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RCA 22-0058; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

The genrefication of music has been both a blessing and a curse when it comes to delineating history.

On one hand it allows for closer scrutiny of a wider array of songs and artists than would likely be feasible if all music was lumped together, allowing those who are covering it – like us here – to be able to do so with far more depth because you’re sticking to just one style, its specific origins and evolution, rather than trying to tell an even broader story encompassing music of all backgrounds.

But on the other hand the rigid stylistic boundaries can make for a lot of arguments over who belongs where and lead to certain songs and artists being excluded altogether from many discussions they rightly belong in.

The Four Tunes are indicative of this problem, a talented group of singers that seemed increasingly cast adrift from all genres as time went on.
 

 

Before You Travel On
Though on the surface The Four Tunes would seem to have the requisite qualifications to move into the field, a black vocal harmony group with two distinct lead singers, they had inherently conflicting aims which prevented them from ever committing to rock ‘n’ roll full time.

Coming of age before rock was born and then finding verifiable commercial success in pop-shaded songs meant they had every reason to let this rock ‘n’ roll hubbub pass them by without notice, especially now that they were recording for RCA-Victor, a major label who had their collective noses in the air showing outright disdain for anything they viewed as beneath them socially.

In spite of this however it was hard for them NOT to be influenced slightly by what they heard around them as the 1940’s drew to a close and the sounds of rock became ever more prominent… and ever more popular, at least within the black community. This meant there were times when The Four Tunes, perhaps without even consciously setting out to do so, or at least not making an issue out of it to the producers in the studio, added a bit more soulfulness to their deliveries, maybe emphasized the rhythmic qualities of the arrangement more than expected and on occasion even pushed the envelope on the lyrical content of their songs, such as with the decidedly off-color I’m Gonna Ride Tillie Tonight.

But in doing so their success, such as it had been, began to wane.

It’d be natural for those involved to say, “See I told you so!” and blame their slight downturn in sales to their deviating from their tried and true modest formula, but others might rightly claim that they hadn’t gone far enough now that the market was irrevocably shifting towards rock.

So what was a group like this to do? Head backwards in time and stick with a style that was on the decline and face diminishing returns? Or should they try and make the leap forward and tackle the newer style which they probably weren’t fully equipped to handle?

That was a question The Four Tunes never quite definitively answered, or rather they never stuck exclusively to any ONE stylistic approach, which helps to explain how when searching for material that could be all things to all audiences they came to record The Lonesome Road, a song that had been one of the more popular compositions of the first half of the Twentieth Century thanks in large part to the rather pliable needs it fulfills depending on the artist and the era.
 

Meet Your Maker
The song dates back to 1927 when two white singer/songwriters, Nathaniel Shilkret and Gene Austin, conceived it as a rather clear-cut form of cultural appropriation, modeling it on black musical traits and the social outlook of African-Americans at the time. This may not have seemed clear initially but it was definitely emphasized when the song was used in the film version of Showboat in 1929 performed on screen by Stepin Fetchit, one of the few black actors working in film at the time, albeit it in stereotypically simplistic and demeaning roles (the voice heard on screen singing this however was that of Jules Bledsoe, who’d played the same role of Joe the deckhand in the stage play).

Though it featured some components of both genres, the song wasn’t strictly the blues with its omnipresent despondent gloom, nor was it gospel with its devout belief in a heavenly reward for your tribulations on earth, but rather it was done in more of a folk-style that delusional whites liked to envision black people as embodying – sad and weary over their lot in life maybe but not angry or emotionally ravaged by it either.

The Lonesome Road was undeniably melancholy but modestly hopeful too, allowing more “tolerant” whites to feel better about themselves for not actually doing anything to abolish Jim Crow and to purge the attitudes from so-called civilized society that allowed it to thrive unchecked throughout this country’s history.

Yet because the song used a universal introspective theme that could be adopted by almost anyone regardless of their standing in life – even if it paled in comparison to the plight of African-Americans in general – and because it had an undeniably strong melody, it wound up being performed by a ton of artists over the years. Ironically it’d be whites who’d do a better job on delivering it for the most part and you certainly can’t help but think this is telling. Because they were so far removed from the actual circumstances it was depicting they could apply whatever emotional feel to it they wanted, from Bing Crosby’s classy reverence to The Andrews Sisters bouncy joy to Frank Sinatra’s detached hipness, all of those approaches worked because it was a strong enough composition to withstand those changes.

