tearful tenor, and Billy May’s orchestra, which has been booked for months ahead into theatres from Montreal and Toronto to Atlantic City, Baltimore and way points like New York. The price of this package is a road-record twelve thousand dollars a week plus five to ten percent of gross admissions. The Four Lads’ share of this bonanza is a business secret, but in their own words, “We’re still wondering what hit us.”

Whatever it was that hit them, I am able to report that it seems to have done them no injury. Recently the Four Lads were appearing in Cleveland and I drove down to see them. Their tracks were clearly visible all the way from Toronto. At every coffee pause through Ontario, New York State, Pennsylvania and Ohio they were available at the drop of a nickel in the slot with one or both of their recordings issued to date, Turn Back and Tired of Loving You. In addition they played supporting choral roles in four ever-present works by Johnnie Ray: Cry, Little White Cloud That Cried, Brokenhearted and Please Mister Sun.

In an Erie, Pa., soda shoppe I asked the counterman if the Four Lads were popular with his customers. He paled and glanced at the clock. “Wait,” he groaned, “wait only half an hour until school’s out and those mushy kids pile in here.”

It turned out to be easier to hear the Four Lads than to talk to them. The St. Regis Hotel switchboard operator admitted cautiously that they were in their suite but added that they weren’t accepting calls. “And you couldn’t talk to them now anyway,” she added triumphantly. “Every Tuesday night they talk to their parents in Toronto right up to the time they leave for the club. They’re on long distance now.”

During the hour or so in which the boys visited their parents via telephone, their records turned up twice on disc-jockey shows over my hotel radio. One program played Turn Back after introducing the singers as “the Canadian foursome who are

going places in a big way.”

All in all, the Four Lads had received quite a build-up before I first saw them at Main Street, a Cleveland night club. Main Street is part of what appears to be a new trend in the United States entertainment world—the “platter circuit.” Its dim lighting, cover charge, upper-medium prices, oval bar, check tablecloths and small stage are all conventional enough. But for entertainment Main Street books only recording artists, two or three men, women or groups whose voices are currently heard on popular records.

This policy means that the performer brings along a certain built-in fame which attracts customers. On his part the artist can plug his records to receptive listeners who are presumed to patronize night clubs one night a week and spend their other evenings at home playing records. This neat arrangement, unfortunately, does not cover teenagers, who do not attend night clubs but who are estimated to buy, or influence the buying of, seventy-five percent of all popular records sold. To reach this lush juvenile market smart recorders like the Four Lads take other measures.

The first two acts were enthusiastically enough received, but it was plain that the customers were waiting for the stars the Four Lads. Applause drowned out even their introduction by the master of ceremonies, swelled higher as the Toronto boys trotted onstage.

The most striking thing about the Four Lads to an observer is not so much their extreme youth —they are the youngest quartet (average age: twenty) currently operating in the big time; not their obvious competence with a song, their rapidly

acquired smoothness onstage, or even their jaunty plaid mess jackets which have become their trademark. It is the complete “difference” of their personal appearances. In this day when the quartet has become one of the most prevalent units in entertainment, the audience has come to think of quartets as four well-groomed young men who might easily be quadruplets. In everything but their harmonizing the Four Lads are distinct individuals.

Frank Busseri, nineteen, baritone, who usually leads the quartet into a song, is stocky, with a Joe E. Brown mouth, small eyes that glint with fun and short expressive arms which serve as double conductor’s batons.

Bernie Toorish, twenty-one, lead tenor, is the “Joe College” of the quartet on the stage and privately the only one who worries. “But that’s because he’s our composer and arranger,” the others say, “and his moods don’t last long.”

Toorish is a tall Irish boy with dark-blond curly hair.

Codarini, twenty-two, with Latin good looks, is the bass and the announcer, likewise the spokesman who handles ringside repartee from the customers who may be feeling their oats toward the end of the evening. Connie says, “When the customers heckle us it shows they know we’re there, anyway.”

Jimmy Arnold, twenty, is described by his former choir instructor, Monsignor J. E. Ronan, as “one of the finest high tenors I have ever heard.” Jimmy is lath slim, quiet and utterly relaxed.

After their performance—the orchestra had to drown out the sixth encore to prevent the first show running into the second — the lads recovered their breath, drank coffee (“We don’t drink anything stronger, and we watch our smoking,’’) and talked.

“What we’ve

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mainly had,” said Codarini, “is breaks, and perhaps our biggest, break was getting into St. Michael’s Cathedral Choir School.” Monsignor J. E. Ronan, head of the school, later told me that the choir school, with an enrollment of over one hundred and fifty selected boys, teaches all school subjects up to grade ten, plus a dozen musical subjects. At least fourteen Roman Catholic churches in the Toronto area have St . Michael’s graduates as choir directors or organists, but the Four Lads are the first graduates to move into big-time commercial music.

