They were the Buddies, never the 4 Buddies. It was just a name they liked. They knew there was a famous 4 Buddies around (the Savoy group, which formed around the same time they did). Credit the record company with trying to practice a bit of deception.
The Buddies began around 1950 in the Ida B. Wells housing projects in Chicago. They liked to sing and they did it as often as they could. Their roster remained pretty constant over the years, except for one tenor position that changed a couple of times. At the beginning, they were: Ularsee Manar (lead tenor), Jimmy Hawkins (tenor), Nathaniel "Sam" Hawkins (tenor), and Willie Bryant (bass/baritone). Around a year later they added baritone/bass Dickie Umbra.
In April of 1951, "I Will Wait" by the Savoy 4 Buddies (from Baltimore) entered the R&B charts. The Chicago Buddies were probably glad that they'd only styled themselves the "Buddies." But fate was waiting for them.
The Buddies picked the Clovers as their first idols. Later on, there was also the Drifters. Oddly, another group they admired was the 4 Jacks (presumably the ones on Federal). Using the material of those groups, they haunted lots of local clubs and talent shows for several years. They even occasionally sang gospel, as the Mount Moriah Five.
Probably in 1954, Sam Hawkins left and was replaced by tenor Donald Ventors. Ventors wasn't with them all that long before returning to his native Texas. He, in turn, was replaced by tenor Irvin Hunter.
And then they met DJ McKie Fitzhugh of WOPA (Chicago). He was one of those DJs who broadcast from a storefront and the guys dropped by one day to audition for him. They ended up being on his program several times, and appeared with him on his annual Music Jamboree, held on September 18 at the Corpus Christi Auditorium. This was a benefit show (with the proceeds going to the blind), which also featured the 5 Echoes, the El Dorados, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Eddie Boyd, Jimmy Rogers, and the Soul Stirrers.
Through Fitzhugh, they met entrepreneur Jimmie Davis, who owned the Savoy Record Mart (at 527 East 63rd Street) and the Park City Bowl, a skating rink a couple of blocks away (at 345 East 63rd). He heard the group on Fitzhugh's show, decided to manage them, and asked Fitzhugh to have them contact him.
Davis wasn't a bad manager. He kept the Buddies working at shows that he himself promoted. Then, in March of 1955, he decided to start a record label. He wanted to call it Savoy 51 (as in Savoy Record Mart and the year in which the roller rink opened). However, since Savoy Records (home of the now-extinct 4 Buddies) was still around, that idea didn't make it past the drawing board. Instead, it became Club "51" (later to have the quotes dropped from around the 51). The hand-drawn (by Davis, in all probability) label depicted a brick wall and the long awning of the "club." [Here's a nice article on the Club 51 label.]
The Buddies began their recording career in March 1955, when they backed up Rudy Greene on a single side: "You Mean Everything To Me." As long as they were around that day, they also got to back up thrush Bobbie James on her version of Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Need You So." (Bobbie was primarily a gospel singer, but occasionally did secular work.) The orchestra was that of tenor sax player Eddie Chamblee, with Robert "Prince" Cooper on piano.
Both records were issued in April 1955 and guess whose name was on the labels? Well, you'd expect Rudy Greene's name and you'd expect Bobbie James' name, but you'd have been surprised to see that the Buddies had magically turned into the "4 Buddies." This was nothing the guys had any control over (or even knowledge of before it happened). Davis presumably hoped that people would remember the original 4 Buddies and be confused enough to buy the records. Nice plan; didn't work.
Both records were reviewed on May 7: the Bobbie James tune received a "poor" rating, while the Rudy Greene effort was awarded a "fair." Other records reviewed that week included Sam Taylor's "Red Sails In The Sunset," the Dreams' "I'll Be Faithful," the Spaniels' "Don'cha Go," the Cookies' "Later, Later," the Diablos' "Do You Remember What You Did?," Babs Gonzalez' "Hairdressin' Women," Dan Grissom & the Ebb-Tones' "Recess In Heaven," the Regals' "Got The Water Boiling," the Dells' "Tell The World," Charlie Calhoun's (Jesse Stone) "Smack Dab In The Middle," and the Roamers' "Chop Chop Ching A Ling."
In May 1955, "Bobbie James and Her Buddies" appeared at the Park City Bowl in a McKie Fitzhugh show that also featured Amos Milburn, the Clouds, and the Danderliers.
Also in May (probably) the Buddies finally got to record a couple of tunes on their own. "Delores" and "Look Out" were songs the guys had written themselves (Delores was Dickie Umbra's girlfriend at the time). Both were led by Ularsee Manar (with Jimmy Hawkins aiding on "Delores"). This time Davis used the Lefty Bates Orchestra, which included Bates on guitar, Red Holloway on tenor sax, and Prince Cooper on piano. As far as I can tell, the record was never sent out for review.
Unfortunately, Jimmie Davis really had no concept of how to promote and distribute records, so all these efforts were pretty much doomed from the start. There were other songs that the Buddies practiced for Davis (including "Nightfall"), but he never recorded them again.
You can't blame disillusionment for setting in. The Buddies had waited a long time to record. Now they had and they were going nowhere. Within a year of the recordings, the Buddies had broken up. (Club 51 barely outlasted them; by the time 1958 rolled around, it was gone.)
Who knows what the Buddies could have achieved had they been with a bigger label? There were so many in Chicago to choose from; they didn't choose well.
Special thanks to Bob Stallworth and Bob Campbell for the label photographs. Discography courtesy of Ferdie Gonzalez.
103 You Mean Everything To Me (RG)/[Highway No. 1 - Rudy Greene] - 4/55
104 I Need You So (BJ)/[Baby I'm Tired - Bobbie James] - 4/55
105 Delores (UM/JH)/Look Out (UM) - 5/55
RG = the Buddies backing Rudy Greene; BJ = the Buddies backing Bobbie James;
UM = Ularsee Manar; JH = Jimmy Hawkins