Probably the only group that ever made it by auditioning over a phone, the Four Lads were an early ‘50s pop harmony delight. They were originally choirboys at St. Michael’s Cathedral Choir School in Toronto during the late ‘40s. The four included Bernie Toorish (lead), Jimmie Arnold (second tenor), Frank Busseri (baritone), and Connie Codarini (bass).
By day they attended school and by night their practices gave way to performances at local hotels. One such evening at the Toronto Hotel they did an imitation of the famed GOLDEN GATE QUARTET. Gates leader Orlando Wilson happened to be in the audience and was so impressed by the performance that he telephoned his manager Mike Stewart in New York right from the hotel. Holding the phone in the direction of the stage Stewart agreed with Wilson’s assessment and agreed to sign the quartet sight unseen to a management contract.
The boys pooled their life savings for the New York trip and Stewart immediately put them into the fashionable Le Ruban Bleu nightclub for a tryout of two weeks. That tryout lasted 30 weeks and the Lads’ reputation began to spread. Performances at the Paramount and on the Perry Como and Dave Garroway TV shows followed. During the Lads’ appearance at Le Ruban Bleu, Columbia A&R guru Mitch Miller spotted them and brought them aboard.
They were originally signed to Columbia as a backup group and given the unique opportunity few acts ever get with a major label, that of choosing which of the roster’s stars they’d like to sing backup for. In what can only be termed a fateful decision they passed over several name acts to back an unknown newcomer named Johnnie Ray.
In the fall of 1951 the group supported Ray’s new two-sider “Cry” b/w “Little White Cloud that Cried.” Even the most optimistic expectations didn’t prepare the group or Ray for the incredible success, not just of “Cry” (number one for eleven weeks) but also “Little White Cloud” (number two for two weeks).
The Lads had three more hits with Ray “(Please Mr. Sun” [#6}, “Here Am I Brokenhearted” [#8}, and “What’s the Use” [#13], all in 1952) before getting the opportunity to do it for themselves.
Their first single, “The Mockingbird,” made it to number 23 in the summer of 1952 on Columbia’s Okeh label. They moved up to the parent company starting with their next single, “Somebody Loves Me” (#22) from the musical George White’s Scandals of 1924.
Five of their next 12 singles charted, including “Istanbul” (#10) and “Down by the Riverside” (#17), both in 1953. “Skokiaan,” a South African song, became their first top 10 hit (#7) in the fall of 1954 followed by a charter behind Frankie Laine (“Rain Rain Rain,” #21) at just about the same time. They also backed Columbia thrushes Jill Corey and Toni Arden.
The group continued on the national nightclub circuit but also did double duty wherever they were by officiating at early mass at a local church before going to bed (just like today’s rockers and rappers).
Their biggest hit came in the fall of 1955 with “Moments to Remember” (#2), a pretty ballad done in their schmaltziest of styles. “No Not Much” had the same effect (#2) in early1956. Though rock and roll was taking over, the group (much it its credit and talent) held their own into the late ‘50s, scoring another 16 pop charters including “Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go By)” (#3, spring of 1956).
With 28 chart singles between 1951 and 1959 the group was certainly a potent force in pop music of the period and their clean-cut harmonies attracted a large following.
By 1961 Connie was in the restaurant business. Lead singer Bernie Toorish left in the ‘70s to pursue the insurance business and Jimmy left in the ‘80s to teach voice in California. Baritone Frank continued on and in the early ‘90s was still performing to appreciative audiences, many of whom had fallen in love to the strains of Four Lads songs in the ‘50s.
– Jay Warner