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RCA 20-3967; NOVEMBER 1950



Good and bad are often intertwined, which makes navigating life a constant pain in the ass.

Rather than be able to merely choose a road and stick to it, knowing that what you want to encounter is sure to be on it, we’re faced with roads that twist and turn and make us run into many things we could easily do without along the way.

This group… and this record… sort of fits that description.

It is brilliant yet it is also about as far as we can reasonably stretch the definition of rock to be able to include, leaving us with the vexing problem of just how much we’re able to credit it for that brilliance.

Still, all things considered, dealing with a record that sounds this good is hardly the worst problem in the world to have.


Keep A Movin’
As always the border line between genres tends to be drawn in sand rather than stone and so with groups like The Four Tunes we’re often left to try and ascertain their artistic intent by studying small stylistic clues to get a better idea of how much rock ‘n’ roll was infiltrating their mindset when it came to cutting these records.

Truthfully, while we have included a bunch of singles from this Ink Spots derived group, if they’d instead been excluded altogether from the rolls it probably wouldn’t have been noticed much despite a lot of those records being quite good.

Yet unlike the other black pop vocal groups of the day The Four Tunes were definitely cognizant of and amenable to the happenings in rock circles.

With many of their harmony ideas in line with what rock acts were currently doing – and would do even more in the future – plus the soulfulness of lead singer Pat Best on top of that, we’ve been inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt around here in large part to continually remind people just where that dividing line separating genres tended to fall.

But we’ve also done so to expose rock fans to songs such as Cool Water with its breathtaking give and take between the voices, an example of the sheer joy you can get from singing with others that needs to be celebrated, regardless of how tightly it fits the narrative.

Maybe that’s not always defensible if you get right down to it, after all we’re not going to be including some B.B. King sides that veer just as close to rock as this record does (albeit in much different ways), but unlike the King Of The Blues, history has not been nearly as kind to the legacy of The Four Tunes and so if they’re going to be shunned by other genres, or at least not highlighted in their music histories, then we’re going to try and pick up the slack a little, even if it makes for some uneasy grading in the end.

Waitin’ There For Me And You
If the associations with pop music were all we had to deal with when it came to this song we might not be in as much of a bind when it came to deciding whether or not to include it here in the chronology of rock ‘n’ roll, but we also have to contend with its original source as one of the most lauded country songs ever written.

It was penned in 1936 by Bob Nolan of The Sons Of The Pioneers, a group that had until recently included Roy Rogers who was forced to leave them when he signed a movie contract, though they’d rejoin him in 1941 after they cut this original recording which was a minor hit. In 1948 they were the backing group on a remake of the song done by Vaughn Monroe, the pop singer with a booming baritone voice who turned it into a Top Ten hit. Oddly enough for a song that never topped the charts (though American star Frankie Laine took it to #1 in England in 1955) it was once voted as the third best country song of all time in a poll.

It’s not hard to understand why it was so revered though because the lyrical imagery they came up with is astounding, as a desperate man in the desert dreams of water. You can read as much or as little into Cool Water as you’d like. He’s telling his companion Dan to keep moving, not to succumb to the thirst or the mirages they’re seeing and if taken at face value it makes for a pretty harrowing tale. But my own interpretation of it is Dan already died – maybe he’s just a skeleton the narrator came across in the desert and gave him a name to have “someone” to talk to – all while the singer is on the verge of death himself.

Depending on how many westerns you’ve seen you can also easily envision them as desperadoes whose horses were shot out from under them after robbing a stage coach and when they took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and wound up in a barren wasteland they had a far more pressing problem than just a posse chasing them to bring them in for their crimes. In fact they made that very movie more or less in 1948 with John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr. called 3 Godfathers which is definitely worth checking out.

Add to this the lilting melody that rises with hope and falls with despair as the song goes along and you can see why people would want to tackle it and with The Four Tunes being one group who had the emotional conviction of rockers at times while still retaining the pop sensibilities, it was hardly surprising they might think this was the ideal song to try and bridge that gap between genres at long last.


Where The Water’s Running Free
Chances are the decision to actually record this came about in rather roundabout fashion as The Four Tunes appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts television show, one of the most popular programs on the air, and needed a song that would appeal to the audience presumably made up of older middle class people.

Since this had been a big hit just a few years earlier and the great melody could easily be made to not only fit their style but really accentuate their harmonies, it was a good choice and they promptly won first prize – whatever that was worth. On the heels of that it made no sense for RCA not to be able to capitalize on it and they brought them into the studio to a cut a version but for some reason the label sat on it for months, not releasing it until fall, long after whatever notoriety they may have gotten from their on-air appearance had worn off completely.

But to tell the truth, it doesn’t need any contrived publicity to sell it because the group is stellar throughout Cool Water, with Pat Best bringing a conviction to his reading that makes Monroe’s rather (pardon the expression) dry rendition seem as though he weren’t actually living through the ordeal he’s singing about.

Best at times sounds alternately like he’s experiencing that feeling of false elation that you’re said to have when slowly dying, grounding it with the gritty determination of hope in the face of tragedy.

The others give it an opening that Brian Wilson would later nick for the otherwise unrelated Sunflower cut, Cool, Cool Water before they segue into the heart of the song, starting off slowly before picking up the pace by adding hand-claps as the primary backing – there’s a guitar too but it’s pretty muted – and then they’re smart enough to just let the melody and their voices carry it through.

The arrangement for the backing vocals is lifted from The Sons Of The Pioneers but they do it much better. The Four Tunes simply have superior voices, more earthy, yet also airier in the way they deliver the wordless soaring “Ahhhs” while Best digs deep for the bridge which is by far the most powerful they’ve ever sounded on record and sends chills down your spine.

It’s not ALL perfect though, as when the others join Best singing about “He’s a devil, not a man”, some of the song’s most evocative lyrics, they revert to a pop delivery with a noticeable hitch in it as a cheap gimmick that almost stops you in your tracks. They recover well enough but it’s an unfortunate reminder of just how conflicted they were stylistically at times, trying to appease another constituency even if it meant undercutting its potential rock appeal.

But in the end you can’t help but be won over by them as Best gives his most inspired performance and the others show plenty of versatility, a great vocal blend and a natural affinity for rhythm that had they pursued it as steadfastly on original pure rock material would’ve made them really tough to beat.

Carry On
What makes these sort of things so tough is the context we’re grading it in. A record like this in a pop music history would sound so much more authentic than the bulk of 1950’s greatest hits even though AS a pop record it’s not conforming enough to the accepted standards of the day, nor would it have been terribly influential in getting other pop acts to follow them down that path.

Likewise here in a rock history while it sounds tremendous there are still a number of elements that don’t ring true for the style which have to be taken into consideration when deciding on the ultimate mark it gets.

But it does no good to penalize a great song too much, saying it’s too rock for pop and too pop for rock, because then where can it receive the credit the actual rendition itself deserves?

So with that in mind we’ll dock Cool Water only a single point for leaning into its pop sensibilities while at the same time still allowing it to bask in the glory of what it does so remarkably well.

No, The Four Tunes are not going to be setting the pace for rock vocal groups any time soon, but a lot of groups whose credentials as rockers are never questioned could definitely learn plenty about how to deliver a song in such a winning fashion by listening to these guys.

Whatever music field you’re coming from with this one, it’s guaranteed not to leave you high and dry.


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