(NOTE: the town of Twentynine Palms, California has decided to spell it that way, rather than "Twenty-nine Palms." English majors can send nasty letters to their Chamber of Commerce.)
When you're in military service, especially in peacetime, things can get quite boring and there's always the need to relax and unwind. This is probably the reason that so many groups formed in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.
"Why is the saga of the Four Palms so important?" asks Nate Thomas, the group's bass. "Well, for one thing, we were representative of how talent was abused, mismanaged, or exploited in the 50s.... Our records featured tight exquisite harmony, a clear distinctive lead voice, and to this day, many think that we were a white doo-wop group. Despite this, our comedic showmanship on stage was as unique as was our ability to interact with an audience as few have ever done without a big-selling record."
The story of the Four Palms goes back to 1957 and some Marines who were stationed at Twentynine Palms, California (in the heart of the beautiful Mojave Desert; it isn't too far from Needles, where Snoopy's brother Spike lives). At least the seclusion meant that artillery shells wouldn't hit anyone. "It's about 160 miles east of Los Angeles but we liked to joke that it was so far into the desert even camels would get thirsty," says Nate.
"At Twentynine Palms, recreation consisted of going to the nightly movies. If there was no movie you went to your company rec room and either shot pool or goofed around.... Typically, around 3:00 on a Friday, if you owned or had access to a car, the base looked like a jailbreak was occurring. Everyone got the hell out as fast as possible to go to L.A., San Bernardino, Palm Springs, or wherever. Twentynine Palms was like being exiled into hell where, in the summer, temperatures of 110 degrees and above were normal." Sounds like a tourist mecca to me.
The Marine Corps is actually part of the Navy, and each year the Navy held a talent contest. Camp Pendleton, of which Twentynine Palms was a part, sent contestants to the Eleventh Naval District Finals in San Diego, but Twentynine Palms had never been represented. "The winners of the base competitions went to the district [there were fourteen Naval Districts]. One to three of each district's winners were flown to New York City for the world finals, which were held at St. Albans Naval Hospital [Queens] in front of over a thousand disabled veterans and active sailors. The winners (plus whoever Marlowe Lewis, Ed Sullivan's producer, selected to fill out the show) would appear on the Ed Sullivan All-Navy show."
Tired of never being represented, the Special Services at Twentynine Palms (which handled entertainment for the troops) unilaterally decided to send some acts to the San Diego finals. They proposed to hold a talent contest one night in March 1957 at the base theater. While some budding talents might have looked forward to this, most were angry because there wouldn't be a movie that night!
So the practicing began in the rec room. "Six of the singers stood out, more or less: Melvin Reddick, a short, non-descript, young man from Cleveland, had an awful voice but he was enthusiastic. Ervin Lucas, from Danville, Illinois, had an infectious smile and could sing, and it was also said that he was one hell of a tap dancer. Louis Faison from Detroit was good at either tenor or bass. James Jackson, from New Orleans, claimed to be a drummer, but he could sing any part any time, and could find the missing harmonic part in an instant. Hasker Nelson, from Cincinnati, took it upon himself to lead since no one else seemed to want to; he seemed to take himself far more seriously than others. [He had an amazing vocal range although he had problems with rhythm.] Nate 'Tom' Thomas, from Chicago, had just reported to the base in mid-January as a radio operator. A natural bass talker and singer, he had sung with four or five different groups overseas and was just trying to meet people as the new guy on the base." All were Pfcs (Privates, First Class), except for Nate Thomas, who was a Corporal.
They (all except Lucas) started practicing the El Dorados' "At My Front Door" and, after hearing it for a half dozen times, "Lucas suggested that we come to the theater and sing in the talent show.... Hell.... what if we won and got a free trip to San Diego! While walking the three blocks to the theater we decided to sing "At My Front Door" and "Without Love," Clyde McPhatter's big record being played all over the country. Our version was different: we had a baritone rather than tenor lead and we sang it a cappella. We also were not very good."