“They’re good boys who got there by talent and energy,” said Fr. Ronan. “Their repertoire is not, perhaps, what we would have chosen, but they’re good boys, we wish them well, and everybody in the school takes a keen interest in their career.”

“Breaks,” continued Connie, “have come our way even in the shape of disappointments. Like the time the Barclay Hotel in Toronto auditioned us and booked us for two weeks at three hundred and fifty dollars a week. Think of it—seven hundred bucks! We quit our jobs, bought new clothes and spent the rest of our savings on recordings and photos for publicity. Just to he safe, a friend checked with the Liquor Control Board to make sure hoys under twenty-one could appear in dining lounges. The answer was yes, in places where food was also served, but not in cocktail bars. We were all set. Then, the day we were to open, an inspector told the hotel management it was illegal to hire us.

“We were sick with disappointment, ready to give up the whole idea of singing professionally. What’s more,

we were broke and in debt. But looking back now, if we had been allowed to sing in the hotel, we might still be singing around Toronto for three hundred and fifty a week. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s even less wrong with what we’re doing now.”

The Lads got a break even out of the disappointment. Elwood Glover, then master of ceremonies of Canadian Cavalcade, heard their audition at the hotel and booked them on that coastto-coast radio program.

“Anyway,” said Frank Busseri with a grin, “quitting my job got me out of the fruit business. And I don’t think I had any future there.”

The other lads roared at the recollection. Frank had a job as helper in the fruit department of the A and P at Queen Street and Ossington Avenue. One day the manager sent him to the fruit storeroom with instructions to “remove the wrappings from ten dozen oranges and bring them up.” An hour later Frank hadn’t shown up and the manager investigated. Frank was hunched over, yellow with orangepeel oil, surrounded by orange skin, plying a penknife on the last of the ten dozen oranges. To the manager’s angry yelp Frank replied reasonably: “Why didn’t you say you meant the paper wrappings?”

The formula of success followed by the Four Lads is fairly simple in an incredible sort of way. It is compounded of all possible breaks, the best possible teaching, the determination to work at singing with Stakhanovite singleness of purpose and unusual natural musical equipment. In the case of the Four Lads this long-shot equipment consists of perfect pitch. The possession of this musical attribute, which may be described in reverse as inability to sound a sour note, is rare

enough in an individual singer to rate mention. Program notes about the Canadian singer Gisele, for example, always point out that she has perfect pitch. But to find four boys brought together by chance, and all gifted with the ability to sound any note in their range by ear, is remarkable. And it gives them a tremendous advantage over other singing groups who must endlessly rehearse themselves into harmony with each other.

This is one reason why the Four Lads were able to devote most of their virtually continuous preparation for a career to the fine points. This preparation is paying off now, but while it lasted some of their parents were beginning to wonder if parenthood was really worth it.

“1 have proof,” says Mrs. Toorish, whose husband is a CNR yard con ductor at Leaside, Ont., near Toronto. ‘‘In the recreation room there are still piles of records literally worn white.

Not just from being played, but from having the needle tom from the groove when the boys suddenly wondered, ‘now just what was the significance of that rest . . . what did she mean to put over by that phrasing?’ They simply tore hundreds of records apart to find out what made them tick. Well,” she added with a prideful smile. “1 guess they found out.”

The boys finally gravitated to the Busseri home at 71 Roxton Road for their every - evening - and - all - Sunday sessions. Partly because it was central but largely because Frank Busseri Sr. has been an orchestra leader and teacher for thirty years, and thus nonstop music was an accustomed feature of the household.

One of the unforgettable experiences of the Four Lads came as the result of an invitation to sing over a Buffalo radio station. They gave a program of Negro spirituals and before it was over a Buffalo Negro pastor telephoned, asking to speak to ‘‘one of those fine Negro singers.”

He was unwilling to believe that the spirituals had been sung by Canadian hoys of Italian, Irish and English origin. But, having been convinced, he completed his mission: an invitation

to sing in his church the following Sunday. The boys accepted, but with a good deal of embarrassment added that they could not afford the bus fare. Courteously the old pastor assured them that transportation would be provided. Next Sunday a member of the congregation drove to Toronto before dawn, picked up the boys at their far-separated homes and had them at the church in time for the morning service.

‘‘It really was something,” recalls Toorish with awe. ‘‘We had been accustomed to sing in the magnificence of St. Michael’s Cathedral, where a

deep silence follows the last chord of a hymn. But when we finished our j first spiritual in that Little Negro church j we were taken completely by surprise, j The congregation, led by the minister, applauded! Yet somehow it seemed quite natural. I don’t think our singing ever received more sincere appreciation anywhere.”