But black artists were coming at it from a far different perspective and many of them – if not most – recoiled from offering a sincere reading as if its perspective was something to be embraced. Louis Armstrong turned his version into an intentional mockery of it which naturally flew over the heads of most in white America who just viewed it as a quirky rendition as he adopted a Preacher persona and ad-libbed a long spiel along with other band members which was an ingenious form of protest against passively accepting the sentiments within the composition.

The Four Tunes however take a different tact, one that not surprisingly DOES show their acquiescence to the status quo RCA was likely pushing them to adopt on all of their songs for maximum mainstream appeal, but which ALSO shows their grasp on the musical necessities of rock was present in spite of that.
 


 

Look Up
Let’s start with the most obvious facet of this record, which is their voices are quite simply amazing on this. Though the “doo-doo-doo-doot” intro and backing it uses runs counter to the seriousness of the theme – and no, it’s clearly not done as a way to intentionally undercut it for other reasons as Armstrong had done – the effect is still pretty good, giving them a rhythmic bed for Danny Owens, the group’s tenor, to sing over.

Once he comes in you listen with rapt attention for this is arguably the best any popular artist has sung The Lonesome Road from a purely technical standpoint. His voice is crystalline in its purity, yet with a subtle resonance that gives it the gravity it needs to be taken seriously. Removed from the context it was written and taken as just words on a page describing a vague spiritual quest they’re actually pretty effective and he’s delivering them with a sincerity that is disarming, perfectly matching the emotional qualities of the lyrics that so many others intentionally avoided (for a myriad of reasons depending on the artist).

This really comes closest in terms of arrangement to Gene Austin’s version, the song’s co-writer (Shilkret, the other songwriter, also cut a version which is more florid and thus less effective, though it too was a huge hit back in ‘27). Like that earlier rendition the accompaniment behind The Four Tunes is much more sparse – guitar, drums, piano and bass mostly setting the song’s melodic accents – which allows for the four voices, all of which are used prominently, to deliver one highlight after another.

Owens of course stands out, his voice trembling at times before soaring with a delicate power. He moves into a slightly higher tone for the bridge as the others switch from the “doo-doots” they had been featuring to a wordless harmony that nearly takes your breath away. The combined effect their voices alone – Owens foremost among them – is chilling.

The mid-section finds the others taking the lead, singing their lines in exquisite harmony with cappers provided by Jimmy Gordon’s bass. If you have the inclination try following along to Gordon’s lines when singing with the others around the two minute mark and marvel in how much he adds while remaining discreetly in the background.

The amazing part of all of this is how their version of The Lonesome Road touches on so many styles without them being in conflict. The backing vocals and Owens’s emotional lead are certainly in line with rock, yet they add far more gospel effects than you’d think possible for a group that had no overt association with that form. They still keep the song reined in enough to connect with a pop audience, yet they even manage to draw out some bluesy undercurrents with how they emphasize the sorrow in it at times.

Any way you look at it, this is as well-rounded a performance as you can imagine.
 

Weary Toting Such A Load
So why isn’t it getting a top score? Well, for all of the reasons touched on throughout the lead-in to the review itself.

There’s so much baggage with this song, not all of it necessarily bad but undeniably there all the same, that it takes on many different images depending on how its viewed. In some instances when taken at face value it’d vie for perfection, but when considering it from another angle that all songs with lyrics have to contend with when it comes to understanding their meaning, then it obviously shades the record much differently.

Now add in the fact that the record company was a pop label trying not to give in to rock’s growing presence on the scene while at the same time trying to bleed off some of its fans which raises all sorts of questions regarding musical ethics. The overriding goal with us here of course is to see pure rock acts and unquestioned rock performances succeed at the expense of records with more compromised intents in order that the rock genre itself has a better chance at long term success, and so you can understand why those conflicts can’t help but be factored in to the score.

Finally there’s the question we opened with, that of genrefication, specifically the fact that while this has more than enough rock elements to suffice and have it included here without reservations, it also has other aspects of it that need to be acknowledged and with that it becomes slightly less vital to rock’s overall cause. Think of it this way, you could conceivably put this in a Gospel History Overview as well and it’d face the same issues – beautifully done but its secular DNA would mean it doesn’t have quite the same impact on gospel’s story.

But make no mistake about it, The Four Tunes rendition of The Lonesome Road is not only primarily a rock song, it’s also the the best this song has sounded and that, more than any score that has its own built-in qualifications to consider, is ultimately what matters most.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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