Corporal Bell, of Special Services, was overjoyed to see them show up (there were only three other acts: a solo singer, a guy who told not-particularly-funny jokes, and Lucas who "did his tap dancing act after playing the bongos in the dark with luminous green coloring on his hands." This was the beginning of the Four Palms: "We called ourselves, the Five Boondockers. We were bad, but not so bad as the other three acts, so we took first place. Lucas was second." Since "boondocks" means somewhere out in the backwoods, away from all civilization, it was a fitting name for a group from Twentynine Palms.
At that point, the Boondockers decided to do some typical military wheeling and dealing. They went to Corporal Bell and wheedled their way into getting mornings off so that they could practice (the San Diego finals were only five weeks away). This meant that "we could avoid the dreaded morning physical exercise and running that 400 yards around the parade grounds each day."
The Corporal also broke the news to them that groups were limited to four singers, so someone had to go. "That gave us an excuse to get rid of Reddick. He was shorter than the rest of us at 5'3" whereas, Jackson, Faison and Nelson were all 5'7" and me, I'm 5'10". More important, Reddick was tone deaf and absolutely could not sing (but everyone was too nice to tell him)."
They began practicing every day, and soon the effort began to bear fruit. "We began to get very good and to build up a repertoire of songs. We developed choreography and discovered that we liked one another. We knew that we couldn't win in San Diego, but we were not going to be embarrassed." The guys had a long history of listening to R&B to draw from. "Our heroes in the late 40s and early 50s were the Orioles, Clovers, Crickets, Counts, Spaniels, Flamingos, 5 Royales, Cardinals, Ravens, and Dominoes. Later came the Drifters and Platters."
But it's one thing to just rehearse and another to get some practice at stage presence. "Three weeks before San Diego, Corporal Bell arranged for us to entertain (for free) at the Smoke Tree Supper Club in Smoke Tree, California, a little community right outside of Twentynine Palms. On the Thursday night when we performed, about 30 people were present. We were more concerned about the free food spread we were admiring than the sparse audience."
There was applause, but they didn't exactly bring the house down. However, at intermission, "one young lady approached me and said, 'I have a lot of records but you guys really sound different. You're going to win in San Diego.'" It was nice to hear, but it didn't go far towards convincing them.
But the appearance did inspire them to practice harder. "We had made a major change in our presentation. I suggested that the El Dorados' 'Bim Bam Boom' told a better story, including a punch line, which 'At My Front Door' did not have. We tried it out at the Supper Club and it went over so big that we made the switch, and developed some very tight choreography to support the words of the song. It was tough since neither Jack nor Hasker were good dancers, but they managed to learn well enough to appear in sync."
They also decided to change the group's name. Exit the "Boondockers" and enter the "Four Palms" (in honor of the Twentynine Palms base).
Finally, there was the Saturday in April when they drove the 100 miles or so to San Diego, where the competition was being held at a YMCA. "We almost passed out when we saw the program for the talent show. There were 64 acts appearing and we were 60th!"
The YMCA was packed: "My guess is about 1100 people. As we watched each act appear, especially other groups, we took note of how we could improve our act, and we would go backstage to practice doing it."
The Eleventh Naval District comprises most of the West Coast, and the guys saw a wide assortment of talent, including a half-dozen other vocal groups. "They sounded outstanding to us."
One thing the Four Palms noticed with the other groups was that one microphone wasn't enough to pick up the background voices clearly, so they demanded two mikes when it came their turn.
But it's nerve-wracking to be so far down on the bill. "We waited and waited and began to get fatigued from waiting to perform. Lucas had gone on 24th [with his dance act] and was now joking around. Most important as one pretty ballad followed another, the audience was getting tired and applause was getting harder to come by. We thought that we were dead meat."
And then it was time: "When we finally marched out singing cadence, I don't know if it was the timing, the music, or what, but something happened. The audience perked up and the judges began to smile. When we broke into 'Bim Bam Boom,' we could hear ourselves over the silence, and when I said the punch line, 'She looked like something from the Brookfield Zoo,' the audience exploded with laughter, and at the end of the song people were standing and applauding."
