Gary James' Interview With
Bruce Belland Of
The Four Preps
The Four Preps are probably best known for their hits "26 Miles", "Big Man", "Lazy Summer Nights" and "Down By The Station". They sold millions or records, toured the country with people like Ricky Nelson and appeared on such shows as American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. We're happy to report that The Four Preps are still together, touring the country. We spoke with original lead singer Bruce Belland, and what a story he had to tell!
Q - Norman Nite said of your group in his book Rock On - The Four Preps were the Pat Boone of the vocal groups because of their clean cut image." Weren't all vocal groups "clean cut" during that time? Who had a bad boy image or reputation?
A - Well, certainly Dion And The Belmonts were tough looking guys with duck-tails and the greased up hair and the leather jackets. In fact, when we did that one novelty song where we imitated a lot of the different groups, we say at the end "why must I be a teenager in jail?" We understood that for a few months after that record hit, that Dion And The Belmonts put the word out that if they ever ran across us, they'd deck us. (laughs) So we lived in fear for awhile of meeting 'em at an airport or something. They weren't really bad guys. They just had more of a Danny Zucko "Grease" image than we did. We were what we looked like. We were four really innocent kids from West Hollywood. My old man was a preacher. Two of the kids in the group were Mormons. So, we're a pretty straight-laced bunch to start out with. We're dirty old men now. We wore white bucks, which is I think is where the Pat Boone comparison came in. I still lived at home when we signed with Capitol (Records). We all did. The only condition my Dad would let me be a part of the business is that we have that image and try to maintain it. Then again, we did later on, some in-person albums when we did college shows and we had some very raunchy stuff in there. We did funny songs about pot, about copping a feel behind a gymnasium and all kinds of stuff. We finally grew up. When we started we certainly were reputed to be clean-cut guys.
Q - How is it that all you guys had the same interests and got along together on and off the stage? That's kind of rare.
A - It is. It's funny. I got to know all kinds of guys from different groups in later years. David Sommerville from The Diamonds and Jim Pike from The Letterman. They would tell me about taking a swing at each other if things got hot at rehearsal or something. We never had that. I don't recall a raised voice or a stern or hostile word ever exchanged between the four of us. I'm not sure why. We certainly were not a group that paid a lot of dues, like we came up off the street and learned to make our way with our fists. We were just kids that lived in a middle class community in West Hollywood with our parents and went to Hollywood High and everything was roses. We certainly did have similar interests. We were all intensely ambitious. Our rehearsals would take place at midnight on Saturday night when we'd all taken our dates home, 'cause in those days most girls had a 12 o'clock curfew. So, we'd run our girls home and go down. I had the key to the social hall at my Dad's church where the piano was kept. We'd let ourselves in and rehearse from Saturday night midnight 'til about 2 or 3 in the morning and then do what we all did on Sunday morning and then Sunday afternoon again we'd be back rehearsing again at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Maybe the fact that we were so intense on making it and that was our focus, we never disagreed. Glen Larson and I who wrote all The Preps hits, we really were kind of the spear-head of the group. We were the ones that picked out the material and wrote the songs. I picked out the wardrobe. It was just kind of understood that we were the ones, as they used to say, that were the tip on the arrow, leading The Four Preps wherever we were gonna go and the other two guys were very OK with that. And of course one of the original Preps, Ed Cobb, our bass went on after The Preps broke up to become a monstrous star behind-the-scenes in Rock 'n' Roll. He wrote "Tainted Love" and a lot of big hits and produced records for Fleetwood Mac. So, he certainly was not without his own independent ideas and concepts, but in The Preps itself he was very content, kind of let Glen and I lead the way and it just never came to arguments or hassles.
Q - When The Four Preps were starting out, you were a vocal group.
A - Yeah.
Q - So, you were not a self-contained group.
A - That's right.
Q - Who then provided the musical backing at the gigs you would play?
