The Natural Four was formed in 1966 in Berkeley, California by two GM employees (Christopher James and Alfred Milton Bowden), a longshoreman (Allen Richardson), and a Berkeley School District employee (John January). They debated the possibility of singing professionally for about a year and a half until Fred Ivey offered to manage them in 1967. Fred's brother John owned The Triangle Record Shop and was called on to suggest music that might be appropriate for the budding foursome. An auspicious event was to occur as an employee at the shop had overheard the question and volunteered to write something new for them. With nothing to lose all concerned bought into that idea and the career of The Natural Four was underway.
Within a week The Natural Four was sequestered in the rehearsal studio of Boola Boola owner and Producer Willie Hoskins and that writer, an avowed doowopper, Lonnie Cook. Ten hours later Lonnie had written and totally arranged "I Thought You Were Mine." The song was written to rival the likes of The Miracles' "Choosey Beggar," which had debuted the year before. As Mr. Cook was not in the studio when the music tracks were laid, his plush arrangement emerged 50% faster than it had been scored.
The Natural Four were elated when their first record was played by Bob White on KDIA, eventually selling 30,000 copies in the Bay Area, and reaching #7 on the charts. Chris, Pumpkin, Allen, and John were well on their way when ABC Records heard about them and summoned Mr. Hoskins to Los Angeles to talk a deal. ABC had been so impressed with "I Thought You Were Mine" that they insisted it be rerecorded to their satisfaction; as a result it was sped up another 50% and included in their first album. It was again released as the B-side of the second single from the ABC LP Good Vibes.
The first single off Good Vibes, "Why Should We Stop Now," had also been the second release on Boola Boola in the Bay area. With ABC assuming it's distribution, the song reached #31 on the Billboard R&B chart on May 24th 1969.
While awaiting their anticipated stardom The Natural Four was yet gigging at High Schools and clubs in the Bay Area, and they were not ready to forsake their day jobs. The first concert out of the area was a Seattle weekender. The stint with ABC did not do very much for their career hopes. After three single releases they were again seeking major label affiliation.
As true success seemed out of reach, two reluctant members (Richardson and Bowden) expressed a desire to give it up and were replaced soon after their departure by Steve Striplin (recruited by Chris James) and Delmos Whitley, picked by Producer Willie Hoskins.
In 1971, they recorded one single for Chess Records, "Give a Little Love." When, in 1972, they signed with Curtom Records, another original member, John January called it quits and was replaced by Darryl Cannady.
The first Curtom release "Things Will Be Better" in 1972 and their second Curtom release, "Eddie You Should Know Better" (a remake from Mayfield's Superfly album) failed to sell well. The third Curtom release was the charmer "Can This Be Real," which soared to #10 on the R&B charts in 1974 and cracked the Pop Top 40 at #31. Its successor, "Love That Really Counts," was so similar to "Can This Be Real" that it became another unsuccessful release.
Leroy Hutson, a Curtis Mayfield protege and replacement in the Impressions, produced the Natural Four on Curtom for several very promising releases.
The Natural Four deserved more acclaim as they had a crisp, smooth lead singer in Chris James. The group needed better material, but were usually at the mercy of producers and songwriters who were obviously giving the best stuff to other artists. Even so, The Natural Four sang some of the sweetest harmony ever recorded.
The group has now reformed, so an update will ensue...
By Lonnie Cook