Notebook Cover

  The 4 Vagabonds

By Rick Whitesell, Pete Grendysa,
George Moonoogian, & Marv Goldberg

Interviews with
John Jordan and Norval Taborn
by Marv Goldberg
The original of this article appeared in:
Yesterday's Memories #7 (9/76)

4 Vagabonds Musicians, and the music they create, can inspire emotional debates among listeners and fans over which type of sound is best, who is the superior artist, etc. Now and then, however, a single artist or group projects a sound which is popular with an impressive cross-section of audiophiles. During the 1960s, for instance, Simon and Garfunkel had a sound which was generally liked and respected by virtually everyone. Extending this analogy to the realm of vocal group harmony, it is safe to say that there are a few scattered groups which are able to cross all the boundaries and receive a positive nod of the head from most collectors. One group which seems to fit into this category is the 4 Vagabonds.

Some of the Vagabonds [Note that there's a possibility that they named themselves after a quartet of famous men: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, tire king Harvey Firestone, and America's most famous naturalist, John Burroughs. From around 1915 to 1922 the four took summer trips together. Never missing a chance for publicity, Ford brought photographers and public relations people with him. This served to make them famous as the "Four Vagabonds". Sadly, I didn't know about this when I was doing the interviews.

Unfortunately, they weren't the only group of "Four Vagabonds" around, making it difficult sometimes to figure out if an appearance is actually them. There was a similarly-named group around in the mid-50s, after our group had broken up. The white group associated with Arthur Godfrey, usually just called itself the "Vagabonds".]


an early appearance The story of the 4 Vagabonds goes back to 1933 when lead tenor John Jordan and baritone Norval Taborn were singing with a forgotten bass and tenor in Vashon High in St. Louis. Soon after this first taste of group harmony, Taborn located first tenor Robert O'Neal and Jordan recruited bass and guitarist Ray Grant, Jr. Following their first rehearsal session, Jordan recalled that the foursome knew they had a good thing going (even though they were only singing glee club songs at the time). After only three weeks of singing together, the 4 Vagabonds were broadcasting their own show over WEW, the University of St. Louis radio station (first advertised on May 25, 1933). It was during this four-month stint that the Vashon High glee club was broken down into quartets for a school contest. Although the 4 Vagabonds were by far the most popular entry, the judges awarded first place to another group, pointing out that the quartet's following and radio gig indicated that they were likely to stick together anyway. The judges were certainly correct on that score.

John Albert Jordan was born on November 7, 1913 in Tennessee. He told the draft board it was a place called Wales, but he told Social Security it was Giles.

Norval Donahue Taborn was born on January 16, 1916 in East St. Louis, Illinois.

Robert Arthur O'Neal was born on November 18, 1916 in St. Louis, Missouri.

Raymond Conrad Grant, Jr was born on June 16, 1916 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

Years later, in November 1946, a four-part series of articles about the 4 Vagabonds appeared in the St. Louis Argus. It's long, but worth repeating:

PART 1 (November 8):

Fourteen years ago down Vashon High School, 3026 Laclede avenue, four young boys got together and formed a quartet to sing in a talent contest at the school. The judge didn't give them the prize, because, he said, "We know you'll stick together and really go places."

The judge was right on both counts. Those four St. Louis lads stuck together - and they went a long way. Today they are nationally known singing stars of the "Breakfast Club" in Chicago and recording artists whose "Rose of Charing Cross" and St. Louis Blues" have sold like hotcakes.

They came back to their hometown, on a personal appearance tour, for a successful stay at the Club Plantation a few weeks back - Ray Grant Jr., Johnny Jordan, Robert O'Neal and Norval Taborn - "The Four Vagabonds."

"We'd known each other a long time. All been singing together in the Glee Club," Ray, the bass and guitar player, said in his soft, quiet voice. The boys were lounging in their dressing room between shows, "When it came to forming the quartet, we just took the best singer from each section.

"We kinda had to rearrange things, though," Norval grinned. "Both Ray and I sang baritone, so he just shifted to bass."

From the Vashon High Glee Club, the youthful quartet went to Station WEW where they had a daily program for a year and a half. Then to WIL, where they did a program for the Missouri Insurance Company for two and a half years. Chicago, and the NBC Breakfast Club was next - they've been there for ten and a half years.

In those fourteen years, there has been only one change in the personnel of the "Vagabonds". Six years ago, they added an arranger, Bill Sanford, who is with them again after a stint in the army.

It's a cooperative, four-way affair with each one pitching in on ideas for their song. Although Ray figures as nominal leader, he demurs, "No one really leads. We just work together. That's the best way."

PART TWO (November 15):

In front of the spotlight, the Vagabonds sing almost as one, but backstage, personality differences are quite evident.

Robert, the chunky, round-faced first tenor, is the shy guy. He doesn't talk much, but a grin, a mile wide, is always there, showing two deep dimples in his brown cheeks.

The lead second tenor, Johnny, is the live-wire of the outfit, happy-go-lucky, a fast talker and ready wit. This good looking boy with snappy black eyes is ways on the go. "I don't know about the others fellas," he said, "but I'll sure have one great old time hack in the home town."

Norval, the "trumpet-man" (he imitates a horn for background rhythm when he's not singing baritone) is easy going, and would make a fine toothpaste ad. He has a beautiful smile.

Slightly built with neat refined features, Norval leans to the reserved side.

Heavy-set Ray has the air of calmness of a deeply religious man. His voice is low, mellow - he talks slowly, deliberately, measuring each word respectfully.

They're all in their early thirties (though none of them look it "show business keeps you young", Johnny thinks), married with two or three children.

"I was a father just last week" Robert grinned proudly. "A boy, too. Man, how about that," Johnny slapped him on the back.

All four come from musical families - choir singers, quartets, dramatic players, and they all started early on their singing careers.

