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Transitions… Part One.

When it comes to characters in fictional stories their transitions – from immature, impulsive or ill-prepared to the moment when they realize what’s holding them back and work to correct it – are what defines them in the end. A good story works because the transitions seem obvious but unlikely as long as the character maintains the outlook they began with. They need to grow, to evolve and progress as they move to the next stage in life.

When it comes to musical evolution those transitions take on an even greater importance as every style within a genre, or even the entire genre itself, could conceivably fall by the wayside unless somebody comes along and takes stock of what has been done already and changes it in a way that takes the entire style in a new direction full of creative possibilities that hadn’t yet been explored.

Though they’re not given much, if any, credit for it, with this record The Four Buddies managed to do just that when it comes to how rock vocal groups would sound in the coming years.


Oh So Patiently
Okay, so just who ARE The Four Buddies… or The Four Buds as they were credited as for a hot minute before the name was reconsidered and promptly corrected… and how exactly did they change the way vocal groups approached singing?

They were formed in Baltimore, home of The Orioles who were the first transition point of the LAST vocal group era (eras in rock are typically very short, a few years at most, because of how much turnover there is in artists and audiences due to it appealing to people at a younger age).

You hardly need to be reminded that after The Ravens, who were the starting point of the rock vocal group idiom and who brought with them a rhythmic bounce and alternately playful and lecherous tones with Jimmy Ricks on lead, it was The Orioles who turned that approach on its head as lead singer Sonny Til opened his perpetually broken heart on record, pouring on the emotion which drew girls like nectar did to flies.

The Orioles were exquisite balladeers who typically sang with sparse instrumentation. At a glance you might say The Four Buddies followed that basic plan more or less, as they too specialized in ballads at the expense of uptempo material to offset it, but the differences in their approaches are apparent at first listen of their debut, I Will Wait.

Whereas The Orioles relied excessively on Til to lead them, often rendering the others to be little more than faint atmosphere until baritone George Nelson took each song’s bridge, The Four Buddies have an all hands on deck approach that is more Ravens-influenced, right down to bass singer Tommy Carter chiming in with some deep voiced interjections.

Though a ballad this song also had a notable melodic and rhythmic bounce to it, helped by those beefier vocal parts for the others as well as a slightly fuller arrangement than The Orioles tended to use. Setting them apart further was the fact that Larry Harrison, the lead singer, let his voice soar in a way that Til rarely tried. In some ways Harrison was doing what The Ravens’ Maithe Marshall always did, except Marshall tended to use pop vocal techniques to do it whereas Harrison keeps the emotion at the forefront rather than suppressing it.

In other words, The 4 Buddies combined the best elements of the two revolutionary groups of the first vocal group era while sidestepping their weaker points… at least on this side of their debut.

In the process this record, a huge hit that reached #2 on the national charts, established the basic formula for doo wop ballads for the next few years and consequently this is where the first step in the seismic rock vocal group transition of the early 1950’s truly begins.


I Love No One But You
With the guitar and piano blending seamlessly on the intro this kicks off with an all-enveloping sound that draws you in before Harrison’s slightly strained tenor comes in at nearly full volume as the others are prominently “ooh”ing behind him, the combined effect falling over you like a blanket.

There’s not many lyrics to I Will Wait but you don’t realize it until you start trying to piece it together after the fact, as Harrison starts off with the chorus thereby eliminating the typical first stanza set-up. It’s a dynamic sound however, yearning in a way that reflects their youth (all were still in their late teens) full of naïve hope that is still endearing to witness before the cynicism gotten with more experience in life makes expressing such naked desire seem self-defeating.

The story is remarkably simple, Harrison is head over heels in love with a girl who either has a boyfriend already, or simply other suitors that are crowding Harrison out of the picture, yet he’s determined to wait her out, sure that she’ll be his eventually. He’s so confident in this fantasy that he even tells HER to wait for HIM as well.

That’s it. Cut. Print.

What makes it work… well… what makes it work is the whole intoxicating package. The way their voices blend together is sublime, rising in unison before Carter drops out to deliver the stuttering bass “Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” which pulls them all back in. The melody is so simple that you’ll have it memorized on the very first listen, yet it doesn’t grow tiresome after hearing it a thousand and one times.

It all comes together so naturally as the guitar adds curly-cue melodic accents and everything else contributes to the lurching rhythm that carries with it a subtle undertow that is somehow strong enough that you won’t be able, or want, to break free.

The full group vocals they display at various times in the song give a sense of camaraderie to their performance that the earlier groups were sometimes lacking by keeping their leads’ lines separate from the others. As a result The Four Buddies help to establish the quintessential image of a group huddled on a corner singing under the streetlights together, their voices soaring to the heavens in the peaceful night air.


‘Til Eternity
Way back in 1993 Rhino Records, then the premier reissue compilers of the fairly recent compact disc era, put out a four disc collection of the evolution of the vocal group called The Doo Wop Box. It was one of their best selling sets, highly regarded for the song selections, remastering and thick informative booklet that came with it, yet missing from those 101 tracks used to chart that enduring sound was this record.

It may have been left out for licensing reasons but if it was a conscious choice then apparently that set wasn’t as flawless as its reputation would attest.

Though it hardly sounds revolutionary, I Will Wait set into motion so much of what followed and would go on to shape the entire doo wop sound over the next half decade. Just looking over the track listing of that box shows just how influential this record was, as four of the six songs included that came out between the spring of 1953 and the summer 1954 – Golden Teardrops by The Flamingos; I by The Velvets; Sunday Kind Of Love by The Harp-Tones and Gloria by The Cadillacs – took their basic structural blueprints directly from this record… all of them ballads featuring a soaring yearning lead, the subtle lurching rhythm and intertwining backing vocals.

All of them may have better lead singers, more dynamic performances, complex parts and even better compositions to sing, but the foundation of that style can be found here and there were plenty of other lesser known songs of the ensuing era that drew inspiration from this record as well. By the mid-1950’s though we were in for yet another transition and this period and style would disappear in favor of more vibrant, uptempo and exaggerated formulas and it fell to a fervent group of collectors to keep the comparatively fragile sounds from this brief window in time alive in some small way.

But looking back from a safe distance it’s obvious this record didn’t just mark a transition in vocal group history, but in many ways this was one of those records, innocuous though it may sound today, that helped to divide the 1940’s rock scene from the 1950’s.

By this point we know one thing is absolutely certain, all musical styles have to keep changing in order to stay relevant, you just hope those changes are inspired, innovative and are met with widespread enthusiasm by the audience and the artists who follow in its wake. Luckily The Four Buddies – and more specifically this record – ensured that this particular transition was both a smooth one and an unqualified success.


(Visit the Artist page of The Four Buddies for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)