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MANOR 1131; APRIL, 1948



As the split of the music kingdom grow ever larger the chance for those to straddle the line between rock and other more established styles becomes ever more difficult and few exemplify this more than The Four Tunes, a group we’re meeting for the first time here on Spontaneous Lunacy, even though by April 1948 they were already pretty well known in the music world

In a way you gotta feel for a group like this. Solid, professional, with a good reputation and plenty of opportunities to record for a variety of labels, big and small, and some notable successes along the way, they came along too early to be swept up in the rock ‘n’ roll stampede yet were close enough in personnel to resemble the groups that were soon to be springing up in that field.

What the heck, they must’ve thought, let’s try it on for size and see if it fits. But while they looked pretty sharp in these new threads you can see they’re never quite comfortable in them.

Life is like that. Put a suit on a person who wears jeans all the time and watch them squirm at whatever formal affair they’re forced into attending. Conversely watch someone who always is dressed in the most elegant tailored suits try and pull off anything casual and you’ll see the same discomfort.

The Four Tunes slipped into the rock outfit enough over time to look reasonably suited for it at a quick glance, yet once they got home you know they tore those clothes right off.

It Isn’t A Crime
The Four Tunes began back in 1946 and hit big out of the box while backing Savannah Churchill, a versatile singer who succeeded by reining in her own style for pop consumption.

Do we detect a trend developing?

Because of that early success The Four Tunes never lacked for opportunity, recording far more than most black vocal groups of the day, both on their own and in support of Churchill for more than two dozen sides, and for the most part they stuck to the same basic formula in seeking pop acceptance.

Occasionally though, even more than on this side, they’d stretch out and take a stab at something in the rock vocal group realm that would convince you they could make a go of it and perhaps become a steady welcome presence on that scene instead. But it was just a tease, for they’d always revert back to the relative safety of a style they first built their reputation on even as it was slowly losing its stranglehold on the tastes of the rapidly advancing nation.

We’ll come across the group a few more times in the next decade, popping up from time to time as they flirt with rock ‘n’ roll out of either curiosity, necessity or sheer accident, but rest assured their problems in committing to rock today will never completely go away and they’ll remain largely on the outside looking in.

I suppose in the end you can’t really blame them. When they came up the gold standard for any black vocal act was The Ink Spots and though many groups tried emulating them few scored actual major hits with it and fewer still carved out their own notable place in the musical hierarchy. The Four Tunes were one who actually did and so of course they’re going to stick with that style, they’d be fools not to.

This shouldn’t be surprising since the origins of The Four Tunes group was with an ex-Ink Spot. Deek Watson, the Ink Spots second tenor, was not an easy guy to get along with and he departed the hit-making group to go out on his own, putting together an outfit called The Brown Spots (he wasn’t being too discreet about his intentions in other words).

His smartest move was to recruit Pat Best as their baritone, then found he was a helluva songwriter too (I Love You For Sentimental Reasons was his creation for The Brown Dots). In any event it wasn’t long before Watson clashed with his cohorts (again!) and this time the others began recording without him and one thing leading to another they changed their names to The Sentimentalists, then The Four Tunes, which is where they really began to click.

Their achievements in doing so gave them more success than most who tried and that can hardly be downplayed or pushed aside just because there was a NEW style coming along that had the potential – albeit still largely unforeseen – to change the rules entirely and allow for artists to not have to make any concessions to the white pop establishment and instead, eventually anyway, pull the white mainstream to the earthier black musical ideals, ultimately culminating in rock’s full-fledged mid-50’s crossover into the pop charts on a regular basis.

The Four Tunes couldn’t have seen that coming. In 1948 nobody could. I suppose it’s unfair to criticize their conservative musical choices when those same choices were making them money and resulting in legitimate hits and a substantial career that gave them a chance at making it into the upper echelon of black performers that existed at the time.

Frankly at this point could any pure rock act legitimately make such a claim?


The Sweetest Rose Starts Fading When The Sunshine Won’t Shine Through
Of their many releases from September 1947 through the waning days of 1948, this song is the only true foray The Four Tunes made into the outskirts of rock unless one’s willing to stretch the boundaries of the genre to their absolute limits. They certainly had the skills to qualify but the genuine motivation in doing so would always be in question.