Ray, who comes from "down South", Blytheville, Ark. (he moved to St. Louis in 1930), began when he was five. [What happened to Mound Bayou, Mississippi?] "I sang at the graduation exercises at the school. Yes, I even remember the song", he grinned. "All the Wrong You've Done to Me Is Bound to Come Back to You". The soft-voiced bass, likes church work - he was once secretary of his congregation. Ray used to read a lot during off-hours. "Before my eyes went bad," he explained, his hand moving to his dark glasses, "I collected French books. I like French for it's such a beautiful language."

PART 3 (November 22):

Johnny hails from Pulaski, Tennessee and also made his debut at the age of five. "My father was in a group of players, which incidentally originated a fish-fry. They entertained at a church and I sang "Aggravatin' Mama-Don't you Try To Two-Time Me". When he isn't singing, Johnny is hunting or fishing.

Norval, born in East St. Louis, can't remember when he wasn't singing. "Guess I kinda got it from my father. He was a quartet singer, too." The good-looking baritone is an accomplished mural and sketch artist.

"You ought to see the cocktail lounge he just decorated in Chi- cago," Robert added.

"And he plays clarinet, too. Know what we call him?" Johnny laughed, "Artie Slaw".

"Ok, you guys," Norval smiled, "how about Fluke Ellington?"

That's what they call Robert, who is studying piano. Robert's a real St. Louis native and has sung in many church choirs here. His first public appearance at the Booker T. Washington theatre when he was eight. "I was in an all Chinese play. We wore costumes and that sort of stuff."

No one could remember who named them the "Four Vagabonds."

"Just after we started, we were singing at different churches around town along with the showing of a religious movie, "Christus" (the life of Christ), singing the background to the different scenes," Ray explained.

They had to have a name for a billing one night and someone suggested "The Four Vagabonds". It stuck and it fits pretty well, for in their fourteen years, they have done a good deal of roving throughout the Middle West and along the East Coast.

Travel suits them fine, especially Johnny, who says, "I could keep on going so long as there are places to go to." They've been on the road this time since July and will keep on the hop for at least six months more.

Musical taste varies from town to town and it takes three or four performances to feel out the audiences. "For instance, now," Johnny said, "New York goes from one extreme to the other from jump to the slow old spirituals. St. Louis likes the older tunes and ballads." As one might imagine, they get a lot of calls here for "St. Louis Blues."

PART FOUR (November 29):

Give the Vagabonds any kind of music - they like to sing any type, be it spirituals, "pop" tunes, ballads, or light classics. "We like to sing what the people like," the lively second tenor continued, disclaiming any preference for particular songs. With the other three, ballads hold the edge. Robert and Norval choose them, while Ray would rather sing spirituals.

While they were here in St. Louis, the Vagabonds did a show for hospitalized soldiers at Jefferson Barracks. A lot of their fan mail comes from shut-ins and one of their steadiest fans is a crippled lady in Minnesota.

"We hear from her almost every day at the station," Ray explained, "and since we've been on the road, we really miss those letters. She always writes in poetry."

The Vagabonds have sung everywhere in every kind of place, theatres, night clubs, churches, large and small. One of their favorite stories is about the little radio station in Arkansas where they did a broadcast. "If you'll believe it," Johnny laughed, "the mike hung on a birdcage stand."

They still laugh about a large church concert in Peoria a couple of years back where the audiences kept calling for popular tunes. "Now, boys," the pastor told them, a trifle nonplussed, "I've got lots of requests for this song, "I Wonder". I don't know the tune, but I just don't think -" he stammered, "well, I just wouldn't advise you to sing it."

"He was a swell old guy," Ray mused.

Once, however, at a church show, the pastor asked them to sing their theme, "St. Louis Blues".

As far as places to sing their songs goes, "The Four Vagabonds" like theatres best of all. But they're not too particular. As Johnny put it, "Just give us a good amplifying system and we'll be happy."

On December 26, 1933, they were one of the acts at the Argus Worthy Boys Christmas Dinner, hosted by the St. Louis Argus.

On June 29, 1934, they were one of many acts at a benefit show and dance, at the St. Louis Municipal Auditorium, for the NAACP National Defense Fund. The only other act I've heard of was Velma Middleton.

"We learned how to think alike and act alike in building harmony and in doing shows", remembered John Jordan. "It is nice to think now that we specialized in harmony and not a lot of clowning around. If you move around too much, you'll lose the blend."

An audition for WIL (St. Louis) netted the group a Sunday show from 5:30 - 6 P.M., sponsored by the Missouri Insurance Co. Besides the weekly pay of $25.00, the quartet gained invaluable experience and developed their harmony patterns, usually engineered by Norval Taborn who had a flair for blending voices ("Norval was a genius with harmony", said John Jordan). The May 4, 1934 St. Louis Argus was somewhat critical of their WIL show: "If the Four Vagabonds would not blast so loudly over WIL, their music could be received with a more pleasing effect."

On October 1, 1934, they got another radio show, this time over St. Louis' KSD (6:00 to 6:15 PM); it was advertised until November 23. This show came about when they were called on to replace the Mills Brothers. This major break for the Vagabonds may very well have been due to the illness which ultimately took the life of John Mills, Jr. in January 1936, and nearly terminated The Mills Brothers' career for good. This would be ironic, since the 4 Vagabonds were so heavily influenced by the sound of The Mills Brothers. Probably, the most important thing about the show was that it could be heard in parts of Illinois.

On November 25, 1934 they entertained at a tea honoring singer Etta Moten.


Popularity did not come for the quartet because of records—they did not have a recording session until several years later—but through radio.

4 Vagabonds During the early 1930s, The Mills Brothers were propelled to immediate stardom by the new medium of radio. The Piqua, Ohio quartet was the first black vocal group to achieve nationwide fame, mainly as a result of their ability to imitate the sound of musical instruments with their voices and cupped hands. The 4 Vagabonds were heavily influenced by them (they also did the pseudo-instrumental effects), as well as by the wave of other groups which followed during the 30s: the 3 Keys, the Charioteers, the 3 Sharps and A Flat, the Ink Spots, and the Deep River Boys. More noticeably, the 4 Vagabonds developed their own unique brand of harmony from singing together constantly.