Then they launched into "Without Love" and Nate could hear one of the judges say "Where did they come from? I've never heard of them." They sang and they sang, but the audience was silent. "I wondered what the hell was going on? Was the mike off? Could we be heard? There we were singing our asses off, and not a sound from the audience. But then, all four of us noticed, as our routine turned us toward the judges, that both of the female judges were crying. Man this was scary, but...at the end, with Hasker's last words, 'Without love, I have nothing at all,' the building exploded."
All they wanted to do was break the monotony of military life. They figured they could come to San Diego and bum around for a while, seeing the sights. Anything to get off base. And now "People were slamming seats up and down, stomping, whistling, screaming. I felt the goose bumps all over my body. All we had to do was finish first, second, or third and we could go to New York. At that moment we knew we had a chance."
According to the rules, the top-scoring five acts had to come back for a brief 20-second piece of their act, after which the judges would announce the winners and runners-up. "We were so sure that we wouldn't win anything we had never prepared a 20-second routine."
The exhausted judges mulled it over and finally made their decision. "Not only did they call us as one of the top five, but Lucas also made it with his bongo/tap dancing. As the last act to be called, we were still arguing as to what to do as the announcer called out, 'And now the Four Palms.' We immediately began singing our cadence and marching onto the stage. The rules said nothing about audience intervention, and as we marched out, the noise from the audience was so loud we couldn't hear ourselves. The audience kept yelling 'more, more' and we kept bowing. As we left, we kept asking each other 'Could we possibly win this contest?'
The answer wasn't long in coming, and soon the Four Palms knew that they were going to New York, as first-place winners, to represent the Eleventh Naval District. "For the first time we began to believe that maybe we were a lot better than we thought."
["By the way, Lucas came in fourth and was the first alternate if one of the top three could not make New York."]
When they got back to the base, they had trouble getting anyone to believe that they had won. But "when that first place trophy went up with our picture in the lobby of the theater, which also housed Special Services upstairs, there were many believers. The headlines of the following week's base newspaper made us even bigger heroes."
But not everyone doubted them. There were a couple of civilian clerks at the base PX (Antoinette and Shirley), who'd always asked the guys to sing for them. "Antoinette was the young wife of one of the officers, and Shirley was the daughter of one. We had met two or three Joans and an equal number of Jeans, and I suggested at rehearsal that we should have at least one original song. So, since so many songs about girls' names both before and during the Rock and Roll craze had become hits, I opined that a song about many girls would be even better. Thus, we began rehearsing, 'Jeanie, Joanie, Shirley, Toni (Who Will It Be?)' We weren't quite ready to perform it in the two weeks prior to leaving for New York but it was written, and the copyright had been applied for. We just told ourselves that if we ever made a record then we had a song to sing. No, we never thought about a 'B' side."
There were two more weeks of rehearsal, then, in May 1957, it was off to Queens, New York, where the competition would be held the next night. This time there were only 24 other acts to contend with. They came to Queens from Navy bases all over the world. However, the Four Palms were the only Marines!
And what a time they had, after the Mojave Desert. "We eagerly shared stories about the fancy Henry Hudson Hotel where we were all staying, and the fabulous Sunday meals we were served. We were each receiving a $12.00 per diem, which was about $7.00 a day more than we needed to eat (especially the Four Palms, since we pooled our money and ate 'fast food' or brought our food in from one of the New York delis)."
During the day, all the acts got together to rehearse. "If there was one thing that kept everyone's ego in check, it was the rehearsal. Those 25 acts were all deserving. The only acts we knew we were capable of defeating were those we had outpointed in San Diego, and even those were no "lead pipe" cinch. Don Wyatt, the runner up [who would join the Colts after being discharged] was an excellent singer and impressionist. Randy Sparks, the third place act, had records on the market and had just formed the New Christy Minstrels, a folk singing group. He had asked us to consider joining him but we told him that there was no way we were going to sing with anybody named 'minstrels'! There was the Mallet Men, a duo who played 'The Flight of the Bumble Bee' on a single Xylophone. Another awesome act was the Playboys, a quartet that sounded like the Hi Los."
