Excerpt from “The Nearest Far Away Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys and the Southern California experience” by Timothy White – Published by Henry Holt & Company:
“Now it was Brian playing records by the Four Freshmen, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, the Four Preps and the Hi-Los, studying their layered harmony and vocal blends.
(Then) Hawthorne High was graced with a touch of West Coast pop’s seaside glamour when the Four Preps came to sing at a school assembly.
The Preps were a hip college act, and Brian envied the reputation their concerts enjoyed.
They gave a witty, offhanded performance which lent a charge of inspiration to the material that Brian was developing.
Brian soon took his vocal talents public … his tapings of Four Preps approximations and family covers.”
“The song “26 Miles” put Catalina on the map and made the Four Preps household names.”
NBC Today Show
The Four Preps story begins in Chicago in 1940. Bruce Belland, the son of a fundamentalist preacher, sings his first solo in a church service at age four.
The congregation erupts in applause and shouts of “Amen!”
With that, his dream is born.
He wants to be a singer.
But as big as his dream may be, he could never have foreseen how he and three Hollywood High school pals would get dropped into the fast lane of pop music stardom… while still in his teens.
THE FOUR PREPS
Fall 1954. Hollywood High School Student Talent Show.
Bruce Belland, a musically gifted and ambitious sophomore, joins forces with classmate Glen Larson, his friend since grammar school. They grab two pals from the school choir and steal the show with “Sha Boom.”
Bruce and Glen quickly see the potential, and enlist two other equally ambitious classmates for the group’s permanent lineup.
The four brash wannabes are:
BRUCE BELLAND- the Duracell Bunny, Lead Singer, songwriter, comic and head cheerleader. His preacher father’s weekly salary is $145.00
Baritone GLEN LARSON – the group’s shrewd and aggressive spokesman is handsome and driven. He lives with his younger brother and widowed mother a hard-working waitress, which fuels his relentless ambition.
Glen will ultimately go on to create a score of popular TV shows including Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, The Fall Guy, and Battlestar Galactica.
Bass ED “Eddie”COBB (pic hug) is a 6’4” high school football hero, whose quiet, low-key demeanor belies his fierce ambition, and an innate musical genius that will ultimately land him in the Guinness Book of World Records for writing new wave classic “Tainted Love.” He also works in his studio, “Producer’s Workshop” with Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and Pink Floyd.
Ed’s parents hold down three jobs between them.
High Tenor MARV INGRAM the best singer at HHS, performed as a boy soprano with the famous Mitchell Boys Choir. He’s an orphan being raised by his disabled grandmother… and hungry too.
Through a lucky accident, they stumble on their name, The FOUR PREPS and a show business rags to riches story begins.
Never lacking in initiative, Bruce goes after the school’s prodigy, classical pianist Lincoln Mayorga to become the group’s accompanist, arranger and musical Director.
Lincoln becomes “the 5th Prep” and will work with the boys for the entire 13 years of their initial recording career.
They soon find themselves in demand for every kind of Southern California event: beach parties to sock hops – usually for little more than gas money.
They all hold full-time day jobs, and rehearse late into the night – every night, creating an act that blends polished vocals with madcap comedy.
They are determined to be versatile entertainers, not just singers. Their potent melding of laughter and music will ultimately distinguish them from other more generic vocal groups of the era.
Badly bitten by the show biz bug, they perform in armature showcases with other hopefuls like Jimmie Rodgers, Jan and Dean, Trini Lopez, Richie Valens and the Righteous Brothers, beginning Bruce’s lifelong friendship with Bill Medley.
In 1956, the Preps are discovered by Mel Shauer, a former Paramount executive and prominent personal manager.
Shauer represents one of Capitol Record’s hottest acts, Les Paul and Mary Ford, and approaches the Tower with his new proteges.