The March 7, 1936 Pittsburgh Courier said: "The Four Vagabonds, who have thrilled hundreds of radio listeners, left [St. Louis] Saturday for Chicago for an audition with NBC officials [in Chicago]. Good luck boys."

And luck they had. The March 21, 1936 Courier had an article titled "Four Vagabonds Sign Three Year Contract With NBC Radio Firm".

4 Vagabonds - 1936 4 Vagabonds - 1936 CHICAGO, Mar. 19 - The Four Vagabonds, a singing quartette similar to the Mills Brothers, signed a three-year contract last week with the National Broadcasting Company. George Engles, vice president of the radio concern of New York accepted them after R. M. Kendall, manager of the Artist Service Department in Chi submitted a contract for his signature. Joseph Richardson Jones, dialectician, character delineator and radio announcer at Dave's cafe here brought the lads from St. Louis. Mr. Jones also writes the continuity for the boys. They are Robert O'Neal, John Jordan, Norval Taborn and Ray Grant, bass and guitar player. They are heard on four programs each week. They are the highest paid sustaining [non-sponsored] program vocalists for NBC. Their programs are Mondays 11 a. m., red network. Wednesday on the Breakfast Club program at 9 a. m., blue network. Thursdays 5 p. m., blue network. Starting April 10th the boys will be augmented with a small orchestra of white musicians, "The Originalities". [At the time, NBC had both the red network and the blue network, but it sold the blue in 1942, which then became ABC.]

4 Vagabonds Spencer Odom The 4 Vagabonds filled the void created by the departure of the 3 Sharps and A Flat when that group joined Duke Ellington's tour. Since none of the quartet could read music at this point, the 4 Vagabonds employed the services of arranger Spencer Odom, who would play arrangements on the piano until the group memorized them.

John Spencer Odom was born on August 19, 1913 in Chicago.

Don McNeil By April 4, 1936, after only four weeks on the air, the group was heard every day, except Sunday, from 8:00 to 8:15 AM. But by June, they were heard Monday through Friday from 9:15 to 9:30. On Saturday morning (8:00 to 9:00) they were regulars on Don McNeill's "Breakfast Club", a very popular show that ran from 1933 to 1968. They sang two pop tunes and one spiritual on each show.

The guys made two appearances on the Amos & Andy radio show. On December 4 and December 11, 1936, they were in a "minstrel show" routine put on by the show's "Mystic Knights Of The Sea".

As I said, it was a popular name. In mid-1937, there was a white Country & Western group calling themselves the 4 Vagabonds, playing in Decatur, Illinois.

4 Vagabonds Around 1938, they began appearing daily on the Club Matinee at 4 P.M. Hosted by Durward Kirby, Garry Moore, and Ransom Sherman, this program was also heard over the Blue Network. Until 1945, the 4 Vagabonds not only sang but had their own comedy lines written into the script. Each member had a nickname on the program: Ray was "Cyclone," Norval was "Contagious," Bob was "Security," and John was "Aloysius."

4 Vagabonds - 1943 4 Vagabonds ad for Tin Pan Alley Of The Air The two Blue Network shows provided a source of regular exposure, which was augmented by appearances elsewhere. In 1938, they did a 13-week "minstrel show" with Amos 'n Andy. In early September 1938, they were on a show called "People I Have Known," originating from Chicago. They later appeared on NBC's Tin Pan Alley Of The Air and on the Curt Massey Show.

The February 11, 1939 Chicago Defender said:

The Four Vagabonds, N.B.C. novelty radio quartet are all smiles and rightly so because they have just been given a commercial [sponsor] and are to be heard every Monday evening from 6:45 to 7 p.m. over WMAQ. The program, titled "Miniature Minstrel", is sponsored by a well known dog food manufacturer.

They also had a 13-week gig on the airwaves with Danny Thomas, in 1943, from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. During the 1945-46 season, they did the Chesterfield Supper Club show with Perry Como, based in New York; and they frequently guested on the 15-minute Nat "King" Cole program. The 4 Vagabonds repeatedly made their way into millions of American homes through the medium of radio, and even sang commercial messages. Examples include an Atlas Prager beer spot which was recorded in 1939 and used until 1950, and promotional messages for Uncle Ben's Rice during the 1940s.

a Christmas show A big event in the music industry affected the 4 Vagabond's radio work; it all had to do with ASCAP. The American Society Of Composers, Authors And Publishers is an umbrella organization that makes sure its members get their rightful royalties for song performances. In September 1939, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), representing the nation's radio stations, formed BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) to combat the high increase in rates that ASCAP had announced would be charged, for the right to play ASCAP-published tunes on the airwaves, when the current licensing agreement expired on December 31, 1940. If new agreements weren't signed, no ASCAP-licensed songs could be played on the radio. Therefore, in 1940, to get the public ready, radio stations began playing BMI-licensed songs along with those of ASCAP. Neither side would give in, therefore, beginning January 1, 1941, only BMI-licensed songs were heard over the air. ASCAP knew it was right; ASCAP knew that only they could provide quality tunes; ASCAP knew that soon the public would be clamoring for "real" music. What ASCAP didn't know was that the public didn't care a bit! They were just as happy with the new BMI-licensed songs. The boycott lasted for ten months, until ASCAP finally caved in. During the BMI-ASCAP war, the 4 Vagabonds had to abandon their theme song, the ASCAP-published "St. Louis Blues". Fortunately, they were able to substitute an original composition entitled "The Vagabond Drag", which was registered with BMI and, therefore, acceptable for broadcast.