That night, they got to be the 14th act out of the 25. "It beat the hell out of being 60th. In retrospect, however, had we not been 60th in San Diego, we would not have had the time to revise our act 'on the fly' as we had done, and we might not have won."
Whereas they had once had to fight to get two microphones, now technology stepped in. "We were a bit concerned that instead of the two microphones we normally used, they were trying something new-a transistorized wireless microphone, about the size of a silver dollar which was placed in a spot, front and center stage. It supposedly would pick up any sound on stage and balance it relative to its volume. We were skeptical but really had no choice but to try it."
For once, however, technology lived up to its hype. "That night, the Four Palms sounded so good it was frightening. The microphone was ideal for our clowning around, as well as the mood-altering harmony. The audience reaction was the same as in San Diego, but multiplied by four. This was, no doubt, the most perfect presentation we had ever done, and we knew it. We didn't know if we would win, but we wanted to make the Ed Sullivan show for all kinds of reasons (the most important one being able to stay in New York the remainder of the week in order to see New York and to meet some New York women)."
Forget the suspense; the Four Palms won the Worldwide All-Navy Talent Contest, garnering three firsts: they were the first Marine act to ever win, the first Black act, and the first Rock and Roll group. They got to stay in New York for a week, in order to appear on the Ed Sullivan show's Navy Talent Show.
And the Corps made a big deal out of it too. "The next day, U.S. Marine Corps public relations people were with us most of the day, taking pictures, quotes, writing human interest stories back to our hometowns. And, Leatherneck Magazine the Bible of the Marine Corps, took our pictures for their cover and world-wide distribution. While all of this was going on we received a telegram to report to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to be fitted for dress-blue Marine uniforms. Contrary to popular opinion, although the dress-blue uniform is the one most associated in the public eye with the Marines, it's not normally issued to all Marines. With rare exceptions, Marines must buy the dress-blue uniform out of their paychecks. We had become a "rare exception," and the Marine Corps was determined to get bragging rights for at least a year. They wanted us to look good on television. We loved all of it!"
During their week off, "We went to the Apollo Theater and the Paramount Theater to see some live shows. In California, we had never heard of Louis Lymon & the Teenchords, or the Paragons. We also saw Mickey & Sylvia, the Jive Bombers, and Louis Jordan & his Tympany Five."
Finally, Sunday, May 12, 1957, the Big Day. "We were disappointed in that we would sing 'Bim Bam Boom,' but not the more serious 'Without Love.' We did a bang-up version of the up-tempo song along with Ray Bloch's Orchestra and received a huge ovation. It went so fast I don't even remember doing the song. All I can say is we were functioning on pure adrenalin. We were so hyped-up we were floating on just the idea of being seem by 18 million people.... Since there was no videotape then, we never saw the show until 1986, when I discovered a copy of the show in Beverly Hills, California and bought a copy. For the first time I saw The Four Palms as the public saw them."
They made some side trips on the way home. One of them was appearing in a show in Butte, Montana. The Montana Standard of May 15, 1957 reported: "All-Navy Contest Winners to Show in Butte A razor-sharp Marine Corps quartet which recently won first place in the fourth all-Navy talent contest in New York will be among the headliners to participate in "Shipmate Varieties," the scintillating Navy revue coming to Butte's Civic Center May 22. The Four Palms from the Marine base at Twenty-Nine Palms Calif., uniting a marching act with deft harmonizing, won the Judges' decision in a packed auditorium at the St. Albans Naval Hospital, New York."
Once they got back to Twentynine Palms, the guys found that their lives had been irrevocably changed. "When we got back to Twentynine Palms, it seemed like it was all over, but there was mail from all over the country, invites to visit local organizations and one incident that was a key to our future. We received word that General McFarland, the Commander of the base, wanted to see us. We figured more congratulations, a job well done, now back to work. Instead the General was hesitant, almost apologetic, as he greeted us and he hoped that this wasn't too much of an inconvenience. Can you imagine a general in the Marine Corps saying that to a Corporal and three Privates? He continued by telling us that he had seen the show along with his wife and daughter and they all loved our music. He explained that he was retiring in three months, but he promised his daughter that he would try to get us to perform at her birthday party at the Officers Club the following week. We didn't know his daughter but we told him that we would be honored to perform. We figured that after a thank-you appearance at the San Diego YMCA that Saturday, his daughter's birthday would probably be our last show. He seemed pleased and guaranteed us a full house. We told him to just give us two mikes and a decent sound system. With that we left, none the worse for wear and tear."
