The Four Vagabonds are the missing link between the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots and the bird groups (the Orioles, the Ravens, the Flamingoes), bridging the war years of the 1940s to span black secular harmony emerging from the church and swing bands as it evolves into the underpinnings of rock ‘n’ roll and the whiter, more teen-friendly variety known as doo-wop. They tend to get overlooked in this lineage in the same way WWII vets found when they returned from duty, a world changed, aged by their experience on the front, which in the Vagabonds’ case meant also weathering the Musician’s Union strike of 1942-44, which effectively banned instruments from the studio. They were lucky that, like the Mills, they provided their own musical accompaniment, uncannily imitating instruments like a trumpet or bass fiddle, their harmonic blend a cappella of the first order. They couldn’t showboat, preferring to stand close together to align their voices, a complex interweaving of moving and passing chords.
The three volumes of Document’s chronological segue of the group’s varied output — of a supposed repertoire of 1500 songs, the Four Vagabonds only recorded a small percentage — highlights their skill in the studio, perhaps honed by the long career they had on radio when starting out. Formed in St. Louis, Ray Grant (bass and guitar), John Jordan (lead), Robert O’ Neal (tenor) and Norval Taborn (baritone) took their act to Chicago in 1936 where they became regulars on Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club. Signed to RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, they went into the studio shortly after Pearl Harbor, though their first disc, the oh-so-smooth “Slow and Easy” backed with “Duke of Dubuque,” released in early 1942, would not wave the flag as later heartfelt messages to the troops like “Comin’ In On A Wing and A Prayer” or the sassy “Rosie The Riveter.” But the success of their war songs shouldn’t obscure their pop roots. Taken from a radio transcription, “Juke Box Saturday Night” recreates the milieu of the early ’40s in all its zoot suit splendor (“Can’t Get Stuff In Your Cuff”). Along with pre-bop vocalese (“Hit That Jive Jack”), romantic ballads abound: “Moonlight Mood,” “It Can’t Be Wrong” (augmented by guest Patti Clayton, who also voiced Chiquita Banana), and the stately “You Linger On.”
They left Bluebird after the war for the more independent R&B stylings of Atlas Records. Though the Four Vagabonds would continue to record until the early years of the 1950s, the group seemed unable to build on their wartime renown. Still, Document’s welcome homage to their chimed and charmed interplay and infectious way with a song is imminently listenable, a tribute long overdue.