4 Vagabonds The 4 Vagabonds' had built up a real following. They had fan clubs in Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore. and Atlantic City. Clubs they appeared in during their career include McVan's in Buffalo, Detroit's Circle Club, Club Niagara in Denver, Billy Berg's in Los Angeles, Nick's Show Club in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and both the Plantation Club and Club Riviera in St. Louis. Among the theaters where the well-traveled foursome appeared are the Fox in St. Louis, the Paradise in Atlantic City, and the Regal, Oriental, and Southtown - all located in the Windy City of Chicago.

Bill Sanford In 1940, arranger Spencer Odom left to join the spiritual-singing Southernaires; he was with them by September at the latest. Odom was replaced, although not immediately, by Bill Sanford, who was still with Ethelene and the Variety Boys at the time of his October 1940 draft registration.

William Grundy Sanford was born on May 18, 1911 in Nashville, Tennessee.

4 Vagabonds In spite of having arrangers, John told me that the 4 Vagabonds did 90% of their own musical arrangements, and, by 1942, they had a staggering repertoire of 1500 tunes to which all new hits were added as a matter of course. Songs premiered by the 4 Vagabonds on the airwaves included "This Can't Be Love", "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", "Don't Take Your Love From Me", "When The Lights Go On Again All Over The World", "Serenade Of The Bells", "Easy Street", "My Heart Tells Me", and "It All Comes Back To Me Now". Their photos also appear on sheet music for "This Can't Be Love" and "Gold Mine In The Sky". In the late 30's, the group also did some experimental television shows, free of charge, for a Zenith-built station with a range of approximately fifty miles. Billboard had a review of an April 18, 1944 Zenith show (over experimental station W9XZV). The reviewer didn't like any of the acts, except for the 4 Vagabonds.

In 1942, the 4 Vagabonds may have appeared in a movie. The July 18, Baltimore Afro-American said that "the four Vagabonds, popular night club entertainers, will be featured in 'The Spirit Of Stanford', a gridiron story, co-starring Frankie Albert and Marguerite Chapman." Since the 4 Vagabonds weren't primarily known as night club performers and the film was never referred to in any future articles about them, I really don't think it's them.

4 Vagabonds In considering their career, it should be remembered that, unlike the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers, who made their income primarily through record sales and live appearances, the 4 Vagabonds were radio personalities above all else. In January 1945, they were on a new program called Tin Pan Alley Of The Air, hosted by baritone Jack Owens, which was broadcast in WMAQ in Chicago. Sponsored by the Leaf Gum Company, each week the show honored a different American composer. In July 1947 they had a Saturday afternoon show on NBC. They were also guests on King Cole Trio Time (NBC) on January 4, 1947 and the Vaughn Monroe Show on January 17, 1948.

Just to underscore how important newspapers used to be, this came from the "For Your Information" column in the August 1, 1940 edition of the Bradford Evening Star And Daily Record (Bradford, Pennsylvania). A reader asked: "Are the 'Four Vagabonds' or the 'Vagabonds quartet' which broadcasts on NBC programs , Negroes?" With amazing depth and perception, the columnist answered: "Yes".


In 1941, Victor's Bluebird subsidiary approached the quartet after having heard them on a radio show. Never under contract, the 4 Vagabonds were paid a flat rate of $3000 for each of their four sessions for Victor, and they also relinquished all royalties. NBC was in charge of managing the group.

Bluebird 11519 All sessions took place in Chicago. The first of these was held on December 17, 1941, when they recorded "Slow And Easy", "The Duke Of Dubuque", "My Heart Ran Away With My Head", And "One Broken Heart For Sale". "Slow And Easy", coupled with "The Duke Of Dubuque" was their first Bluebird release (in April 1942) and it featured the simulated instrumental effects á la Mills Brothers. Norval Taborn was the "trumpet", Jordan and O'Neal made convincing "trombones" and Ray Grant was, of course, the "bass fiddle".

On May 24, 1942, the group appeared at Valley View Park in Hallam, Pennsylvania.

recording Rosie The Riveter a Canadian ad John Jordan recalled that the most popular discs cut by the group were their patriotic war tunes, and the first of these were cut at their second session, held on January 15, 1943. The quartet went to the studio with two other songs rehearsed, but at the last moment, the composer refused to sign a release. Bluebird officials gave then "Rosie The Riveter" and "Rose-Ann Of Charing Cross" and told the group that if they liked the tunes, a new session date would be arranged. The versatile group looked the songs over, fooled with them for a half hour, and then informed Bluebird that another hour of practice was all the time they needed. They went on to cut them both in only one take apiece! While they were geared up for action, they also waxed "I Had The Craziest Dream" and "Ten Little Soldiers (On A Ten Day Leave)".

Bluebird 0810 ad for Rosie The Riveter ad for Rose Ann Of Charing Cross Bluebird 0811 "I Had The Craziest Dream" and "Rosie The Riveter" were released in February, 1943, followed the next month by "Rose Ann Of Charing Cross" and "Ten Little Soldiers (On A Ten Day Leave)".

James C. Petrillo A crisis in the recording industry made the talents of the 4 Vagabonds even more desirable to Bluebird. James Caesar Petrillo, President of the American Federation of Musicians, called a strike, concerning musicians' wages, that crippled the music industry. The first "Petrillo Ban," which prevented all union musicians from playing their instruments at recording sessions, lasted from August 1, 1942 to November 11, 1944. Record companies jammed their studios with artists in order to cut as many masters as possible before the ban took effect, and these were released during the ban. This explains, for instance, why the Mills Brothers cut no discs from 1942 until late 1944. The effect of the strike was minimal upon the 4 Vagabonds, who imitated the instruments they needed anyway. However, on discs such as "Ten Little Soldiers (On A Ten Day Leave)", the group had to substitute a ukulele, which the AFM didn't consider to be a "serious" instrument, for Ray Grant's usual guitar accompaniment.