So the Four Palms returned to San Diego to appear at a record hop and distribute autographed photos. When it was over, all they had were the anticipation of the birthday party and, who knows, maybe someday recording "Jeanie, Joanie, Shirley, Toni".
The day of the birthday party, they showed up at the Officers Club and received a surprise that none of them had anticipated. "Before the show we asked General McFarland if we could we meet his daughter and maybe bring her up on stage and do something special for her birthday. Imagine our shock when he introduced us to Shirley McFarland, the clerk from the PX (our biggest fan, for whom we had written 25% of "Jeanie, Joanie, Shirley, Toni")! What a set-up! After doing 15 minutes of what we normally did, we invited Shirley to the stage. We also brought up Antoinette, who was there with her husband. We kidded them about how they bugged us to sing, and made us practice harder, because we needed a new song each time we visited the PX."
Then the Four Palms unveiled their own surprise: "We asked Antoinette to just listen while we serenaded Shirley with our first public singing of the song we had written especially for them, 'Jeanie, Joanie, Shirley, Toni.' There wasn't a dry eye in the house, including ours. It was just one of those romantic moments that seem to happen once in a lifetime: genuine, poignant, moving, emotional, and soul-stirring. As we hit the last note of the song, everyone could hear the sobbing as tears of happiness engulfed Shirley. The General and his wife were crying too."
And then, the Four Palms learned that it never hurts to do good things for the boss. "As we prepared to leave, the general said to us 'You've made me and my family so happy. If there's anything I can do for you before I retire, all you have to do is ask.' So we told him how, following the Ed Sullivan Show, the Navy performers went on a worldwide recruitment tour. As Marines, we weren't eligible and even if we were, our orders did not include a tour. We wanted to go to some base near civilization, where we could perform, on behalf of the Marine Corps. We suggested San Diego or Los Angeles. He said that he would see what he could do."
A couple of weeks later, the Four Palms received orders to report for duty at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, a little southeast of Los Angeles. "The Four Palms weren't finished after all; we were just warming up. The orders included 20 days of furlough, after which we were to report to El Toro. To each set of orders the general added a note which read 'Break a leg.'"
When they reported to El Toro, they were immediately assigned to the Special Services unit. James Jackson (a truck driver) was assigned to the movie theater as a projectionist. Louis Faison (a tank driver) was assigned to the Education Office, to assist in giving, GED, USAFI, and other tests. Hasker Nelson (a supply clerk) became a librarian. Nate Thomas (a field radio operator) became an administrative assistant in the Special Services main office.
Even better, the Four Palms shared barracks with base security so they knew every security guard at every gate on the base. "We were given 24-hour passes, which allowed us to come and go at any time of day or night. We had been assigned, on paper, from one unit to another through so many administrative paper transfers that no one knew to which unit we permanently belonged. As a consequence, we never had night watch, additional duties, inspections or special details. We were expected to sing and that is what we intended to do."
And it wasn't only the leathernecks that the Four Palms had to contend with: "The base newspaper had foretold our coming and thus the Women's Marine Detachment as well as the W.A.V.E.S. were keenly aware of our arrival. Our social life improved 2,000%. The women had a private enlisted women's club called the High Heels. Men could only be admitted by being signed in by a woman. Any time one of the Four Palms showed up, there were ample women more than happy to sign him in. We spent more time in the High Heels than at any other place on the base."
The Los Angeles Times of October 6, 1957 had a two-column article about their transfer to El Toro, titled "Quartet Adds Tone To El Toro's Talent". It ended with "The group has been scheduled for an appearance on the Marines' own 'Dress Blues' TV show in addition to radio and other TV shows."