The reason they cut Confess is pretty obvious, it was a hit, or about to be in a rendition by Doris Day which was released in late 1947 and would finally chart in June. As was the standard operating procedure in the music industry during that era it was immediately tackled by a wide array of artists, mostly pop of course, with Patti Page jumping on it first, then Tony Martin and Jimmy Dorsey all taking a whack at it. The Four Tunes, seen by most in the industry as a safe pop act, were obvious candidates to vie with The Mills Brothers and King Cole Trio to court black audiences.

But The Four Tunes, maybe sensing there wasn’t much chance to stand out if they handled it in a totally asexual manner, give it a little extra emphasis in their reading of it which hints at, if not outright acknowledges, the changes that rock ‘n’ roll was already foisting on the unsuspecting public.

Pat Best delivers a far less mannered lead vocal here than on their previous efforts, sounding positively soulful in comparison to the tame pop vocal qualities that the industry valued at the time and which were already their stock in trade. But while the pop realm was their constant aim they presumably had to at least keep the primary black audience satisfied and in 1948 that meant inching towards something a little more exciting.

They can’t quite pull it off though. The backing by the others when they stick to the light mostly responsorial harmonies are fine but when they’re asked to shoulder more of the storyline in the bridge their pop instincts take over a bit too strongly, though not enough to completely deep six the record, more like reminding one and all what the difference is already between rock and pop and showing that the gulf would grow ever wider as time marches on.

But that gulf is already pretty wide as evidenced by the pure pop trifle Don’t Know which stains the other side of this record. Anyone doubting the veracity of something like Confess tentatively qualifying as a rock song need only listen to the flip to understand the difference (or most of their subsequent releases for that matter, which are so hopelessly pop that you expect to see blue haired couples gently swaying along in tuxedos and evening gowns, half asleep from the glass of wine they had with dinner before taking their false teeth out for the night when they hit the sack at 9:15, cursing themselves for “staying up too late”).

“Don’t Know” is a novelty ditty, designed to be quaint, inoffensive and, above all else, perfectly harmless. A polite dainty song for playing in the parlor amongst refined mixed company.

Confess by contrast, while it has nothing in it designed to offend, has got a much earthier quality to it, particularly in Best’s delivery that’s a bit more suited for when the chaperones retire for the evening and the lights get turned low.

His romantic urgency at times swells to the edge of desperation. You get the sense he’s trying to rein in his horniness and there are moments where his desires are at risk of overwhelming him, which of course is precisely what he should let happen, but “proper” singers had been taught for years before this to repress all of their feelings and so he’s straitjacketed in ways that future artists fully committed to rock ‘n’ roll won’t be.

When he cries out “Why don’t you confess and reveal to me the way that you feel” his frustration in the girl’s demure exterior is palpable. He KNOWS she wants it too yet he’s forced to sit on his hands so those hands don’t tear off her dress and land him in jail or staring down the business end of her father’s shotgun. All of those subliminal underlying emotions rise to the top here whereas in the standard pop deliveries of the day, indeed the type of thing he usually was called on to sing, assiduously avoid all such carnal cravings, let alone getting anywhere close to acting on those desires.

But is that hint at the raging emotional conflict within him enough to make this really work as a pure rock song?

C’mon, what do YOU think?!

How Long Can I Keep Waiting?
Of course it’s not.

From the stately piano opening to Best’s far too precise diction and the utter lack of not just a backbeat but ANY sense of rhythm, Confess falls short in all of those regards.

This is still a nice record, certainly far, far better to my sensibilities than everything else they’d cut up to this point, but we’re not judging it against their own past catalog, or even against the standard pop conventions of the day for which this must’ve seemed like a daring reckless gambit that had their normal audience questioning their sanity, we’re judging it against other rock records of the same time. That’s the competition they’re now up against and if they want to make a go of it in rock ‘n’ roll that’s the constituency they’ll need to satisfy.

They can’t.

In that context its pop leanings become ever more glaring, taking not just the sting out of the song, but taking even the threat of being stung away too. Like looking at a picture of a wasp as opposed to having one fly in your window and land on your neck. Without that edginess, that sense of what it might lead to (lyrically, emotionally or musically), the tension evaporates and we’re left with something harmless and thus ultimately somewhat meaningless.

The melody, the story and especially Best’s… ummm, “best” moments all have plenty going for them and with the proper coaxing it might’ve been brought out of them. But then again if they were really suited to this in the first place they wouldn’t NEED coaxing to draw it out, it’d be yearning to break out naturally.

You sense they have it in them somewhere, but like a child who’s been rigidly controlled by overbearing parents their whole lives they’re too afraid to speak out now.


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