The April 24, 1943 Norfolk, Virginia New Journal And Guide annoyed me. They said:

With Ceasar Petrillo's ban still standing, such groups as the Four Vagabonds get all the chance in the world. Using a Mills Brothers style and a ukulele, they are very kind to "I Had The Craziest Dream", Bluebird. Slow and very effective. But I can't say the same for that unpleasant and inane musical nightmare, "Rosie The Riveter", which nobody can redeem. [Pardon me, but I like that song!]

4 Vagabonds - 1943 In 1943, the 4 Vagabonds did over 50 known transcriptions for Standard Transcriptions. These recordings (see discography) were pressed up and used by radio stations to work the 4 Vagabonds into many different programs. That is, by playing these recordings, shows could pretend that the Vagabonds were actually in the studio.

Patti Clayton                  Janette Davis

Nine of the transcription recordings found them as backup to Patti Clayton (the original voice of Chiquita Banana) and a further ten were behind "Janette", who is almost certainly Janette Davis. Both of these singers would later be associated with Arthur Godfrey.

4 Vagabonds ad On May 26, 1943, the 4 Vagabonds held their third Victor session. The two songs recorded were "It Can't Be Wrong" and "Comin' In On A Wing And A Prayer", which were issued in June. ("Comin' In" was reviewed as "One of the finest all-vocal versions...".)

The September 10, 1943, Kansas City Call told us that the 4 Vagabonds were featured in a new show:

The Vagabonds, noted Negro song and instrumental quartet, who have been radio favorites for the last five years, are featured in a new program, Tavern Pale Playtime [presumably sponsored by a beer company], which made its debut on Station WMAQ, Chicago, Monday, August 9. The program Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 10:30 to 10:45, CWT [Central War Time]....

The boys also have a Saturday afternoon NBC commercial [sponsored show] and may be heard almost any hour of the day on numerous sustaining [non-sponsored] shows, including the "Breakfast Club" and "Blue Frolics".

The Norfolk, Virginia New Journal And Guide of October 16, 1943 said: "A busy boy these days is Norval Taborn of the Four Vagabonds, heard on numerous network shows. Taborn is supplementing his singing with aircraft fabrication study at American Aircraft Institute."

Why? Well, there was a war on. How would it affect the Vagabonds? There was this in the February 5, 1944 Chicago Defender:

Looks like that old 1-A tag will interrupt the rapid strides being made by the Four Vagabonds, NBC and Victor-Bluebird recording vocal-instrumental group. Heard on a weekly NBC commercial [sponsored show] with Curt Massey and also thrice weekly on their own show over WMAQ, Chicago, three boys of the quartet are induction center bound.

And, a year later, the March 31 Defender said: "If you sing bass, contact 'em. Two of the Four Vagabonds are subject to early call to the Army." However, in spite of the doom and gloom, none of the four was ever drafted. (At the time, they were heard on Tin Pan Alley Of The Air, sponsored by the Leaf Gum Company, on NBC.) However, Bill Sanford was; he was in the service from January 1944 until May 1946, at which time he'd return to them.

Victor 1677 Their final Victor session was held on May 12, 1945, at which time they did two more tunes: "A G.I. Wish" and "If I Were You". These were coupled for a June 1945 release, this time on the parent Victor label.

The Bluebird releases, and the single Victor disc, show the talent of the group not only at reading romantic ballads, but also the up-tempo tunes designed to inspire the sluggish workers on the war-oriented assembly lines. They also sang the quasi-spiritual, "Comin' In On A Wing And A Prayer". Despite the popularity of these recordings, however, a postwar slump in the recording industry caused the 4 Vagabonds to leave Victor to record for Robert Sherman's Atlas Records (which had recently been renamed from Premier Records). Jordan said that one regret at leaving Victor was that their discs were promoted far more efficiently there than at any of the subsequent labels.

There was actually a headline in the October 20, 1945 Billboard that trumpeted "4 Vagabonds Quit Bluebird To Star For Atlas, Indie" (an independent label). Their manager, Tim Morrow, said that their Bluebird contract had expired six months previously. Atlas guaranteed them that they'd record eight sides in the six months of their contract and that the group could select half of the tunes. However, it was not to be.

Atlas 111 Their sole Atlas release ("I Can't Make Up My Mind", backed with "Oh What A Polka") was issued around October 1945. While probably all their voices were heard in their radio broadcasts, "Oh What A Polka" is the only one of their recordings on which John Jordan doesn't do lead. On this one, Norval Taborn was out in front.

In 1945, Ray Grant began to go blind and was totally so by the year's end. Undaunted, the quartet rehearsed their entrances and departures from the stages they played, so that the audiences never knew of Ray's handicap.

The December 1, 1945 Chicago Defender had an article titled "You've Heard Their Voices, Now Meet Those Famed 'Vagabonds'":

Four boys and a guitar. They are John Jordan, Robert O'Neal, Norval Taborn, and Ray Grant, billed as the Four Vagabonds.

You may not know the boys but you've heard them. From Coast to Coast when you listen to a certain beer product which rhythms "Yum, yum, yum, got it! Yum, yum, get it! Yum, yum, yum best yum in town." The voices are those of the Vagabonds and the rhythm is the best in any town.

In today's musical vernacular, radio's Four Vagabonds are what is known as a "good deal". Veterans of ten years of network radio broadcasting, this versatile, sweet and swing song quartet has featured starring spots on nine network radio shows weekly. When you pick up a radio page of a newspaper any day from Monday through Saturday, you'll find the "Vags" listed for a regular appearance. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights, they can be heard as the stars of their own "show"; Tuesday and Thursday find them on ABC's "Chicago Varieties"; Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, they wake up the rooster with their appearance on famous "Breakfast Club", broadcast over ABC; Saturday also finds them plugging hit tunes on "Tin Pan Alley of the Air", NBC coast to coaster.

As sort of spare time radio work, the Four Vagabonds have made guest appearances on "The Supper Club" where they are slated for some return dates, and also on a number of other network sustaining and commercial shows.

