Gary James' Interview With Frank Busseri of
The Four Lads
The Four Lads launched their professional career over fifty years ago, singing in clubs around Toronto. It was at Le Ruban Bleu that Mitch Miller caught their act. He put them on the million-selling Johnnie Ray records "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud That Could". The rest as they say, is history.
They went on to get their own recording contract and received their first gold record in 1953 for "Istanbul". To date, The Four Lads have sold over fifty million singles and albums and have performed all over the world.
Frank Busseri spoke about his group.
Q - I saw you and The Four Lads on this P.B.S. Special.
A - "Magic Moments".
Q - Do you have any idea how refreshing it is to hear singers who can actually sing?
A - Well, it's very nice to hear that. It's a whole different ball game today. I don't know if we want to get into that. That show that you're talking about was extremely successful. So much so, that we just did another one. We did it October 20th (2005) out here in California, in Thousand Oaks. It'll be aired probably in March. But, it's nice that we get to do those things. People know you're still around.
Q - And kids get to see how Pop music got its start and appreciate the contributions of groups such as The Four Lads.
A - As they get older, they'll get more involved, much like what happened with the Rod Stewart albums. It's incredible. You know, go figure that one out. (laughs) It's weird. You say why? Other people have tried it too, but with no success. Other people in that same bag and they didn't have any success with it. He did. Of course, his were very well produced.
Q - And don't forget, he's got those TV commercials!
A - He's got everything going. The marketing guns are out there.
Q - Did you ever perform at Dom Bruno's Three Rivers Inn here in Syracuse?
A - Yes we did a few times. You're going back to the fifties now.
Q - Do you remember anything about that club or Dom Bruno?
A - Dom Bruno was the owner. We got along pretty good with him. I'm trying to remember if there was a hotel or motel right there.
Q - That's right.
A - We stayed there right in the place. It was a good gig. We had fun. We did some business. But, in those days there were all kinds of those places. There was the Town Casino in Buffalo and also The Glen Casino, which was the summer place. But, every city had a nightclub.
Q - You called those clubs "supper clubs"?
A - Right. You'd go in and have dinner and see a show. It was great. It was affordable for most people. All the people played those places, you know, from your Sinatras to Tony Bennett. They all played those clubs. That's what it was in those days. Now it's the big arenas. It's a different story.
Q - Have you ever performed at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York?
A - Yeah.
Q - When did you play there?
A - Oh, it's a few years ago already. When they first opened the room (Showroom). That's when they were hiring stuff like us, but they don't do that anymore. (laughs)
Q - They hire quite a few 70s and 80s performers.
A - And a lot of Country too. That's fine if that's what brings the people in. That's what they have to go with.
Q - And you know they've just built an amphitheatre there.
A - I didn't know that.
Q - It holds 5,100 people and they've booked Tim McGraw, Brooks and Dunn, Duran Duran and Jay Leno to name just a few.
A - So, they're swinging from the roof tops.
Q - Yeah, I guess you could say that.
A - It's the only game in town when you think of it, from Buffalo to New York. They're it. Right in the middle there.
Q - How old were you when you started singing in hotels?
A - Seventeen. We left Toronto in 1950. I was seventeen years old. We worked our first club in New York City called Le Ruban Bleu. And that's when it all started.
Q - Would it be fair to say that your first break came when Orlando Wilson of the Golden Gate Quartet heard you at one of these hotels?
A - Well, actually it wasn't at a hotel that he heard us. He was playing a theatre in Toronto. The Golden Gate Quartet was playing the Casino Theatre. We were avid fans of theirs. We patterned our style after them. They were Black, spiritual singers. That's what they did. But, we could sing just like them. When they played the theatre, we made our way backstage and got in to see them and we sang for them. They were quite impressed. Of course, Orlando, "Dad" was his nickname, was quite impressed. And he told his manager in New Your and the next thing we knew, he asked us to do a demonstration record, which we did and sent it to him. He listened and blah, blah. And the next thing you know, he asked us to come to New York. So, that's when we got on the train out of Toronto and went to New York City. That was April 5th, 1950. To this day, I keep wondering, here we are, maybe at that time I was sixteen, how the hell we got backstage at that theatre is beyond me. But, you know when you're that age, you have no fear. What do you got to lose? You've got nothing to lose. All they can do is throw you out...right?
