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SAVOY 779; FEBRUARY 1951

 
 

 

Here’s the second outing for a group that despite their early success and a surprising amount of influence has been mostly forgotten in rock history by all but the most devoted vocal group fan.

In truth you can sort of see why.

For starters they were primarily balladeers which although a vital part of the vocal group experience tends not to draw the long term interest of casual fans of later years as uptempo cuts do. Secondly they didn’t have a well-known “name” lead singer to draw attention to their work down the line. To top it off they were done as a recording act in 1953, a year before the first wave of crossover hits which further limited their visibility over time.

Yet when looking back at the evolution of this particular brand of rock ‘n’ roll The Four Buddies loom a lot larger than that historical neglect would suggest is appropriate.
 

 

‘Til The Last Star Is Gone
The Four Buddies’s dwindling reputation – or lack of a reputation as it were – is yet another reason why this song by song analysis of rock history is so vital when it comes to giving proper credit to important artists who slipped under the radar in the years since as sometimes that’s the only way to see how this music progressed over time.

On one hand we can understand their lack of widespread acclaim today for although the group had a huge hit to start their career in I Will Wait, they were quickly overshadowed by other groups just starting out led by The Dominoes but soon to include The Clovers, The Larks, The Five Keys, The Cardinals, The Swallows and The “5” Royales.

That’s a lot of heavy hitters to contend with, most of whom had more hits and remained active well past the mid-way point of the 1950’s which meant they benefited from the first hand awareness of that later generation of white fans who became passionate devotees of the idiom. So in a crowded field it’s inevitable that someone gets squeezed out. But what surprising is that usually groups like The Four Buddies who have a lot of influence can make up for any shortcomings in total hits or longevity, but for some reason that credit never came their way.

I’ll be honest though, even that influence is not something that you’re really aware of unless you take the time to break down the songs of all of these groups – and countless others – dissecting each element to trace them back to their origins.

Their first release really emphasized this new sound but Sweet Slumber doubles down on it, providing additional confirmation on exactly where the entire approach to the distinctive sparse fragile ballad sounds of the brief window before the doo-wop crossover came from.

Because it’s never alluded to in most retrospective histories you think there HAD to be a more obvious precedent somewhere by a bigger name group, I know I did, but we covered every single rock vocal group record from the very start back in 1947 and nothing sounds like the type of songs that were so prevalent the next couple of years (1952, ’53 & ’54) until The Four Buddies showed up and laid the blueprint down in clear indisputable terms.
 

Bring Dreams…
As a singer or musician you just know when something works. The sound excites you and makes you want to try and duplicate it or expand upon it the next time around and so when they the saw the audience was just as receptive to I Will Wait as they were, it’s no surprise that The Four Buddies would immediately try and match it on their second recording session.

Sweet Slumber takes the same structural approach as that aforementioned breakthrough with Larry Harrison’s high tenor lead out front backed by the others who are subtly pushing the tempo with their wordless vocals along with an intermittent bass vocal hook by Tommy Carter and shows once again how you could sound altogether fresh simply by the way you mixed these things together.

Though we can recognize some of the source material in their choices taken from The Ravens, Orioles and others that came before them, what’s readily apparent is how distinctly they altered and added to those components which give it a new identity to appeal to their own generation.

By giving the backing vocals much more diversity in their roles, specifically how they arranged the vocals in a way that was usually reserved for instruments by letting things come in and fade out behind Harrison, they’ve created a much fuller and more dynamic group sound with constantly moving parts which allows you to focus different things rather than only what’s out in front.

With these changes they’ve further distanced it from the usual pop influences the earlier groups would use on like-minded ballads, something evident on the way Harrison doesn’t artificially go up the scale on the final line which was a pop trait that so many groups stuck with the last few years, but by holding that emotional center they’d created The Four Buddies crafted a more realistic presentation for their audiences’ needs.

They may not have been inventing anything entirely new here, pulling it out of thin air, but they re-imagined what came before them, adjusted the individual elements and blended them together seamlessly to create a new template. It was more complex yet designed to appear just as simple… which might be why it’s so easy to overlook.
 

Every Moment Brings A Thrill Of Sweet Delight
As for the song itself… while this doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, it’s still really good which makes it rather surprising it did little beyond stirring some regional interest.

The plot focuses on the feelings you have just after falling in love – which happens roughly every three and a half weeks when you’re a hormone crazed teenager – and is another example of their influence on matching the subject to an age-specific perspective. As street corner doo-wop groups got ever younger in the ensuing years they all began expressing thoughts that were on the minds of teenagers everywhere and this one hits home in that regard.

That’s the key to what should have been the enduring appeal of Sweet Slumber, their ability to capture these feelings in vivid images… how the night time strips away the distractions you have during the day and allows you to focus on the girl you’ve just started to know while your hope and your imagination smooths away their flaws to make a more ideal partner in your mind.

Though they didn’t write the song (it’s an eight year old Lucky Millinder tune), it still manages to embody their own mindset for what Harrison is describing is the blissful euphoria of falling IN love, the feeling that hits you just before you are forced to do something about it and face the consequences, good or bad, of your actions. That brief period when you’re still imagining what might happen rather than reacting to what has just happened.

Those magical moments are fleeting in real time but eternal in your memory and the tenderness of Harrison’s voice and the delicacy of the images that fill his mind are strikingly real. He may be a little too poetic at times but you know exactly what he’s thinking to himself when he says “I can see you in the shadows down a moon-kissed blossom lane”, trying desperately to convey feelings he doesn’t have the experience to fully process… nor the cynicism to coldly dismiss yet.

It’s almost too fragile a scene to want to intrude upon, the hallmark of the type of record that would enjoy its brief flurry of interest in the coming years before too many records by too many artists were too well known to let anything so tranquil exist in this quiet little bubble any longer.
 

As Long As Dreams Remain
Sometimes it’s the artists and records that you almost missed, or maybe passed you by altogether, who wind up being the most pleasant discoveries when you go back for a second tour through the wilderness like this and to that end The Four Buddies seem ripe for re-discovery and a better appreciation of their place in rock history.

Not everything they do will live up to their first two released A-sides, but even if nothing else matched Sweet Slumber let alone their previous even better hit, that should still be enough to warrant them a revered place in rock’s vocal group pantheon.

When you settle down to go to sleep tonight try forgetting your current existence and everything going on around you in today’s world and think back instead to your first real exchange with that 9th grade crush across the classroom and try to remember just how you felt back then as your head hit the pillow that night, reliving each glance and every word spoken while dreaming about what the next day might bring.

If you’ve somehow forgotten or misplaced those feelings this record will bring them all back in vivid detail, which in the end might actually be its greatest accomplishment.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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