Radio is only one phase of stardom for the Vagabonds. As recording artists, they are known and applauded by collectors of jive and also by juke boxes everywhere. Their out of this world version of "Rose Ann of Charing Cross" and "Ten Little Soldiers" sold over 500,000 disks. Among the other sell-out recordings of the Vags have been "I Had the Craziest Dream", "Rosie the Riveter", "Duke of Dubuque", "It Can't Be Wrong", and many others.

The Vagabonds' newest releases are "I Can't Make Up My Mind" and "Oh, What A Polka"; soon to release "Taking My Chance with You", "Down Mexico Way", "Let's Pretend", and "When the Old Gang's Back on the Corner". The Vagabonds have rounded out their musical experience by personal appearances in leading motion picture theatres and night clubs. Having just finished pinch hitting for Allan Jones at the Oriental, they are to appear at the Regal theatre starting Dec. 28.

Their musical range is kaleidoscopic in range and color. Their arrangements of traditional Negro spirituals and the slower popular ballads are hauntingly beautiful. And when the boys begin to "jump," their listeners "jump" along with their utterly contagious rhythms. This range of musical interpretation from the traditional to the bizarre is effected in many ways. First, through their uncanny ear for strange and beautiful chords and, secondly, through their ability to augment their harmonic arrangements with flawless imitations of musical instruments. The only musical instrument used by the Vags is the guitar, strummed by "Pappy" Ray Grant, who also injects no little humor into their novelty vocal arrangements. All other instrumental effects, and the range is completely orchestral, come from the throats of the other three Vags, John Jordan, Robert O'Neal and Norval Taborn.

The Vagabonds have been singing together since their school days at Vashon high, St. Louis. They broke into radio in St. Louis and then moved on to bigger things in Chicago.

These four very young stars, for only John Jordan has reached thirty, are heading for the top of radio and recording stardom at atomic speed. Their eventual attainments seem

limitless when judged by the flood of fan mail and enthusiastic comment which follows their every broadcast.

Mercury 2050 Then it was off to Irving Green's fledgling Mercury label. (Note that his father, Albert Green, owned National Records.) Here, they recorded "Taking My Chance With You" and "When The Old Gang's Back On The Corner", which were released in February 1946. These Mercury sides got nowhere fast, and new manager Mort Davis got them a contract to record for Ike Berman's Apollo label in New York (another relatively new company).

Although they weren't having any hits, the results of a poll taken by the Chicago Defender (published on April 20, 1946) had the 4 Vagabonds as the fourth most popular "specialty artists" (behind the King Cole Trio, the Ink Spots, and the Mills Brothers). Over 100,000 readers had sent in ballots.

Even though they had no current record, the guys went into the Apollo Theater on September 13, 1946, along with Ella Fitzgerald and the Cootie Williams Orchestra. As a degree of wishful thinking, they were billed as "newest recording stars". Here's what Apollo owner Frank Schiffman had to say about them:

First time here. Came well recommended and have good recordings. Pleasant group of harmony singers. No distinguishing characteristics. The boys sing fairly well. Voices blend but nobody stands out in the manner which is indispensible for a good quartette. Act was overpaid [$1000 for the week]. Worth about $750.

Apollo 1039 Apollo 1030 Their first Apollo session was held on November 13, 1946. The four songs recorded were: "Hoe Cake, Hominy And Sassafras Tea", "Kentucky Babe", "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans", and "The Pleasure's All Mine". On this session, John Jordan showed up hoarse. The producer procured a bottle of scotch, and while this succeeded in restoring Jordan's voice, he had no further recollection of the day! The first two songs from this session were issued in December 1946 and the second two were released in February 1947.

4 Vagabonds Apollo 1060 Apollo 1057 Apollo 1055 "Dreams Are A Dime A Dozen" and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" were recorded on March 4, 1947 and released in April. By that time, they'd already been back to the studio (on March 26), at which time they'd laid down four more tracks: "P.S. I Love You", "The Freckle Song", "Ask Anyone Who Knows", and "Oh My Achin' Heart". These were all issued in April also.

Apollo 1076 Apollo 1075 Their final four Apollo sides, "The Choo Choo Song", "Lazy Country Side", "(The Gang That Sang) Heart Of My Heart", and "That Old Gang Of Mine" were recorded around July, and released in August. Note that by this time they'd done three songs with 'Gang' in the title.

On August 1, 1947, they appeared at the Apollo Theater again, this time as part of an Eddie "Rochester" Anderson show. Owner Frank Schiffman wrote the date on their card, but made no other comment. From there, they went directly into the Regal Theater in Chicago.

Apollo was dismal as far as promotion of the group's discs was concerned, as illustrated by the fact that the only time Jordan even heard his classic "P.S. I Love You" was on a jukebox.

On October 3, 1947, they began a stay at Detroit's Frolic Show Bar, along with the held-over Wynonie Harris. The October 11, 1947 Detroit Tribune told us that the bass and guitarist for the group was Bill Sanford; Ray Grant had left for a while.

John Jordan told me that the 4 Vagabonds broke up for around a year in late 1947, however, they were off to California in November and appeared on Vaughn Monroe's radio show on January 17, 1948, so it was a bit later than that. At the time, There was another 4 Vagabonds, a white group, that appeared in Miami from January through May (this was the group associated with Arthur Godfrey).

