THE FOUR CHORDS, WINNIPEG’S FIRST (AND ALL-JEWISH!)
POP/ROCK VOCAL QUARTET
By Martin Freedman
On the home page of the Manitoba Music Museum’s website (https://www.manitobamusicmuseum.com/) the very first listing is The 4 Chords. In the two most comprehensive and captivating histories of music in Manitoba, “Heart of Gold, A History of Winnipeg Music” (John Einarson, 2021) and “Musical Ghosts, Manitoba’s Jazz and Dance Bands 1914-1966” (Owen Clark, 2007), is a picture of The Four Chords performing on television in Fargo in November 1954.
So how did this happen? In the early ‘50s four Jewish teenagers, Martin Freedman, Earl Golden, Ted Medzon and Sherman Rosove (ages 15-17), each of whom loved music and the very popular vocal groups we heard on radio and 78s (no TV yet in Winnipeg), decided to see if we could establish our own group. With the help of our sole accompanist, the very talented pianist, Jack Cohan, we created The Four Chords (but often “Four” became “4”, at the whim of whoever was writing the particular story).
These were the days of pop, and the very early days of rock ‘n’ roll. We couldn’t and didn’t distinguish between what was then universally referred to as “white” music and “black” music. We chose the songs that we liked. Most successful groups were quartets, such as The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots and The Ames Brothers, and then The Four Aces, The Four Lads and The Hilltoppers. We patterned our style, our harmonies and our songs (no originals, all written by others, as was then the universal practice) after such groups. Our songs were a mix of genres and colours, such as “Hearts of Stone,” “Muskrat Ramble”, “Flip Flop and Fly”, “Shake Rattle and Roll”, “Isle of Capri”, “Lucky Black Cat”. Groups did not play their own instruments while singing; that was a major development just a few years later.
We performed from about 1953 through 1956, and sang at community clubs all over town, at high schools and at many Jewish events at synagogues and elsewhere. Some examples: the Father and Son Dinner of the Hebrew Fraternal Lodge (May ’54); the Gala Sukkot Festival Dinner at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue (October ’54); the ad in one of the local Jewish papers features “dancing to the music of Morrie Libman and His Orchestra with entertainment by Winnipeg’s Newest Singing Sensation ‘The Four Chords’ ”. Admission was $2.50 per couple. We sang at the Hillel site at the University of Manitoba, and the university paper The Manitoban wrote: “Topping the bill will be The 4 Chords (patterned similar to the Four Lads) and Al Blye”. Al was a marvelous singer who went on to truly great success.
We did many pep rallies and variety shows at the University of Manitoba, where The Manitoban described us as “a fast-growing campus favorite”. Varsity Varieties was the U of M’s version of the “Ed Sullivan Show”. Of VV ‘55, The Manitoban wrote: “winning much praise from judges and audience was a delightful varsity quartet, the Four Chords; Their rendition of “Lucky Black Cat” and “The Isle of Capri” won them the only encore of the evening”.
We sang at “Jazz 55” featuring Jack Shapira and his Orchestra and the great clarinetist Jimmy Weber, at the Playhouse (Pantages) in January and again in March of ‘55. We performed at the Teen Faith and Fashion Show in February that year at the Dominion Theatre, with over 1000 people in the audience (we wore suits, a step up from our usual college boy sweaters). We had done a fashion show at the Playhouse in late ‘54 where the Winnipeg Free Press wrote that we would be performing and “will also model men’s clothes”. Tickets were 75 cents or $1.00.
We loved the singing and performing; after all, people were applauding us! Mostly we performed without compensation, but when we sang for general community audiences we were usually paid. Those shows had brought us to the attention of local musical figures. That led to our sole TV appearance, in Fargo in late November 1954, where the picture of the group mentioned above was taken while we were on air.
We also came to the attention of Charlie Mazzone, owner of the Rancho Don Carlos, Winnipeg’s premier entertainment club which imported many well-known American entertainers. Among them were The Deep River Boys, RCA recording artists and an outstanding group led by Harry Douglass, who sang both with them and later as a solo performer world-wide, and often in Winnipeg where he was widely admired.
One of the Jewish newspapers wrote in February ‘55 under the heading: “Four Chords All Set for Bright Lights:” “A quartet of local young Jewish boys got their first ‘big break’ in the entertainment world Wednesday, when they appeared as guest artists at Rancho Don Carlos and also joined the famed Deep River Boys in a number. [They] sang two songs on their own at the supper show and then combined with the Deep River Boys for their thrill of the evening”. According to the Winnipeg Tribune, the “youngsters just starting out in show business” received a “fair sized ovation”. “The boys sang ‘Muskrat Ramble’ while the four Deeps stood alongside and clapped out the rhythm”.
One last anecdote: At the height of our success a leading Winnipeg radio disc jockey, who had seen us and liked what we were doing, told us that he was arranging a 3-month tour for us through the north-west of the United States. This was a big deal! But we were all in school, and that would mean giving up the school year. When this proposition was presented to our parents, some, and probably all, said this was not going to happen. So, it didn’t. The Four Chords stopped performing as a group a while later, and we shifted our individual focus back to schools and careers.
Harry Douglass was very supportive. He had told the Tribune, “The boys are good. They’ll go places”. Although that praise was slightly ambiguous, Harry was at least partly right. One of us went to California after graduating from medical school here and another ended up in London, Ontario teaching at the university. The other two stayed in Winnipeg. We went on to careers in law, business, academia and medicine. We went our separate ways, leaving the door wide open for many other local groups. But very few who followed were all Jewish!
In varying degrees, we have all maintained a relationship with music, whether singing, performing, playing an instrument for enjoyment and/or professionally, singing in barber shop quartets, playing in bands, jazz, concert bands and klezmer, or just singing along with the golden oldies.
Looking at those pictures from 1954 and 1955 reminds us that it was great fun while it lasted.