Along with most other genres, Canada’s doo-wop era was given birth in Toronto. As the 1940s drew to a close, several groups were forming, most of whom had early roots in gospel music. This was the case with The Otnorots, formed by angst-ridden teenagers with slicked back hair and singing in the St. Michael’s Choir School.
During its formative days, several members came and went, including John Perkins and Rudy Maugeri. After a brief stint with Frank Busseri and Corrado “Connie” Codarini, Perkins and Maugeri formed another group, The Crew Cuts. The Otnorots were soon the Jordonaires, but changed their name to avoid confusion with Elvis’ group, The Jordanaires. Now called The Four Dukes, the lineup now consisted of Busseri and Codarini, Bernie Toorish, and Jimmy Arnold. But that name didn’t stick long either, as a group from Detroit already laid claim to it.
They downgraded to just being The Four Lads, and by the fall of 1950 were gaining exposure and experience, playing the local dinner club circuit. One evening while playing at a Toronto hotel, they did an imitation of the Golden Gate Quartet, not knowing its band leader Orlando Wilson happened to be in the audience. He was so impressed with the group he telephoned New York and had his manager Mike Stewart. Holding the phone in the direction of the stage, Stewart heard them, and agreed to manage them.
They pooled their meager savings and travelled to New York, where they scored a tryout at the posh Le Ruban Bleu nightclub, an audition that turned into a 30-week engagement. Performances at the Paramount and on the Perry Como and Dave Garroway TV shows followed. While playing at Le Ruban Bleu, they were noticed by Columbia Records representative Mitch Millar. He hired them to just do back-up harmonies for Johnnie Ray on his 1952 singles “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” Even the most optimistic expectations didn’t prepare the group or Ray for the success. “Cry” went number one for eleven weeks in the US and in Canada, while “The Little White Cloud That Cried” went to #2 in the US and #4 in Canada for two weeks. “Please Mr. Sun” (#6), “Here Am I Brokenhearted” (#8), and “What’s the Use” (#13) followed.
Millar landed them an appearance on “The Ransom Sherman Show,” and by that fall had convinced the label execs to release their own material, though not written by them on its Okeh Records division, starting with “Mocking Bird,” which reached #23 in the US and #13 at home. They moved up to the parent company starting with their next single. What would become regular practise in their career, they chose a number from a musical, in this case “Somebody Loves Me” from “George White Scandals” from 1924. The song was a top 10 hit at home, while peaking at #22 Stateside. “Faith Can Move Mountains” followed and was an international hit, reaching #7 on the UK chart.
While riding the gravy train from the surge in male vocal groups in Detroit, New York, and at home, they released a string of singles in ’53, while appearing on “American Bandstand” and its ripoffs, and toured the continent with the likes of Danny & The Juniors, The Diamonds, The McGuire Sisters, The Four Aces, The Duprees, and dozens of other top acts of the day. “He Who Has Love,” “Down By the Riverside,” and “I Should Have Told You Long Ago” all found their way into the top 20 on both sides of the border. “Istanbul” became their first gold single, cracking the top 10 in the US, and topping the chart at home for the first time.
The hits kept coming throughout the rest of the decade. In ’54 they had four in the top 30 in both Canada and in the US – “Oh, That’ll Be Joyful,” “Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer,” “Skokiaan,” and “Rain, Rain, Rain” (with Frankie Laine), which peaked at #8 in the UK pop chart, as well.
As was often the case, the label reps also released a full album, although no actual singles came from it, and The Four Lads were no exception, releasing their first first full album that year, STAGE SHOW. But what it did do however was give the record buying public a chance to hear a collection of material at one time, even if it wasn’t necessarily what was taking up space on the airwaves. Typical to the genre and period, the record was a mix of songs written by people specifically for the label, or big band tunes toned down. Label execs in turn would then basically tell the artists ‘this is what you’re recording.’ The album contained such contemporary hits as “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” “My Blue Heaven,” “What Can I Lose,” and “Fly Me To The Moon.”
By the spring of ’55 they’d solidified themselves as one of doo-wop’s top exports, when they released the album MOMENTS TO REMEMBER that year, with returning producer Bob Montgomery. It featured Bobby Goldsboro’s “Pardon Me Miss” and “Where Do I Again” from the musical, “Hair.”