Gloria Van The VRT recordings In early 1949, Ray Grant's vision returned and the group got back together. Their next recording session seems to have occurred around February 1949, when the group backed up Gloria Van on two recordings released, around March, on the VRT label: "Fireflies In The Night"/"I Thought You Told Your Mother". (Both titles show up in a publication titled "Catalog Of Copyright Entries - 1949 - Unpublished Music" with a copyright date of February 24, 1949.) Pop singer Gloria Van (born Lucille Fanolla) was married to sax player Lynn Allison (brother of Fran Allison, of "Kukla, Fran & Ollie" fame). She normally sang with "Gloria Van & Her Vanguards" (also known as "Cinderella & Her Fellas") and, like the 4 Vagabonds, was based out of Chicago. I couldn't find out anything about VRT Records, but the masters were recorded at Egmont Sonderling's United Broadcasting studio in Chicago. This record is extremely obscure and was brought to my attention by Andy Bohan. The backing on "Fireflies" is most definitely a 4 Vagabonds arrangement and the prominent male voice on "Mother" is, I believe, Norval Taborn. The only mention of this in the trades is a small blurb in the October 8, 1949 issue of Billboard. A record store called "The Juke Box" in Alliance, Ohio was trying to find out information about "Gloria Van and Her Vagabonds". They said, "Several of her disks ... were recorded on the V.R.T. label". (This vague statement could even mean that there are other VRT [spelled without periods on the label] records by them - the master numbers on these two are non-consecutive, so there were other recordings done at the same time.)

Chicago was always a musical hotbed, and on April 1, 1949, WENR-TV broadcast the first all-black television show. The program entitled Happy Pappy (after a character that Ray had created on Don McNeill's Breakfast Club), was emceed by Grant. The 4 Vagabonds sang and the Modern Modes provided instrumental backing for the show, which had an all-black cast and studio audience.

There was an article in the March 19, 1949 Los Angeles Tribune titled "All-Negro Show On Television":

First television production to feature all-Negro talent, "Happy Pappy", starring veteran radio entertainer Ray "Pappy" Grant, will debut over ABC-TV, Fri., April 1 from 9:05 to 9:45 p.m., CST, it was announced today.

Grant will be billed on the program as "curator" of a mythical Happiness Club and as such will introduce Negro talent, including headliners and non-professionals.

Program's regular talent line-up includes the Four Vagabonds, vocalists, and the Modern Modes, an instrumental quartet. Grant has been a member of the Vagabonds since their organization in 1933. The group, which also includes Albert Branham, John Jordan and Norval Taborn, is well known to radio and stage audiences and was heard on ABC's "Breakfast Club" for 10 years. The Modes are Eddie Johnson, tenor saxophone; Cornelius Bell, guitar; Everett T. Clark, piano, and M. Thomas Martin, bass.

Albert Branham So who was Albert Branham, someone John Jordan never mentioned to me? Since Robert O'Neal's name was missing from that article, I guess he was O'Neal's replacement. Did O'Neal ever return? I have no idea.

Albert Taylor Branham was born on October 21, 1916 in St. Louis. In 1944, he was the pianist for a quartet that formed in the service and was stationed at Fort McHenry, Baltimore. He also played the tenor sax and, many years later, ended up with Maceo Woods.

The "Happy Pappy" show was only advertised through May 13. The April 22 show was reviewed in the May 7 Billboard. Basically, they didn't like it, but said: "The Vagabonds did some of the best work on the program. Their singing, as demonstrated during many radio appearances, is tops. Since they also use animated routines, their work has a plus value in television."

Miracle ad Miracle 141 Ray Grant then left to form a quintet called the Swanee Larks. He was replaced, for a while, by their arranger, Bill Sanford, who took over at bass and guitar. There was a single release on Lee Egalnik's Miracle label in September 1949: "Mighty Hard (To Go Through Life Alone)", coupled with "My Heart Cries". These had been recorded several months earlier (in early June), because by the time the record came out, Bill Sanford, who's on the sides, had left the group to replace Howard Biggs as the arranger for the Ravens. The only thing Jordan recalled about Miracle was the dumpy Chicago studios they had. The disc achieved no commercial success. (Note that the January 28, 1950 Billboard said that Ray Grant's Swanee Larks group had also been signed by Miracle.) There were two other sides recorded for Miracle, but unreleased: "Sorry That We Said Goodbye" and "When Will I See You Again".

According to John Jordan, Sanford's place was taken by bass Frank Houston, who's never mentioned anywhere else. Unfortunately, the group's members were never named again.

With the Miracle release, the 4 Vagabonds' recording days were over. Ray Grant and a studio group backed up Memphis Slim on "I Guess I'm A Fool", released on Premium in June of 1950 (there's no group on the flip). It's unclear whose decision it was to call the group "The Vagabonds". There's also November 1951's "The Object Of My Affection", by the Ralph Marterie Orchestra, with vocal by the Vagabonds, a white vocal/comedy Pop group that appeared on the Arthur Godfrey show a lot (and who were, maddeningly, also referred to as the "4 Vagabonds" by Billboard throughout the 40s and 50s).

Ray Grant passed away on December 13, 1950. I've been unable to find out his cause of death.

Lloyds EP Lloyds 102 The last appearances of the 4 Vagabonds on record were on the Lloyds label (a subsidiary of Apollo). In July 1953, Lloyds re-released "P.S. I Love You" to compete with the Hilltoppers' smash version. It was backed with "Lazy Country Side", another old Apollo cut. There was also a Lloyds EP in late 1953; it contained "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now", "Dreams Are A Dime A Dozen", "That Old Gang Of Mine", and "Heart Of My Heart", four Apollo releases from 1947.


The 4 Vagabonds continued traveling, playing the "845" in Brooklyn, Atlantic City's Nomad Club, the Cove and Palumbo's in Philadelphia, and New York's Cafe Society and the Zanzibar Club.

In November 1950, the 4 Vagabonds became part of Johnny Desmond's Chicago radio show (Johnny Desmond Goes To College), broadcast on Monday nights at 9:30 on NBC. The show only lasted five months and the group didn't last much longer, disbanding in 1952. Primarily radio entertainers, the 4 Vagabonds were among the many casualties of the onslaught of television's attack upon radio markets. Very few black vocal groups were able to achieve success on the small screen, the notable exception being the Billy Williams Quartet. We should note that the 4 Vagabonds' career started at the time black vocal groups began to achieve popularity in America, and ended just as the vocal group explosion of the Rock and Roll era was starting.