A - Well, we were at Hollywood High School when we formed for a talent show. At that time the Boy Genius, the modern day Mozart of Hollywood High School was a gentleman named Lincoln Mayorga, and Lincoln played the piano and about six other instruments already when he was still at Hollywood High. He'd been awarded a music scholarship to USC. He was the genius. When we got our first gig to do, I think it was a prom, we didn't have anybody to play for us. One of the guys said "Why don't we try to get Lincoln Mayorga?" We all rolled our eyes and said "Yeah, right. I'm sure he's gonna take time to play our stupid prom." But we took a chance and went after him, with the main selling point to any kid in high school in those days, "you're gonna get to meet a lot of girls." So he went and talked to his parents, who were very unhappy about him prostituting himself for Pop music, but he told them he would just do it this one time and get back to his concert career. Well of course he literally ended up becoming the fifth Prep for the entire thirteen years we recorded for Capitol. We split all our record royalties five ways, between the four of us and Lincoln. So Lincoln was always at the keyboard in the early years with the group. He would round up the drummer and the guitar player and the bass player. We also were a transitional group. A lot of the first early appearances we did, we were backed by a Big Band. In fact, the backside of "Twenty Six Miles" has got Billy Mays' Orchestra on it, a twenty-two piece band swingin' away on a really stupid song. In fact, there are some comments on some of our YouTube videos from music experts out there that point out "this group was really transitional from a big, swingin' Billy Mays / Nelson Riddle band to three or four pieces on Twenty Six Miles". But for most of the early years Lincoln Mayorga, the Fifth Prep was our accompanist and he would put the band together behind us. Then in later years, when his concert career started to blossom and he traveled a lot by himself doing concerts, we would pick up other accompanists. Most of 'em would be with us, three, four, five years, then move on and we'd just get somebody else. Every note we ever sang, even after Lincoln stopped traveling with us, he was the man behind the scenes. When we had a recording session, he would put everything else aside and spend weeks writing the arrangements for us, teaching us our parts and then at the session he'd conduct the band and hire the musicians.
Q - There are four different versions out there on how The Four Preps got signed.
A - Boy, and one of 'em on Wikipedia is so wrong and every time I read it, it makes me crazy and I still haven't done anything about it. Go ahead and I'll tell you the right one. (laughs)
Q - Let's lead off with the Wikipedia version. They say The Four Preps were signed to Capitol Records after one of their executives saw you at a talent show at Hollywood High School in 1956.
Norman Nite says "While singing at a dance at UCLA in 1956, a friend of theirs, Howard Adelman, made tapes and without their knowing it sent the tapes out to Capitol Records. Capitol contacted the group and put them under contract."
Brown and Fredrich's Encyclopedia Of Rock and Roll says The Four Preps caught the eye of agent Melville Shaver at one of your L.A. performances, who brought them to the attention of Vogle Gilmore, a producer at Capitol. Gilmore was impressed and signed the group to a long term contract."
And according to the Billboard Book of American Singing Groups by Jay Warner...
A - Yeah, I know Jay very well.
Q - "On one Saturday night performance at a UCLA dance, The Preps had unknowingly been taped by their friend Howard Adelman. Not wanting a good thing to go to waste, Bruce and Glen ran the tape up and down Sunset Blvd. where all the booking and management companies were. This led to their meeting with Les Paul and Mary Ford's manager Mel Shaver, who asked them to leave the tape. In one of those Cinderella stories that can actually happen, the group was informed three days later that they had a record deal. They signed with Capitol only six days after friend Howard had taken he initiative to turn on his tape recorder."
OK, what version is correct? How were you really discovered and signed to a record deal?