Now it was time to sing (after all, that's what the Marine Corps was paying them to do! "We signed with the ABC Booking Agency of San Diego and, between ABC, high schools, colleges, women's clubs, commercials, and the Marine Corps (appearing at officers clubs and at base shows), we stayed busy. In less than six months we were all promoted, so it was now one sergeant and three Corporals. The booking agency provided extra money, the Marine Corps kept us singing, and the military women provided all the companionship we would ever need (much of it platonic). It may sound like a groovy situation but four guys can't do a hell of a lot with 25-30 women, no matter what you may think."
The more you toured, the more you exposed yourself to the dangers of the road. "One weekend, on a Sunday night, after doing three shows, four weary Palms were driving back to El Toro. I was driving, as a light rain fell on the notorious Highway 101. As we approached La Jolla, Jack yelled out from the back, 'Tom! Tom!' [Nate Thomas' nickname is 'Tom'] Before I could respond, the car went into a spin as the steering wheel began to spin around and around. The car headed left, toward the oncoming traffic as it jumped the divider and continued to spin around and around. Everyone was silent as the car plowed, right rear fender first, into a mountain, and fell ever so slowly, back onto its left side and stopped. Everyone was talking but me, so someone said, 'Tom, Tom, are you all right?' I replied, 'Yes, but lets get the hell out of this car.' As we climbed out, the State Patrol arrived. The horn was stuck as we pushed the car back to the upright position, and the police opened the hood and began to cut wires. I reached over and disconnected the battery. The noise stopped. Other than a bump on Louis' head, there were no injuries. Luckily, traffic had been stopped by the only traffic light on the entire 120-mile stretch of Highway 101 between Los Angeles and San Diego. Had that light been green, the Four Palms would never have been around to record anything. Had we gone off the side of the road where we were driving, it was a 200-foot drop off the mountain. It was always fun, but never easy."
Sometime in November 1957, they appeared at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach, California as part of the entertainment for a Community Chest drive.
In March, 1958, an officer at the base got them in touch with Eddie and Leo Mesner's Aladdin Records in Los Angeles. At the time they inked the contract, only Nate and Jack were 21 and legally old enough to sign.
On April 21, they reported to the Aladdin studios to record "Jeanie, Joanie, Shirley, Toni." This was a given, but what would they put on the flip? It turned out that Nate had written several other songs, but Hasker never seemed to want to devote the time to practicing them. "We didn't have anything for the flip side [they had even thought about doing their cadence song], so one of the record company people brought in the sheet music for a song called 'Consideration' by someone named Tom Beck. Hasker was a pretty good music reader, and he agreed to give it a try. After about 15 minutes of trial and error, we recorded the song with Hasker reading the words and me using hand signals to direct the background in singing 'oo, ah, bop bop baa.' We finished it on the third take and never sang the song again! Cashbox called the 'potential' 2-sided hit its Pick Of The Week and Billboard called 'Jeanie, Joanie, Shirley, Toni' its Sleeper Of The Week."
At the session, Hasker Nelson sang lead, Louis Faison was tenor, James Jackson was baritone, and Nate Thomas handled the bass chores (although he's also doing the high tenor in the intro and at the end of "Jeanie," since he could sing higher than Louis for short bursts). The record was released in May and reviewed on May 12 (with "Jeanie" getting an "excellent" and "Consideration" receiving a "good"). Other reviews that week went to the Chantels' "I Love You So," the Pastels' "You Don't Love Me Anymore," the Lockettes' "You Don't Want Me," the Guytones' "Baby I Don't Care," and the 5 Masks' "Forever And A Day." It's probable that Aladdin owned the publishing rights to "Consideration" (a fairly boring teenage tale), since this was the title they put in their ads.
In June 1958, they entertained at Tustin (California) High School; they were back there in November.
