The Four Vagabonds
Along with groups like the Mills Brothers and the Inkspots, The Four Vagabonds were one of the classic pioneer vocal harmony groups of the 1940's. The group originally formed in 1933 in St. Louis at Vashon High School and consisted of Ray Grant (bass & guitar), John Jordan (lead), Robert O'Neal (1st tenor) and Norval Taborn (baritone). Soon thereafter, they had their own weekly radio program. 1936 saw the group moving to Chicago, where 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 was inevitable, with so much radio exposure, that the Vagabonds would make it to the recording studio. And 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 with such tunes as "Comin' In On A Wing And A Prayer", "Rosie The Riveter", "Ten Little Soldiers" and "A G.I.'s Wish".
Like their counterparts the Mills Brothers, The Vagabonds also used their voices to imitate instruments. This ability served them well, especially during the musicians strike between 1942-44. Although the group, at one point, was said to have a repertoire of over 1500 songs, only a small portion were issued on record. (34 sides or 17 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 stopped performing. Two years later though, 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. The show did not have a long life and soon Grant departed the group. The group remained together, with successive replacements for Grant, until 1952, with their last single "P.S. I Love You" being released in 1953.
In the 1980's, original lead John Jordan put together a new Vagabonds group. This group did not record. Today, in 1997, The Four Vagabonds have been re-formed in an attempt to emulate the sound of the original group and expose their great legacy to present day audiences. The current group is led by Billy Shelton (bass) who also was part of the 80's Vagabonds. Billy has also sung with the Spaniels as well as Pookie Hudson's original group the Three Bees. The present day Four Vagabonds is rounded out by Al Brown (1st tenor), Mike Thomas (2nd tenor), and Craig McKinley (baritone). Hearing the Four Vagabonds today is like turning the clock back 50 years, an experience not to be missed. Their recent performances at UGHA left no doubt as to their ability to authentically re-create the sound of the original group.
11/29/97 Four Vagabonds in informal songfest. Picture courtesy of Pam Horner.
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