Q - Right. And the security was probably not as tight at a venue as it is today.
A - We just told the people at the stage door who we were and we were avid fans and we'd just like to be able to say hello. Fortunately for us, they were very nice people. They said, yeah, c'mon, send 'em on back. I guess there are other people who would've said tell 'em not to bother me. But, they were actually very congenial and very nice.
Q - Mitch Miller was the guy who saw you at Le Ruben Bleu nightclubs and signed you to Columbia Records?
A - No. It didn't happen that way. Our manager, Mike Stewart, brought Mitch to see us at the club. He liked us, but he didn't think we were quite ready to record yet. By 1951, along came a singer by the name of Johnnie Ray. Mitch thought it would be a good way to get these guys started on records. He put us with Johnnie Ray as his back-up group. We went into the studio and recorded "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud That Cried". That became a phenomenal hit. When I say it was a smash, it was incredible! That was such a big hit and our name was on the record. It said Johnnie Ray and The Four Lads. So, because of the success of that record, we got our own deal with Columbia. Then Mitch started to record us. That was a couple of years later, after he had seen us at the club. He saw us in 1950. We didn't make our first solo record until 1952.
Q - Would it be fair then to say, The Four Lads were to Johnnie Ray what The Jordanaires were to Elvis?
A - I suppose. We did a whole slew of stuff together. We did everything he did after that, we did with him. Not everything, but up to a point, then of course we didn't do anything with him. But, we did a whole bunch of stuff with him. And, we did a theatre tour. Toured the country. When we performed in person, we did not back him up because he had a hearing problem. He wore a hearing aid. It was very difficult to be able to sing with him in person, so we didn't do it. We tried it, but it got kind of messy. But, we still worked with him. We'd be doing our own thing.
Q - Did you get to choose the acts you backed in the studio?
A - That was Mitch Miller. Mitch Miller did almost everything. He wanted us to record with Doris Day or Frankie Laine. That was his choice. We enjoyed it. We loved it. He also picked our material. See, what happened is, when we recorded with Johnnie Ray, right away we became the magic back-up group. It's like, make a record with The Four Lads and you're gonna have a hit. You know how you get pegged with that stuff. So, it was no problem for us to go in and record with whoever. They didn't mind, and we loved it. It was great for us.
Q - You backed up Frankie Laine. What did you record with him?
A - We did an album with Frankie Laine called "Rain, Rain, Rain". It was an album of spirituals. That was a pretty successful album.
Q - With Doris Day?
A - We did a couple of movie songs that never made it, but, we still got to record with her, which was fun.
Q - What kind of guy was Mitch Miller?
A - Mitch Miller as far as I'm concerned, was a genius. He would have, at one time, out of ten records, the Top Ten records, he might have six or seven of them. He'd have Rosie Clooney, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, The Four Lads. He had his hand on the pulse of what was going on. He just knew what to do and how to do it, and produce it and make it work. And, he was a very nice man on top of it. He was a very caring person.
Q - But he hated rock 'n roll.
A - Yeah. When rock 'n roll started to come in, we had a big discussion about that. We said, well, if it becomes that serious, we're dead because we can't do it. It's not our bag. The Beatles came around and it was all over.
Q - Back up for a minute, it was probably all over with Elvis.
A - Well, actually with Elvis, "Heartbreak Hotel" was in the Top Ten with "Moments To Remember". So, right away it started in 1955.
Q - Did you like rock 'n roll when you first heard it?
A - No. I thought it was trite. I liked Rhythm and Blues, which was a whole different thing I thought. Rock 'n Roll was kind of, I don't know how to put it. I don't want to insult anybody.