A - (laughs) Well, Jay as usual is right on the money. That's probably because I sat and told him the story more than once. The manager's name was Mel Shaver. He's slightly incorrect that it was just me that ran the tape up and down Sunset. I lived just two blocks off the Sunset Strip and when Howard Adelman presented me with the tape after the show, I went home and played it. It wasn't embarrassing. It was OK and the crowd response was pretty good. So I just started out on a Monday. We sang on Saturday night. On Monday I just went to every office building on Sunset. I probably covered a distance of two, three, four miles from Sunset and Doheny, all the way down to Sunset and Vine. Every time the building register said something, something Agency, I would go down to that room number, knock on the door and say "We have a tape we'd like you to listen to." Well, I got travel agencies, real estate agencies and domestic maid agencies and couple of talent agents. But no one wanted to take time to listen. Finally, I just did literally stumble into Mel Shaver's office. What a wonderful guy. He became our manager. He was Abe Lincoln like. He was a tall, slim man who always had a pipe in his mouth and talked very slowly and very calmly. He didn't even tell us who he represented or what he wanted to do with the tape. He just said "Well, I have some friends at a couple of labels here in town. Why don't you let me take a tape and see what I can do?" Then it was Thursday of that week that I got a call saying "Well, I played it for my friend Vogle Gilmore over at Capitol Records and he'd like to sign you guys to a contract." So that was how it happened. The Wikipedia excerpt you read, interestingly enough, did not mention that we were signed by Nik Venet, who was the producer at Capitol years after we signed with them. When we signed with Capitol, Nik was probably still in high school. Some excerpts mention that, I don't know how that got ever got started. Nik recorded The Lettermen. He claims he "discovered" The Beach Boys, which he may have. But that always bothered me because it was Voyle Gilmore who had the vision to sign us, not Nik Venet. Then years later, after we'd been with Capitol for five or six years, we did do a session or two with Nik when Voyle was out of town. But it was Voyle Gilmore who discovered us. It was I who took the tape up and down Sunset, who finally gave it to Mal Shaver, who took it to Capitol and that's how it happened.
Q - In 1977, I did pretty much what you did. I was managing my brother's Rock group and I flew from Syracuse to Los Angeles.
A - Wow!
Q - And I stayed at the Travel Lodge Motel on Sunset Blvd., which is next to Hollywood High School.
A - (laughs) Sure.
Q - Do you know where that is?
A - I know exactly where it is. Are you kidding? I use to hitch-hike home every day in front of that Travel Lodge. That's funny.
Q - I too walked up and down Sunset Blvd., going into record companies, trying to interest record companies into signing my brother's group. But see, you had the hometown advantage. You could keep going back and back. I couldn't do that.
A - I've always said if we'd been born in Des Moines, it probably never would have happened. Hollywood High is virtually in the shadow of the Capitol tower. To get signed by Capitol was the icing on the cake. Any contract with anybody would have been exciting, but Capitol... We idolized The Four Freshmen. For us they were the epitome of what a group should be. When we signed with Capitol it was just incredible.
Q - In 1977, if you walked into Capitol Records, you were greeted by a woman sitting behind a desk in the lobby. You couldn't get past her to actually put a demo tape in anybody else's hands.
A - That's very true. It's the same with the radio stations. When we had a new release, we'd go up and knock on the door of the Top 40 stations in town and they'd have us come in and sit down and offer us a Coke and we'd hang around and play the record for them and they they'd put it on the play list. By the time we stopped recording fifteen years later, you'd go up and slide your record under the door 'cause the door was locked with a sign that said "Do Not Enter". You might get it played, you might not. Everything toughened up after awhile. I think, and it's an over-used word, we had a certain cache being from Hollywood High School. I think Mel Schaver laid that on pretty thick with Capitol and Voyle when he played them the tape. "These are four great-looking kids. They're clean-cut and they're right from here in town." Before we even signed with Capitol, we had already done, I'd guess, oh, probably forty, fifty high school and junior high school assemblies all around town. We would call up the school out of the blue and say "We've got a group. It's a clean-cut show, nothing out of line. We'd like to come and entertain your student body. We'll do it for free of charge. We'd just like to make them aware of The Four Preps." We did an assembly or two a week for a year before we signed with Capitol. And so, by the time we signed and the local stations began playing our songs, they were being bombarded by phone calls from kids that had heard us at their school and wanted to get on the bandwagon. So, that was a big help too.
Q - A little Rock 'n' Roll trivia for you, Bruce. Hollywood High School was the setting for what Rock group's 1979 movie?
