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Along with groups like the Mills Brothers and the Inkspots, the Four Vagabonds are considered one of the classic pioneer vocal harmony groups to record in the 1940s. The group originally formed in 1933 in St. Louis at Vashon High School and consisted of Ray Grant (bass and guitar), John Jordan (lead), Robert O'Neal (first tenor), and Norval Taborn (baritone). Soon thereafter, they had their own weekly radio program, broadcast in the St. Louis area. 1936 saw the group moving to Chicago, when greater opportunity presented itself. Upon their arrival in the Windy City, they were featured on Don McNeil's Breakfast Club radio show three times a week. By 1938, they were also adding their excellent harmonies to Club Matinee, hosted by Gary Moore and Durward Kirby. It's somewhat surprising that a group with their talent, and also with such extensive radio exposure, would take so long to make it into the recording studio. But finally after eight years together, in 1941, they recorded their first single, "Slow And Easy" b/w "Duke of Dubuque" (released 1942), for the RCA subsidiary Bluebird. During the war years they made their musical contributions towards the war effort with such tunes as "Comin' In On a Wing and a Prayer," "Rosie the Riveter," "Ten Little Soldiers," and "A G.I.'s Wish," their last RCA release in 1945.
In 1946, subsequent to their tenure with RCA, the Vagabonds issued "Taking My Chance With You" backed with "When the Old Gangs Back on the Corner" for Mercury, and "I Can't Make Up My Mind" covered with "Oh What a Polka" for Atlas. Starting in 1946 and continuing through 1947, the Four Vagabonds released seven records for New York City's Apollo label. (Their Atlas release was probably also recorded for Apollo but leased to Atlas.) Most notable of the Apollo recordings was "P.S. I Love You" backed with "The Freckle Song." The Vagabonds' charming rendition of "P.S. I Love You" is probably their best-known song and was reissued by Apollo on their Lloyds subsidiary in 1953. The Vagabonds' recording career ended back in Chicago in 1949 with "Mighty Hard to Go Through Life Alone" sided with "My Heart Cries," released on the Miracle label. Like their counterparts the Mills Brothers, the Four Vagabonds also used their voices to imitate musical instruments. The practice can be traced back to the turn of the century, and had been popularized by the Mills Brothers, who preceded the Vagabonds by a few years. Gospel groups like the Golden Gate Quartet also effectively employed this technique. The Four Vagabonds were second to none with their "quasi-instrumental" sounds, demonstrating keen musicianship with their precise attacks and balanced vocal blend. This ability added musical diversity to their performances. And, it also served them well, from a practical standpoint, during the musicians strike between 1942 and 1944. Although the group, at one point, was said to have a repertoire of over 1500 songs, only a small portion was issued on record (34 sides or 17 records). Fortunately for today's listener, many of their radio transcriptions have been preserved and are now available on a series of CDs produced by the Austrian manufacturer Document Records.
In 1945, Ray Grant lost his sight, but the group rehearsed entrances and exits so that by and large the audience could not notice. Still, by the end of 1947, the group had stopped performing. However, two years later in 1949, the group was back together. Apparently, Ray Grant had recovered his sight and the Four Vagabonds were offered their own TV show. Happy Pappy, as the show was called, was hosted by Grant and was the first TV show to feature an all-black cast and audience. Unfortunately, the show did not have a long life and Grant soon departed the group. The Four Vagabonds remained together, with successive replacements for Grant, until 1952 when they decided to disband.
In the 1980s, original lead John Jordan put together a new Four Vagabonds group. This group did not record. In the mid-'90s, a Four Vagabonds group was re-formed in an attempt to emulate the sound of the original group, and to expose their great legacy to present-day audiences. The current Four Vagabonds ensemble is led by Billy Shelton (bass), who also was part of the '80s Vagabonds. Billy Shelton has also sung with the Spaniels, as well as Pookie Hudson's original group the Three Bees. The present-day Four Vagabonds group is rounded out by Al Brown (first tenor), Mike Thomas (second tenor), and Craig McKinley (baritone). Hearing the Four Vagabonds perform live today is like turning the clock back 50 years, an experience not to be missed. Their performances leave no doubt as to their ability to authentically re-create the sound of the original group. ~ Jim Dunn & Nikki Gustafson