Legendary Capitol Records Producer Voyle Gilmore, who records Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Al Martino, The Four Freshmen, Kingston Trio and Louie Prima & Keely Smith, hears a recorded live performance by the boys and aware of the exploding market of teenage record buyers and Top 40 radio, signs them to a long-term recording contract. At the time the Preps are the youngest group ever to sign with a major record label, and effectively become “America’s First Boy band.” (Variety dubs them “Capitol’s jolly juveniles”.)
Two young agents at MCA, the most powerful agency in the industry, are impressed with the Preps’ unique Act and start to book them at West Coast military bases for $250.00 per night… a $25.00 commission.
One of those fledgling agents, Jerry Perenchio, will go on to become a TV titan and one of the wealthiest men in America. And the other, Ned Tanen, will become one of the most successful studio heads in Hollywood History.
Perenchio and Tanen align with the Preps and become their most effective advocates in the formative year ahead.
The group’s first release “Dreamy Eyes” enters the Billboard Hot 100 at #56 with a bullet. The Tower is ecstatic.
“Dreamy Eyes” disappears the following week.
While The Preps start searching for a hit, their old HHS classmate, Ricky Nelson, is launching a recording career of his own.
The Preps are soon cast in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Hariot” as Ricky’s fraternity brothers and backup singers.
(In later years Bruce will return to the cast as a semi-regular playing Rick’s roommate.)
Ricky and the guys rehearse on the set and soon develop a comfortable musical rapport. The Preps then make musical history when they surprise Ricky and literally drag him out on stage during one of their shows for his first public solo.
The screaming girls rush the stage and Ricky and the guys barely escape the hysterical mob.
It is the beginning of Nelson’s
“Teen Idol” adventure. (SEE PHOTO)
Later in his career, Nelson will call that afternoon a turning point in his dedication to a musical career.
Ricky and the Preps soon embark on their first national tour which kicks off the very week Nelson’s picture is on the cover of LIFE magazine with the caption - “RICKY NELSON – Teen Idol” - a phrase the Editors had created expressly for him.
“It was absolute insanity.” Belland remembers. “35,000 screaming girls who’d only seen Rick and us on TV - and now here we are in the flesh. We get mobbed, survive a lot of narrow escapes and Rick becomes a lifelong friend.”
Despite not yet having a hit record, the Preps are becoming known for compelling vocals and fresh, fearless comedy, and MCA snags a high-profile showcase for them right here in their own hometown.
Beloved ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy are coming out of retirement for a return engagement at the world-famous Cocoanut Grove.
The boys are booked as his opening act – and after attending the Grove as awestruck prom goers a little over a year earlier – they will now perform on its fabled stage.
The ”A list” of vintage Hollywood attends opening night and the boys are in the middle of it all watching in disbelief.
The long late-night rehearsals pay off. One review raves:
Bergen is billed as the star of the new Grove, but there is a quartet of fresh, funny and talented youngsters tagged The Four Preps who come within a whisker of copping all the marbles. It was only a year ago that they were on the other side of the footlights attending their Hollywood High School prom.
Mark my words, The Four Preps will go far in their chosen field of endeavor. They have all the requisites, well-blended voices and fetching personalities.
The Preps continue scrambling for a hit while trying a variety of vocal styles: Doo Wop, Latin, rock and roll, country, movie themes, a Burt Bachrach song. (for details, click here)
The one quality that never varies is their emphasis on harmony and blend. As will later be cited in Brian Wilson’s biography. Excerpt: “Now it was Brian... studying their layered harmony and vocal blends.”
Lots of airplay but few sales.
Their morale is boosted when Cashbox crowns them “Most Promising Vocal Group of the Year.” But as Capitol’s option for a second year approaches, it could all be over.
In the meantime, armed with the Grove reviews Perenchio and Tanen pull off another miracle.
The Preps are signed to appear on The Edsel Show, a historic TV Special starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, surprise guest Bob Hope… and The Four Preps. And the juggernaut agency gets the four green kids equal billing on the show’s opening credits.