A - I should know that. I don't.
Q - The Ramones.
A - (laughs) The Ramones. My daughters loved The Ramones. I didn't know that. What year?
Q - I want to say 1979.
A - I'll be darned. I didn't know that.
Q - It was a different Hollywood back then.
A - Oh, man. Now it's got barbed wire fences all around it.
Q - It must really be bad.
A - They've cleaned up Hollywood quite a bit lately, but oh, about ten, twelve years ago they decided to open a museum on the campus there featuring memorabilia of the various entertainment people who'd gone on to success from the school. So I went and helped them with it. At the time the principal was a great gal named Jean Haun and she was telling me how much the school had changed. The number one spoken language on campus, and this was maybe ten, twelve years ago, was Armenian. The whole community around there had become very heavily Armenian. And the student body president at that time had been in the jungle with an AK-47 as a Contra-Costa or whatever they call 'em in Nicaragua, at fourteen or fifteen. His parents had finally gotten him out of there and moved to California and now he was the student body president of Hollywood High. Yeah, the school has changed quite a bit.
Q - The Four Preps toured with Ricky Nelson, correct?
A - Yeah.
Q - Did you play that gig at Steel Pier with Ricky Nelson on August 31st, 1958 when he broke all attendance records and set the record for a single concert?
A - Yeah. Set the record and watched the horse dive off the tower and all that corny stuff. But that was phenomenal. Every performance with Rick was unbelievable. The first one we did we had 35,000 kids. I've got a picture of it somewhere. Somebody took it from the very back of this arena, enormous arena. You can see way, way off in the distance those figures up onstage, little tiny figures up onstage with Rick and his band and the four of us. He had just hit. When we took off on the first tour with him he was at that point just on the cover of Life magazine with the inscription "Rick Nelson, Teen Idol", which Life magazine claim they created that title for the Rick Nelson issue - "Teen Idol." That was nothing anyone ever used as an expression before they put it on the cover with Rick. He was just so red hot. We got off the plane at the Columbia, Ohio airport and you couldn't hear yourself think. It was just screaming, pressing up against the barricades, all along the tarmac there as we got off the plane. The flashbulbs were going off. The TV cameras were there. It was great! It was really fun.
Q - How many concerts did you do with him?
A - We probably did about a dozen.
Q - That was cross country.
A - Yes. We did the Wisconsin State Fair, Steel Pier, the Illinois State Fair and I don't remember the others. Then done very quickly by Capitol with whom we had signed, we hadn't had a hit yet, but we were planning and hoping to have one soon and Capitol got very unhappy with the idea that we were going to become known as Rick Nelson's back-up group, as The Jordanaires did with Elvis. They didn't like that. They wanted us to be stars in our own right. A lot of people thought we recorded with Rick. We sang on the television show with him and on tour. If he had a new song he wanted to do and we were on the set doing the show, during the breaks we'd go over to the bungalow where we all hung out and rehearsed and he would sing whatever new song he had for us and we would make up backgrounds and harmony parts. They would take those parts we made up and record them. When Rick got time to record the song in a session he would play our back-up tape for the back-up singers they had hired. They would learn their parts off of our parts and sing them. We went on that first tour and came back and cut "26 Miles" and very quickly it became sort of impractical for us to back him on tour. It just didn't make sense for anybody. So, that's how the whole thing ended.
Q - In 1964, you recorded a song called "The Letter To The Beatles".
A - (laughs) Oh, man.
Q - And The Beatles' lawyer said what to you?