The title track, the first of many Robert Allen/Al Stillman songs the band would record, and “No, Not Much,” both topped the chart in Canada and hit #2 in the US. Both tunes also cracked the often-elusive British charts, peaking at a respectable #20 and #22 respectively. The non-album singles “I’ll Never Know,” then “Standing On The Corner” (also one of Dean Martin’s favourites), followed, peaking at #34 in the UK, and in the top 30 in North America.
Television appearances kept coming the following year, when they appeared on Frankie Laine’s variety show on CBS, which was a summer replacement for Arthur Godrey’s. While continuing to record singles with Laine (another Columbia Records signee), four new singles were unleashed that year, as well – “A House With Love In It,” “The Bus Stop Song,” and “Who Needs You” all made the top 20 in both Canada and the US. Only “My Little Angel” failed to make the top 20 mark in the US, but peaked at #11 in Canada. Although label execs thought reissuing “Mocking Bird” as a single would be a good idea, it failed to make the top 40 anywhere.
1956’s ON THE SUNNY SIDE album was released, and contained what had become their signature mix of original material written for them and renditions of pop classics, ranging from George and Ira Gershwin’s “Bidin’ My Time” to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy River.”
1957 saw the release of two albums, THE FOUR LADS SING FRANK LOESSER, where they covered some of the composer’s more popular songs, and LOVE AFFAIR. They also managed enough time in the studio to release three singles that year. “I Just Don’t Know.” which stalled at #17 in the US, and only slightly better at home led the pack. It was followed by the top 10 hits “Put a Light In the Window” (#4 in Canada and #8 in the US) and “There’s Only One of You” (#10 in the US and Canada).
After being pressured from the label, they re-recorded “Mocking Bird” in ’58, which peaked in the top 40 in both Canada and the US, and followed the only new single that year, “Enchanted Island,” which made the top 10 in Canada and #12 Stateside. The same year, they released FOUR ON THE AISLE, a collection of medleys from the theatre productions, “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Babes In Arms” and “Annie Get Your Gun.” They also reunited with Ray Ellis’ orchestra that year for the new album, BREEZIN’ ALONG.
But their run atop the charts was fading, and neither of their singles in 1959, “The Fountain of Youth” or “Happy Anniversary” made the top 70 in North America. But they maintained a steady presence on the small screen that year while continuing to tour, appearing on “The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom” and on “Perry Presents.” They also released another pair of albums that year, SWING ALONG and a collection of contemporary gospel hits, HIGH SPIRITS.
After switching to United Artists, their last original album came in the form of EVERYTHING GOES in 1960. But by this point the musical landscape was changing, and doo-wop was giving way to Motown and the evolving rock and roll. Trying to change with the times, three songs by Cole Parter gave the record a swinging groove, but kids weren’t buying it. After a few more singles, the band called it quits for awhile, while everyone got on with normal life.
Columbia began packaging the band’s material with some of their other signees (lots of bands with the number four in their name, among others) throughout the ’60s. By the early ’70s the band was back on the circuit, minus Codarini, who’d gotten into the restaurant business. But after a few years, Toorish left to become an insurance salesman. The impact The Four Lads made on the Canadian music scene was recognized in 1984, when they were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at that year’s Juno Awards. Along with them, The Crew Cuts and The Diamonds were also inducted.
By the late ’80s Arnold had left to teach voice in Calfiornia, and Busseri had moved around throughout the US, and still performed with a variety of other singers as The Four Lads, and continued to do short series of shows around the US and Canada. Still fronting The Four Lads in dinner theatres and concert halls around 100 shows per year, Brusseri and longtime members Don Farrar, Aaron Bruce, and Alan Sokoloff were part of PBS Television’s fundraising drive, appearing in the DVD performance of “Magic Moments – The Best of ’50s Pop,” which is still shown regularly on the network.
This helped open a floodgate of re-releases and compilations for all doo-wop artists in general later that decade. The Four Lads’ saw MOMENTS TO REMEMBER, a 21 track definitive collection released on Taragon Records in 2000. A year later, they also got a surge when Sony Special Products re-issued Frankie Laine’s favourite gospel songs in a compilation, which also featured Johnny Ray, and themselves. That same year, Collectables Records began reissuing two-in-one packages – ON THE SUNNY SIDE and BREEZIN’ ALONG, and SWING ALONG and EVERYTHING GOES. In ’04, Collectables then released STAGE SHOW and LOVE AFFAIR on a single CD a year later.
In 2003, the original four members reunited in New York for their induction into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Jimmy Arnold died on June 15, 2004, and Connie Codarini died April 28, 2010.