By July 1953, John Jordan was a Chicago cab driver. He had been the lead of one of the most respected Chicago vocal groups of all time (even though they were originally from St. Louis); one which could have blown the Flamingos off any stage. He eventually formed the Johnny Jordan Quartet, but they never recorded.

Robert O'Neal died, in Princeton, New Jersey, on December 15, 1968; John Jordan died, in Chicago, on June 16, 1988; Norval Taborn, also in Chicago, on January 23, 1990. Arranger Bill Sanford died on November 11, 1975 in Hempstead, New York. Their original arranger, Spencer Odom, died in Manhattan, on December 24, 1962. Albert Branham died in Chicago on December 29, 2005.

Even with their rather mild success or lack of it, on records it cannot be denied that the 4 Vagabonds were a key group in the long parade of recorded black harmony.

The main discography is, as usual, from Ferdie Gonzalez. Gino Alfano upbraided me for not having a listing of the 4 Vagabonds' transcription discs; fortunately he sent me the list. You'll find it at the end of the discography. Thanks to Galen Gart for bringing the Lloyds EP to my attention.


11519 Slow And Easy/The Duke Of Dubuque - 4/42
30-0810 I Had The Craziest Dream/Rosie The Riveter - 2/43
30-0811 Rose Ann Of Charing Cross/Ten Little Soldiers (On A Ten Day Leave) - 3/43
30-0815 Comin' In On A Wing And A Prayer/It Can't Be Wrong - 6/43

      My Heart Ran Away With My Head
      One Broken Heart For Sale

20-1677 A G.I. Wish/If I Were You - 6/45

111 I Can't Make Up My Mind/Oh What A Polka - ca. 10/45

2050 Taking My Chance With You/When The Old Gang's Back On The Corner - 2/46

1030 Hoe Cake, Hominy And Sassafras Tea/Kentucky Babe - 12/46
1039 Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans/The Pleasure's All Mine - 2/47
1055 Dreams Are A Dime A Dozen/I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now - 4/47
1057 P.S. I Love You/The Freckle Song - 4/47
1060 Ask Anyone Who Knows/Oh My Achin' Heart - 4/47
1075 The Choo Choo Song/Lazy Country Side - 8/47
1076 (The Gang That Sang) Heart Of My Heart/That Old Gang Of Mine - 8/47

20-1677 A G.I. Wish/If I Were You - 6/48

VRT (Gloria Van & 4 Vagabonds)
102 Fireflies In The Night/I Thought You Told Your Mother - ca. 3/49

141 Mighty Hard (To Go Through Life Alone)/My Heart Cries - 9/49

      Sorry That We Said Goodbye
      When Will I See You Again

LLOYDS (Apollo Records subsidiary)
102  P.S. I Love You/ Lazy Country Side - 7/53
EP 706 I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now/Dreams Are A Dime A Dozen//That Old Gang Of Mine/Heart Of My Heart - 53


X-126 - 42
      Move It Over
      There Are Such Things
      Steam Is On The Beam
      Stop Telling Lies
      Rosie The Riveter
      Big Fat Mama
      I Had The Craziest Dream
      Yeah Man
      Juke Box Saturday Night

X-127 - 42
      Hip Hip Hooray
      Can't Get Out Of This Mood (Patti Clayton & 4 Vagabonds)
      Slender, Tender And Tall
      Three Dreams (Patti Clayton & 4 Vagabonds)
      Take It From There
      Hasta Luego
      You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To (Patti Clayton & 4 Vagabonds)
      Moonlight Mood
      Why Don't You Fall In Love With Me (Patti Clayton & 4 Vagabonds)
      I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City

X-128 - 43
      Saving Myself For Bill (Patti Clayton & 4 Vagabonds)
      Hit The Road To Dreamland (Patti Clayton & 4 Vagabonds)
      I've Heard That Song Before (Patti Clayton & 4 Vagabonds)
      Could It Be You (Patti Clayton & 4 Vagabonds)
      It Can't Be Wrong (Patti Clayton & 4 Vagabonds)
      Can't Get Stuff In Your Cuff
      Don't Get Around Much Anymore
      Sharp As A Tack
      Stick To Your Knittin' Kitten
      Hey, Good Lookin'

X-131 - 43
      I Don't Want Anybody
      Murder, He Says
      There's A Ray Of Sunshine
      Jumpin' With A G. I. Gal
      Four Buddies

X-132 - 43
[Note: all evidence points to "Janette" being Janette Davis]
      Old Man Romance
      On The Alamo
      Cabin In The Sky
      Hit That Jive, Jack
      Just A Dream Of You
      The Right Kind Of Love (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)
      You'll Never Know (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)
      On Time (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)
      I Never Mention Your Name (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)
      Lonesome Mama Blues (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)

X-133 - 43
[Note: all evidence points to "Janette" being Janette Davis]
      Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)
      Lonesome (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)
      More Than Anything In The World (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)
      St. Louis Blues (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)
      In The Blue Of Evening (Janette & 4 Vagabonds)

X-134 - 43
      You Linger Near
      Sho Nuff
      Thru The Darkness
      I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes
      'Tain't A Fit Night Out

KBS 495 (five songs, on side one, all reissues of Standard Transcriptions) - 3/45
      On The Alamo
      Hit That Jive Jack
      Lonesome Mama Blues (with Janette)
      Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea (with Janette)
      St. Louis Blues (with Janette)


PREMIUM (Memphis Slim and the Vagabonds - Ray Grant and a studio group backing Slim)
850 I Guess I'm A Fool/[Flock Rocker - Rev. Bounce] - 6/50

MERCURY (Ralph Marterie Orchestra and the Vagabonds - a white Pop group)
5759 The Object Of My Affection/(Lulu - Ralph Marterie Orchestra) - 11/51

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