Racists imagery is pervasive in films of the 1940s. To see them in Soundies is distressing and far too frequent. But the fact that the Soundies set designers often used standing sets for backgrounds – they were easy to put in place, and very cost effective – calls into question what we see here. Bumble bees have nothing to do with this Mary Lou William’s composition “Satchel Mouth Baby,” and to be honest, I cannot discern whether the bee, front and center behind the band, is an African American stereotype or a hip bumble bee in top hat.
Regardless of the imagery involved, what we have here is a very popular Los Angeles-based combo led by Dusty Brooks called the Four Tones. The group was together as early as 1936 and were performing well into the 1950s. While they recorded prolifically, they are not well known to jazz fans because much of their work was in the area of rhythm-and-blues, and their recording were largely issued on small independent labels. But the group’s ability to play both rhythm-and-blues and jazz makes this Soundie especially interesting.
For those wanting more information about the group, I can happily forward you to Marv Goldberg’s “R&B Notebooks” website (https://www.uncamarvy.com). There are fewer researchers on the scene more comprehensive, focused and readable than Marv.
The group, R&B recordings notwithstanding, was playing a lot of jazz during the war years. They were influenced by the jivey, unison vocals of the Nat “King” Cole Trio. Their guitarist, the unsung Art Maryland, played in a style that strongly recalls Oscar Moore. Buddy Collette told me that the group had toured during the early 1940s, but then settled in Los Angeles during the war years. (Engagements included the Hi-De-Ho Club, Streets of Paris and the Zanzibar Room (at the Florentine Gardens), where producer Ben Hersh likely heard them and arranged for this series of Soundies. During an evening film screen at my house, Buddy commented,“You know, in the 1940s there were a number of clubs in the Hollywood area where you could hear black musicians, especially low-key cocktail groups. There were a couple on La Brea. They would also allow blacks to come in and listen, and that’s where I recall hearing the Four Tones.” Jackie Kelso continued, “Mark, you said that the pianist is Bernard Banks, but I’m not so sure. He sure looks like Peter Martin to me.” Back to Buddy: “I worked a couple of gigs with Ray Wheaton. A fine drummer, and nice to hear how well-recorded his brushwork is here.”
The questions about the personnel and possible racist images take a back seat to the music which is fine small combo jazz, little known to contemporary listeners, but worthy of rediscovery.