A - "We are not amused." (laughs) It was actually Brian Epstein. He said that to Voyle Gilmore. I remember Voyle called us on the road. We were in Oklahoma City and we hadn't had a hit in a couple of years and we were dying to get one. We did songs all the time that were commentaries on whatever the fads were. We did a thing on the draft, "Draft Dodger Ray". We did a thing called "Annie And Her Granny" when all the girls were wearing Granny dresses. So, we were always doing satires about the newest fads and trends. When we heard about how big The Beatles were getting, a friend of ours had written a song about Hayley Mills, the actress. It as called "A Letter To Hayley". Some of the lines were the same and some changed. He played it for us and we even put his record out on our own label. We had a record label of our own at the time. He was a struggling songwriter at the time. We put it out as "A Letter To Hayley." It didn't do much. Then, when The Beatles hit, I said to Glen, "Why don't we take that song and re-write it as A Letter To The Beatles and record it ourselves?" We did. We put it out and went back out on the road and hoping to God that maybe this time we get back on the charts again. Son-of-a-gun, it started screaming up the charts. I think the second week it was something like 65 with a bullet. We said "Oh, my God, we've done it again. Look at this. And the disc jockeys were all calling us saying "Way to go guys. You're back in the big time. Way to go!" (laughs) And then about the second week, I got a call from Voyle Gilmore at our motel in Oklahoma City where we were performing. He said "I hope you're sitting down." I said "Oh boy...what?" I thought he was gonna say your record is number one next week. He said "We're gonna have to pull the record." I said "What?" He said "We got a call at the Tower here from Brian Epstein who heard it and said "we are not amused. We think it's bad for The Beatles' image. We don't like the light it paints them in and we would really like you to stop this record." Not only did they stop it, but I still have a letter in my files which I got maybe two or three years ago 'cause it's resurfaced now. It's on YouTube. It's all over the place, this song. They actually pulled it from all the branches across the country that were stocking it and sending it out to the record stores. I got a letter from a woman in Sydney, Australia who was a secretary at the Capitol Records plant there at the time the record came out. The Preps were huge in Australia. We'd had five Top Ten records there. We had a lot of fans there. In this letter, she told of coming back one day from lunch with her girlfriends in the secretarial pool. When they got back up to their offices, the manager came out and said "We want you all to report downstairs to the warehouse for the afternoon." They all went down to the warehouse and as they walked in they were handed sledge hammers. They had taken a couple of thousand 45 copies of "A Letter To The Beatles" and had opened up all the cases, piled 'em out on the floor and all afternoon those secretaries took sledgehammers, smashin' all the 45s to bits, so nobody would ever be able to play it again. Can you imagine that?
Q - That means any record that survived would be a collector's item.
A - Well, that's one reason the gal contacted me. She said "we were so distraught, some of us had tears in our eyes. We loved you guys. We thought it was such a cute record." She said "I actually, when nobody was looking, took an intact copy and slipped it under my skirt and took it home that night. I have it here. If you'd like to have it, you're more than welcome to it." I wrote back and said "Thank you. Over the years I managed to get my hands on a copy or two." And now you can get it easily. It's available on the internet. But I think it's so extraordinary they went so such lengths to actually have secretaries with sledgehammers smashing these records. It's like Nazi book burning. What is that?
Q - I never heard that story before.
A - Yeah.
Q - I don't suppose you ever had the opportunity to meet Brian Epstein or The Beatles, did you?
A - Never did.
Q - Were you a script writer for McCloud and Manix?
A - Yeah. I wrote a lot. Glen Larson, my partner in the original Preps went on to be a huge television producer with Battlestar Galactica, Nightrider, and Magnum P.I. But in the early years when was still in The Preps, I wrote a lot of television, Manix, McCloud, To Catch A Thief, all that kind of stuff. I used to write a lot of scripts.
Q - How did you learn that?
A - Well, two of the four of us were pages at NBC. So we were all aiming to be in some aspect of the business. One of the areas we were interested in was writing scripts. In fact, Glen and I would sometimes after school go down to the NBC studios, a few blocks from Hollywood High and they would toss the old scripts out in the trash dumpster in the back and we'd climb down the dumpster and get all these old scripts and take 'em home and study them. Sometimes we'd re-enact some of 'em in the garage with kids from the neighborhood. So we were always gravitating towards some aspect of the business. Glen in particular, who never considered himself to be world-beater as a singer or entertainer, always used to say "One of these days I'm gonna end up behind the camera 'cause I'm not really a natural like you are, Bruce." I'm really much more of a producer from behind-the-scenes." And even in The Preps he was very much the producer of the show, what songs would go in what order. So, we were always aiming for some aspect in show business.