A few weeks after that engagement the Four Lads carried out, a routine manoeuvre. The Golden Gate Quartet was in town and, as usual, when any top aggregation was accessible, the Lads paid a courtesy call to talk music.

Orlando (Pop) Wilson, road manager of the famed spiritual-singing Golden Gates, later described what was to be j a historic meeting for the Lads: “Every place the Gates show, it happens ten j or twenty times, kids coming around to get ideas and say hello. But these j Toronto hoys certainly knew a lot of ! musical words. Finally I got to wondering whetlier they had anything to back up all that technical talk and I asked them to sing.”

“What Will We Call Them?”

Ten minutes later Wilson, who is also the hass singer of the Golden Gate Quartet, was on the telephone to Michael Stewart, tfie group’s manager. “Well, if you feel that way about it, Pops,” said Stewart, “tell them to come to New York and I’ll take them on for a month’s trial.”

This, the Lads decided gleefully, was ! it. Fortunately, they had some real j sharp clothes as a legacy of the Barclay I fiasco. Money? Well, they’d just have I to scrape together enough somehow.

I They did, just. They landed in New ; York with two dollars and twenty-one ! cents between them. “Enough for a j light breakfast,” recalls Jimmy laconií cally, “and not quite enough for the tip. If Mr. Stewart had soured on us at first sight, we would really have t>een in the soup. Soup line, that is.”

“They needn’t have worried,” Stewart said later. “It was love at first sight.”

Stewart took them on a tour of Manhattan’s night spots to give them the feel of it. “Might as well start at the top,” he said, and led them into Le Ruban Bleu. There the boys were in for their first shock. Julius Monk, j host and master of ceremonies of this café-society rendezvous, wore conserj vative linglish-cut evening clothes—• “no midnight purple, no nipped-in I waist, no contrasting lapels.” Monk and his cluh, the boys admit, “left j us feeling like country cousins. We weren’t exactly zoot-suiters, but it was a shock to find that what we thought was pretty sharp was strictly from the i sticks.”

It was some consolation when Monk ! asked them to sing one song, and to j have the mink-and-diamond customers I forgive their sartorial gaucherie and hold them for eight encores. The Lads ; were signed on the spot to an indefinite contract tLiat was to run thirty weeks.

But the make - over process conI tinued. In Canada the boys had called themselves the Four Dukes, hut a Detroit quartet owned that name in the United States, and they had to find a new tag. They came up with the Dukes of Rhythm or, as an alternative, the Whirlwinds. Stewart brushed them both aside.

“What will we call the four lads?” Stewart asked Monk.

“Why not the Four Lads?” said Monk.

“How corny can guys get?” the boys privately muttered.

They were to repeat the question several times in the next few days — when Stewart vetoed the white gabardine uniforms the boys Liad in mind

and outfitted them with plaid mess jackets; when Stewart broached the subject of shorter haircuts; when he and Monk tampered with their beloved repertoire of spirituals and jump tunes to add Canadian songs like Alouette and the Canadian Boat Song.

“Then we smartened up,” says Connie, “enough to realize that we were dealing with two of the smartest men in show business.”

What are the Four Lads doing with the undreamed sums of money they are now earning?

Under Stewart’s management the boys are paid a salary which amounts to generous pocket money. The rest, after expenses and commissions, is socked away in conservative investments. The boys themselves are stockholders in the duly registered Four Lads Corporation, of which their manager is also a director. “We even hold annual meetings,” said Bernie, “but so far the senior director has prevented us voting ourselves a raise.”

Bernie Toorish is, as a matter of fact, the biggest shareholder. He gets a small percentage cut of the others’ earnings because he is the group’s arranger. In addition, as Daz Jordan, he is a semi-independent composer. Toorish, alias Jordan, wrote Turn Back and receives composer’s royalties.

If money isn’t being allowed to turn the Lads’ heads, there remain, of course, the hazards of fame. The thought of four boys, all a few months this or the other side of twenty-one, on their own in strange cities and in an atmosphere of night clubs and feminine adu lation, is enough to make mothers go grey. But the Lads’ mothers don’t worry.

“They never gave us any trouble

when they were at home,” said Mrs. Busseri. “They were too busy working for what they wanted. And they’re busier than ever now, so they have even less time for mischief. And don’t forget they’re genuinely religious boys.” Connie enlarged on the subject. “Any time we might have for hitting the high spots, we’re hitting the hay. We thought we worked hard in Toronto, but we didn’t know what hard work was. Believe me, it’s only because we’re young and healthy that we can I keep up the pace.

“Our three shows take from ten o’clock at night until two - thirty ; next morning but that’s only part of it. Any typical day we have discjockey guest appearances, autographing parties, gatherings it’s good publicity policy to attend, press interviews, and schools—always the schools.” During their two-week stay in Cleveland the Lads gave seven school shows. I saw one of them and it was a remarkable business. The school principal had accepted the Lads’ offer to sing for an hour to the assembled pupils in the auditorium. Two hours later the howling youngsters hadn’t had enough-—and neither had the Four Lads. Finally the reluctant principal, to avoid washing out the afternoon’s classes entirely, rang down the fire curtain.