So far, the Four Palms had been climbing up and up in the world. But there's just so far up you can go. "Life was great for us and then the first chink in the armor appeared. This year's All-Navy Talent Contest was approaching and we were having a problem getting one of our members to practice. We had done so many shows and earned so much money (we were all driving Cadillacs) that he had lost the incentive do talent shows. We went to the Eleventh Naval District talent show and he forgot the words to the song! The judges mercifully gave us second place, behind a drill team. In New York, we fared no better than sixth place, but we were asked to perform while the judges determined a winner, and we did one of our comic routines. The Sullivan show producer liked it and we got to perform it on the show in August of 1958. We had however lost that youthful enthusiasm that made us click. We had become too professional and too serious."
But not too serious or professional to escape scrutiny. "Somewhere along the way, about six months prior to our discharge, one of the Marines in the barracks wanted to hang with us and started following us everywhere we went. We wondered why he was around all of a sudden, when for ten months he ignored us and seldom spoke. Also, we didn't know where he worked, since he was never on guard duty at a gate. Well, one night we were coming back from a show in Los Angeles, and I asked him why he was hanging with us all of a sudden. I hastily remarked, 'You must be a CID man [Criminal Investigation Division] the way you're acting." As it turned out he was a CID man and had been ordered to follow us around looking for evidence of drug selling, buying, or other involvement. We never saw him again after that night. We could have told him from day one that he was wasting time; to this day, none of the Four Palms has ever used drugs."
And then, all good things come to an end (including your hitch as a Marine). "Our last actual appearance in uniform was at the Marine Corps League in San Francisco on New Year's Eve, 1958. For some reason we had not been paid our Marine salaries, so we came up with a scheme to enrich ourselves: we were helping to put cards (containing notices of prizes of drinks, money, and sandwiches) into the balloons that would be dropped to bring in 1959. We decided to put the prize notices in the black balloons only, so that at midnight we could pop those and alleviate our weak financial status. Well, midnight came and the balloons dropped from the ceiling. Everyone rushed to pop balloons - except us; we were on stage singing 'Auld Lang Syne.' So much for our grand scheme."
James Jackson was the last member to be discharged, in February 1959. (By that time, Nate was a sergeant and the rest were corporals.) Since the Marines weren't paying them anymore, they'd have to rely on the money coming in from Aladdin. "We had no royalties from 'Jeanie, Joanie, Shirley, Toni.' In fact, we were told that we owed the record company money! The ABC Booking Agency was providing work in San Diego, but maturity was also beginning to affect us."
At this time, it was time to take stock of their post-Marine life. "Louis had gotten married (to one of the Women Marines stationed with us at El Toro), I was engaged (to a girl I had met while we were first in New York for the talent contest), and Jack had a live-in relationship in Los Angeles (with a single parent). Only Hasker was free of any long-term relationships at the time. We were cautiously optimistic as we became residents of Los Angeles." So now it was time to let reality intrude and find work "Fortunately, within two months, all of us had regular day jobs with weekends off. Jack was with Public Works in Beverly Hills; Louis was hired as a draftsman; Hasker and I were both employed by the gas company. Shows were frequent but rehearsals were getting more and more infrequent."
Next, they needed a good manager. They found him in the person of Murray Becker, whom they met somewhere along the way. "He began to get us backup work in the recording studios. We began to get a reputation as a versatile back-up group, with the ability to sight read, and Murray hooked us up with L.A.'s World Pacific Records to record. Nick Venet [the company's a&r man] had heard us do all kinds of songs, and had trouble putting us into a category. We liked to sing doo-wop, and we also liked to do comedy a la the Coasters but off-stage we would regale people with our impersonations of songs by the 4 Lads, 4 Aces, Hi Los, Dells, Platters, and even Ahmad Jamal."
World Pacific gave them some material to learn. "Nick [Venet] opted to go serious and asked us to learn a tune called 'Maybe It's Wrong,' to which he would add strings. We loved the concept. The flip side would be a Patti Page sound-alike waltz called 'That's All I'm Asking Of You.'" The record was released in November 1959.