Q - But, as you listen to the artists of that era, Elvis, The Platters, Bobby Darin, you have to wonder what all the controversy was about.
A - Well, it was a whole new kind of music. Apparently the kids loved it. And it took off.
Q - As the years have gone by, have you grown to appreciate rock 'n roll?
A - You know, I'll be honest with you...what was going on in the fifties and sixties compared to what's going on today... Today's music I don't understand at all. I don't get it. I have my grandchildren try to explain it to me, but they can't even explain it to me. And they love it! I don't understand it. The singing, I can't understand the lyrics. A lot of it has to do with drugs and sex and there's way too much of that crap going on today. It's ridiculous. Then along came Rod Stewart and he has four smash albums, CDs. And that's songs we recorded forty, fifty years ago, which is fine. He's keeping our stuff alive. Of course, that music will never die. It's great American music. It'll be here forever.
Q - You're absolutely right about that. As kids grow up, the appreciation does grow for the traditional music.
A - Yeah, they get into it as they get older. They start to get interested in Broadway shows. That's one of the things about "Standing On The Corner"...it was from a Broadway show, and a lot of the younger people know it. Because of that one reason, not that they know our records so much, but they know the song.
Q - When the Four Lads had success on their own, what did that mean to you? How did life change for you?
A - Well, it made us feel wonderful, that we made the right decisions. We left home at a very young age. We didn't finish school. We didn't go into college. We were takin' a shot. We thought if we don't make it, we can always go back to school or whatever. But, when you make it, besides having hit records, you get accepted by the people, it a wonderful feeling. It's like you made the right decision. You're selling tons of records and people are loving the way you sing. It's just great.
Q - And you're booked a good part of the year.
A - We try to do the good stuff, because there's a lot of stuff out there we wouldn't want to do. But, we do a lot of packages where we do shows with other groups and we'll play performing art centers, which are the bigger theatres. That's fun. Next year (2006) we're doing some things with Carol Lawrence and all those things work. They sell tickets. It's a lot of fun to do those.
Q - Do you have any new recorded product out as we talk?
A - No, actually we don't. The only way we could do new stuff is we would go in and do it ourselves, which we have not done. Maybe we will one day. You don't get any support with our stuff. The only artist that's really having any success in being accepted with his music is Tony Bennett. Everybody else like Jack Jones, Steve Lawrence, all these people...they can't get a record deal, which is sad because there is a market there. You just try to do good stuff have success with it.
Q - In the fifties, did you travel by bus or plane?
A - Depending on what we were doing. If we were doing a series of one-nighters, yes we toured by bus. If we were doing say, nightclubs and going from one city to another, we flew. It was close enough, like within say a couple of hundred miles, we'd get a car. Today, we fly everywhere. Totally fly.
Q - And since you're a singing group, how can you make sure that the musicians backing you are good enough?
A - Are you talking back then?
Q - Yeah, and even today.
A - Well, most of the time we carry key men with us. So, we're covered that way. But in those days, back then, there were a lot of qualified players. In other words, to work in those nightclubs with the singing acts we're talking about, you had to be good musician. You couldn't fake it. You had to read. You had to know your bananas.
Q - And today?
A - Well, today you run into situations where guys take jobs and they can't even read music.
Q - What do you do then?
A - You get rid of 'em and get somebody else. Why anybody would take a job like that is beyond me. But, most of the time we carry our own conductor. In certain areas of the United States we have different players that work with us. So, we just pick and choose. So, we don't take any chances any more 'cause it can be devastating.
Q - Are all the guys in The Four Lads original members?
A - No. I'm the only guy, the only original member left singing.
Q - What happened to the other guys?
A - Well, as time went on, they left. Last year, our original lead singer passed away. One guy retired and actually stopped singing in 1960 and the other in 1974. But, this group has been together now for well over twenty-five years. But, the people want to hear the music. That's what it's all about. We sing the music they want to hear and they're happy and do it the way we did it. That's one thing I'm a stickler on, that it sounds the same.