Some Hero Worship Still

“We’d be glad to sing in any school, even if we’d never made a record,” said Jimmy Arnold, “but we don’t kid ourselves about the value of it to us. It’s the kids who make or break a popular record.”

“In Toronto,” said Connie with a trace of bitterness, “we offered to do school shows. We never even got a reply from the authorities.”

The Lads had to leave Toronto to find fame and fortune, but actually ! they have not “gone American.” They consider Toronto their No. 1 fan town. Fan clubs in the Toronto area, organized by Mrs. Helen Burbidge, a kindly sympathetic housewife who befriended and encouraged the Lads in their early days, now number more than seven thousand active members.

But Toronto grownups sometimes irk the Lads. “Some of our friends approached the manager of a departmentstore record department and suggested an autographing party,” the Lads recalled. “He asked how many records we had in our background, and when he heard we had made only one record, two sides, he shook his head: ‘Impossible,’ he said. ‘Some very distinguished artists have had autograph parties and nobody showed up. Very embarrassing for the artist and for the store.’ Fortunately an advertising department man put on the pressure and we had our party. Three thousand kids showed up, and the store had to call six cops to handle the traffic.” Nowadays the Lads have little time for sports. Most of their exercise comes in their exits and entrances. Sometimes these are a trifle too energetic such as the time at the Normandie Roof in Montreal when the foursome collided with two waiters and went down under a welter of filet mignon and asparagus.

The Lads still keep up their church singing whenever possible, and have appeared on Sundays with church ! choirs in cities where they vocalized j in hot-spots during the week. Even : when they haven’t time for volunteer

choir work they never miss a Sunday at Mass.

There is still, too, a good deal of juvenile hero worship in their mingling j with world-known singers. They still ' describe meeting Perry Como and

appearing with him on a television program as “the biggest thrill yet.” Second biggest thrill was a note they received from Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra had just recorded American Beauty Rose, and the boys heard it, liked it, and borrowed it. The first night they sang it they spotted Sinatra at a table in the Ruban Bleu. “We shook in our shoes,” they admit. “There we were, singing a Sinatra hit in the hearing of the great man himself.”

But backstage a few minutes later they received this note: “The nicest,

freshest thing I’ve heard in a long time.”

Ray Needed Something

On the road, each is assigned a special responsibility. Codarini is spokesman, road manager, paymaster, health and diet inspector. “The hours we keep,” he said, “make it too easy to get screwy diet habits. I make sure the boys eat right, and thank goodness none of us have had a day’s sickness yet—except me. One morning I woke up with a terrible pain in the stomach. They called in a doctor and he diagnosed appendicitis. I flew to Toronto, went in to St. Michael’s Hospital, had my appendix yanked, rested up two days and flew back to New York for our date on a television show, still with the stitches in.”

Frank is the master valet who makes sure that all the boys’ clothes are cleaned, pressed and packed for travel. Toorish concentrates on arranging. In addition to arranging all the numbers in the Lads’ repertoire, he makes the arrangements for their accompanists, and for Johnnie Ray and their newest recording partner, pretty Dolores Hawkins. The Lads have just recorded two numbers with Dolores, Rocks in My Bed and an unusual combination of spiritual and torch song titled Heavenly Father. Johnnie Ray, who was just emerging into his strange form of popularity when the Lads first went to New York, needed something new for choral background, and his manager grabbed the Four Lads, thereby starting a profitable partnership. Ray had been around for several years and was doubtful of entrusting his songs to a twenty-year-old arranger. “But we threw so many St. Michael’s Cathedral Choir School musical technical terms at him,” recall the hoys with delight, “that he backed right down.” Jimmy Arnold is in charge of sheet music.

No Wives on the Road

What of the Four Lads’ future? “There’s only one thing we’re sure of,” says Connie, the spokesman, “and that is that there must be four of us if we’re to have a future. We’ve figured out that individually we have just one chance in a million of success. Together we’ve already gone farther than we ever hoped. So, in addition to being legally , a company, we’re a company in every other way. There’s no such thing as individual pictures of the Four Lads. Our autograph is ‘the Four Lads’, not ‘Connie, Jimmy, Bernie and Frank.’ We don’t even go on single dates—that is, when we have time for dates.

“Marriage? Not much time for that as far ahead as we can see. Only Jimmy has a steady girl, even. Back in Toronto. The way we travel around we can’t expect the girls we used to go with to wait for us. But, in case any of us marry, we have a private understanding: No wives on the road to break up the Four Lads. We have too far to travel yet.” if