However, for some reason, the owners of World Pacific were worried that the combined might of the U.S. Marine Corps and Aladdin Records would descend on them if they recorded the Four Palms under that name. So the guys made a fateful decision to change their name to the "Rainbeaus" (suggested by the people at World Pacific). It was the wrong move. "One crucial decision was made which turned out to be a big mistake. They asked us to record under the name 'Rainbeaus,' since they weren't sure of our status with Aladdin Records. (We know now that since we were in the military and some of us were under 21 at the time, the Aladdin contract was not valid on two counts.) Unfortunately, that meant our fan club, contacts, DJs who knew us, record sales at military bases, and many other things would be affected. Combine that with the fact that World Pacific was known as a jazz label, and had few contacts with R&R disk jockeys, so getting airplay was a problem. And, although, technically 'Maybe It's Wrong' was an outstanding production, many could not decide if the Rainbeaus were a black-sounding white group, or a white-sounding black group. We needed another song - which never came. The next release would have been a song we were working on called 'I Cried,' but it was rough and unfinished and was pure doo-wop, which was quite different from 'Maybe It's Wrong.' In other words we still had to find our style which, up to that point, was eclectic to say the least."
Getting a record out was only one of their problems. "We found ourselves doing few live shows and a lot of record hop lip-synching. For a group that thrived on live performing and audience interaction, this represented the last in a list of disappointments. Personality differences began to manifest themselves. For most groups these things occur, as do fights, jealousy, and other things, which eventually destroy the group. Our differences were minor compared to those big issues - so small in fact that they did not create the breakup. Bad management and the lack of focus on our part contributed more so than anything else."
The Rainbeaus lasted until January 1960. Their last show was held at the San Bernadino Auditorium, on Friday, January 29. As part of the "New March of Dimes Benefit Show and Dance," sponsored by KFXM ("#1 in the San Bernadino-Riverside Area"), they shared the bill with April Stevens, Wink Martindale, Gene McDaniels, Robin Luke, Robin Rocket, Tony Penn, Jody Berry, Billy Watkins, and Lou Rawls. The show was advertised on a handbill from KFXM, the week that Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel" rode the top of the charts and Percy Faith's "Theme From A Summer Place" was KFXM's Pick Hit Of The Week. The Rainbeau's "Maybe It's Wrong" clocked in as #44, under the "Wax to Watch" column. [Note that most pop music listeners had not yet heard of Gene McDaniels, formerly of the Sultans/Admirals, nor Lou Rawls, recently separated from the Pilgrim Travelers.]
Nate returned to his home town of Chicago in 1961, and he sums it up this way: "As I drove back to Chicago, a new job ahead and entertainment behind me, I realized that the Four Palms/Rainbeaus would be lasting memories. Yes, we could have made a few more records, done a few more gigs, but we had lost two key ingredients for success: ambition and hope. We could see nothing in our crystal ball which foretold change for us, and because we had given up more than we had gained, we lost hope. And sometimes, when all else is lost, hope is what keeps you going."
Jack ultimately ended up in the management end of waste disposal (for Beverly Hills Public Works), Hasker spent 25 years producing Black Memo, a Cincinnati TV show on WCPO. When he retired, in 1999, he was the station's Public Affairs Director. He was also the site manager for the station's Internet site. Today, he has a Black history research/publishing company called "Heritage Research Creations" and he's published a book called "Listening For Our Past: A Lay Guide To African American Oral History Interviewing." Nate Thomas, with a PhD, is an Assistant Dean in the College of Education at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Louis Faison passed away in 1999, in Detroit.
After all of this, the truth of the matter is that the Four Palms were nothing more than a blip on the recording scene. Considering what Aladdin Records had been capable of in years past, the group's session there is less than fulfilling. While Hasker Nelson's lead is clear enough, the group is buried in the background, almost as an afterthought. What we are left with, however, is a fascinating account of the rise and fall of a group; Nate has a great memory, detailing more than most group members remember about a 10-year career.
ALADDIN (as the Four Palms)
3411 Jeanie, Joanie, Shirley, Toni/Consideration - 5/58
WORLD PACIFIC (as the Rainbeaus)
810 Maybe It's Wrong/That's All I'm Asking Of You - 11/59
(All leads are by Hasker Nelson)