Q - NBC studios in Burbank looked like it must've been a fun place to work.
A - Oh, yeah. You know, I became a Vice-President of NBC later when the original Preps disbanded. I loved it. I produced over 1,200 hours of television. I got some Emmys. Yeah, for a while much later in my career I had an office upstairs in Burbank from where I used to be a page. It was sort of fun.
Q - I didn't know that about you. Well, once again, if you're from Hollywood you can do that sort of thing.
A - That's true. It was so crazy because six months before that I'm onstage at Caesar's Palace opening for Johnny Mathis with The Four Preps. I came home and there's not a lot on the books. We haven't got a booking for a couple of months. I end up at a party where I strike up a conversation with an executive from NBC and the next thing I know they're reading my resume and calling me in for an interview. It took me almost two years to become Vice-President. I started out as a Director. I did a lot of television at one point. There was great energy in that building. I'd walk down the hall to go to the commissary for lunch and there'd be Doc Severenson and The Tonight Show Band warming up in Studio A and Hollywood Squares in Studio B. It was a great adventure for me. I had a run in television and then through a chain of circumstances The Preps started up again and here I am.
Q - Did you have any college in order to become a Director or Vice-President?
A - You probably would now, I would guess. You didn't then. I have three years of college at UCLA, but I never got a degree and no one even asked me about it. The reason I got the job when I met this executive at the party is that by then I had written a lot of scripts as I had said. Also, I had been an actor in several shows and I had directed a series of commercials for Chevrolet. I had done them at NBC. A couple of people had seen me there directing at NBC and sort of knew I was involved in that part of the business. When I struck up a conversation with this guy, he knew all of that about me. So, he said "You'd be a natural for programming if you ever want to be a Program Executive. I hope you'll let me know that." The next day he had my resume on his desk. (laughs)
Q - What is the market today for The Four Preps? Where do you take your act?
A - Mostly we do California, Arizona and Florida because that's where all the old people go to retire. (laughs)
Q - Where the sun shines.
A - Exactly. We just did Sun City in Arizona, three thousand people in this big, outdoor amphitheatre. It was just great fun. We're going to Plant City, Florida for a weekend called Lost In The '50s at The Red Rose Inn. We do some casinos as you know around the country. We do performing arts series. We do a lot of retirement community. Some of these communities, I'm telling you are fantastic. They have beautiful auditoriums and gymnasiums. Great facilities. That keeps us pretty darn busy. In January of 2011, we'll start a ten week engagement at a very popular show in Palm Springs called Palm Springs Follies. It's a big Vegas kind of production with a chorus line and a big orchestra, mammoth sets and all kinds of comedy acts and musical acts. In fact, Mary Wilson from The Supremes is headlining there right now. Four Aces did it last month. Rita Coolidge the month before that. So that's very much oriented towards retired people. They have anywhere from eight, ten to fifteen buses that pull up in front of the theatre for every show and all the senior citizens climb out, some of 'em from as far away as two hundred miles, to see the show. That's a big part of our audience. When we do the casinos, we have younger people show up. I get stuff on the internet all the time from our YouTube videos, somebody saying "I'm only sixteen, but I think your music is really cool." I'm happy to say there's some younger people as well, but mostly it's the older, retired people that are fans.
Q - How many concerts do you give each year?
A - This year we'll probably do about seventy-five.
Q - That's not too bad.
A - It's about what I like. I like working a lot. My daughters kid me all the time. They had a huge band in Europe for years. They moved to London when they were in their late teens and became big stars over there. They never made it in this country. They both hated touring. By the time the band broke up, they were sick of it. They keep saying "I don't understand. You've been doing this for fifty years and you still like it?" I said "Oh, yeah." I'm headin' for the airport in the morning and my heart is pounding. Man, I'm lovin' it! It's an important part of my life. At seventy-three, I'm glad I'm still doing it. If I could be doing one thing, this is what it would be.