Remembered : The Four Vagabonds©2004JCMarion


The Four Vagabonds were formed during the early nineteen thirties in St. Louis, Missouri. They like all other Black vocal groups of the day were heavily influenced by The Mills Brothers and their vocal style. After a period of being together for some years the Vagabonds began to develop their own brand of vocal personality which still based on the model of The Mills, was enough of a departure to become their own trademark sound. The members of the group were John Jordan (Lead singer), Norval Tuborn (Baritone), Robert O'Neal (Tenor), and Roy Grant (bass - who also played guitar accompaniment). Most important to the development of the quartet into top song stylists was the medium of radio. They began by getting a spot on college radio located at the University of St. Louis. Soon after, the foursome were awarded a Sunday evening radio program on station WIL which in turn led to an opportunity on network radio at KSD by replacing none other than their heroes The Mills Brothers.

The network slot was heard by a pioneering Black radio entrepreneur named Joseph R. Jones who signed the group to a personal services contract and soon presented them to Chicago stations where they were seen as a replacement for another transitional vocal group called "Three Sharps & A Flat". They were soon signed as part of the musical talent to the highly popular program "The Breakfast Club" hosted by Don McNeil. During the late thirties the Vagabonds were also part of the cast on an early effort by Gary Moore called "Club Matinee" on weekday afternoons. Into the late nineteen forties the group made many appearances on network radio including"Amos & Andy", "Tin Pan Alley Of The Air", The Curt Massey Show, "The Chesterfield Supper Club" which starred Perry Como, and "The Nat King Cole Show". During these years the group was signed to a recording contract by RCA Victor and issued records by The Four Vagabonds on its subsidiary label Bluebird. A typical appearance for the group during this time was their performance on "The Breakfast Club" radio program at the end of 1941 where they sang the songs "I've Got Swing For Sale" and the ballad "I'd Love You Again" with Bill Krenz and the orchestra.

Most of the sides released by Bluebird were classic wartime tunes such as "Rosie The Riveter" on # 200810, "Ten Little Soldiers" / "Rose Ann of Charring Cross" on # 300811, "Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer" on # 300815, and "A G.I. Wish" on RCA Victor # 1677. In 1945 group member Roy Grant lost his eyesight, but the group worked around this by practicing their entrance and exit routines so that their personal appearances went off with their audience none the wiser. By 1946, The Four Vagabonds were let go by Bluebird (RCA Victor) and had a short stay at Mercury Records who released "When The Old Gang's Back On The Corner" / "I'm Taking My Chance With You" on # 2050 in early 1946. That same year "I Can't Make Up My Mind" was recorded for the Atlas label. From early 1946 until two years later The Four Vagabonds made a series of records for the Apollo label based in New York. None of these were big sellers but all showed the classic harmony and vocal style of the group. "Kentucky Babe" on Apollo # 1030 was the first. Following that effort was "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans" and "The Pleasure's All Mine" on # 1039. "Dreams Are A Dime A Dozen" and the perennial pop tune "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" were released on # 1055. During this time in the late nineteen forties, The Four Vagabonds continued to do many club appearances mainly in the Northeast where they maintained a respectable fan base.

"P.S. I Love You" was recorded for Apollo # 1057 in mid 1947, and this was followed by "Ask Anyone Who Knows" and "Oh My Aching Heart" on # 1060. "Choo Choo" and "The Lazy Country Side" on # 1075 led to the last record for Apollo by the group released at the end of the year with the tunes "That Old Gang Of Mine" and "Heart Of My Heart" on # 1076. The Four Vagabonds called it quits then and were not heard on record again until 1949 when they regrouped as Grant's sight returned and subsequently had one release for Chicago based Miracle Records with "My Heart Cries" and "It's So Hard To Go Through Life Alone" on # 141. On April 1, 1949, Ray Grant was master of ceremonies on a historic television show that appeared on WENR in Chicago. Called "Happy Pappy", it was the very first variety show to feature an all Black cast and starred The Four Vagabonds and the Modern Modes, an instrumental combo. After the demise of the television show, Grant left the group and was replaced by Bill Sanford. A year later the group was signed to network radio's "Johnny Desmond Goes To College" for ABC. By now Sanford had left and was replaced by Frank Houston. The Desmond program starred the ballad crooner and featured The Four Vagabonds and also Doris Drew, The George Barnes Octet, and the orchestra of Rex Maupin.

In October of 1950 King Records of Cincinnati bought all existing masters from Miracle Records including some unreleased tunes by the Four Vagabonds such as "I'm Sorry That We Said Goodbye" and "When Will I See You Again", but King never did anything with these recordings by the group. Soon after the end of the Johnny Desmond radio program the quartet called it quits and a twenty year association was over. There was one more record release by the group in 1953. Due to the huge popularity of The Hilltoppers version of "P.S. I Love You" for Dot Records, the version of the tune by the Four Vagabonds was brought back by Apollo and re-released on their Lloyd's subsidiary. The song was coupled with another former Apollo side "Lazy Country Side" and issued on Lloyd's # 102 in the summer of 1953.

The Four Vagabonds were a true transition group - a Black vocal group that was mainly pop sounding in their approach, but on the edge of the coming Rhythm & Blues Revolution. One note - this vocal group should not be confused with another group called The Vagabonds that was around in the late forties-early fifties and gained fame on early television with Arthur Godfrey. This group was of the music and zany comedy variety and had no connection to the quartet of interest in this article.

Once again CD technology has come to the rescue in the form of rare music preservation. There is the Relic Records CD called "Yesterday's Memories" with 14 cuts of Apollo material from the late forties. But the real treasure trove is a three CD set from Document (# 5636) called "The Four Vagabonds : The Complete Recorded Works, 1941 - 1951", but is mostly radio transcriptions from 1943 and the RCA sides from the early forties. CD one is the Bluebird sides plus some radio transcriptions from 1943. The second CD features 24 tracks which are also radio transcriptions from 1943 many of which feature vocalist Patti Clayton. The third CD features further transcriptions some featuring vocalist Janette. These four CDs present as complete a history of one of the forgotten vocal groups as we could hope four. With their availability the Four Vagabonds continue to live on.

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