That heady week of mixing with the legends provides some of their most colorful memories.
But still no hit.
In desperation, Capitol finally allows the boys to record “26 Miles (Santa Catalina) a song co-written by Belland and Larson. It’s the obscure B side of the group’s next release but gets discovered by a late-night DJ and soon blankets the airwaves. That landmark recording will create a new genre of West Coast music sometimes called “The California sound.” Dick Clark will later refer to the song as “the first surfer hit.” Years later, Jimmy Buffett will name a chapter after it in his autobiography, and Brian Wilson’s biography will cite a Preps performance at his high school that “lent a charge of inspiration to the material Brian was developing.”
That year the Island of Romance welcomes over a million visitors and the song will ultimately be celebrated in a lobby display at the Catalina Museum of Art and History in Avalon. (SEE PHOTO)
That first million-seller takes the country by storm in 1958 and soon the group is featured in LIFE magazine. The inscription under their photo reads “the Four Preps who met in high school brighten their act with clowning.”
They’ve done it – they’re entertainers.
And always, there’s their compelling vocals which inspire Ed Sullivan to introduce them as “one of Americas great recording quartets.” (SEE PHOTO)
The Preps frequent American Bandstand and form a lifelong friendship with Dick Clark. Over the years the Preps and Clark play outrageous pranks on each other until Clark ultimately gets revenge live on the air. Dick will recall it in his autobiography “Rock, Roll and Remember.” (See excerpt here)
As “home town boys” they become an integral part of the young Hollywood scene, mingling with other young up-and-comers, Tab Hunter, Connie Stevens, Troy Donohue, Annette Funicello et al.
At this point, Marv Ingram opts to return to UCLA and is replaced for a time by tenor Don Clarke before returning about a year later.
In 1959, the Preps Co-star with Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson and James Darren in the original “Gidget” movie, the first surfer-themed feature film produced by a major studio.
Their image as the quintessential Southern California band is enhanced by their rollicking on-screen performance on the sands at Malibu. (SEE PHOTO) Next, the cover of their first studio album features them in bathing suits flirting with two curvaceous models on the beach. (SEE PHOTO)
A long string of hit singles follows. Additional million sellers "Big Man", "Down by the Station", and "Lazy Summer Night." “Got a Girl”, “Calcutta”, and “Cinderella” also hit the charts.
With their career on fire, the inevitable draft call comes from Uncle Sam. The boys enlist in the Air National Guard’s 146th Air Transport Wing in Van Nuys.
That unconventional base is manned mostly by men from various aspects of show business, including actor Jack Nicholson and a prominent TV gossip columnist. The Preps disappear from the music scene for months to fulfill their basic training.
Their (Mis)adventures as pampered “celebrities” include a sadistic Sargent who labels them “the four maggots” and inflicts all kinds of torture including a command performance in a gas chamber… without masks.
Finally boot camp is over and they return to a busy slate of bookings.
For four straight summers, the Preps tour the state fair circuit with Tennessee Ernie Ford, who becomes one of their biggest boosters and will later feature them as guests on his popular variety show.
In 1962, The Preps’ career takes another quantum leap into a new, burgeoning genre of entertainment - college concerts. Their first live “In Person” album, “The Four Preps on Campus, features their stirring vocals and comedic craziness which has now become a hallmark of every Preps concert. (Their contract specifically stipulates that they be introduced as “The unpredictable Four Preps!”) -
The “On Campus” album hits the top of the charts, and one track emerges as a hit single. With tongues firmly in cheek, co-writers Bruce and Glen call it “More Money for You and Me” since the lyrics suggest JFK draft all the other recording groups into the Peace Corps and ship them off to remote places leaving “More Money for etc”.
It’s lauded as one of the top novelty records of the year and catapults the group into still another strata of show business success.
That first live album is followed by two more in their popular "On Campus" Series: “Four Preps - Campus Encore” and “Four Preps - Campus Confidential” making them the only vocal group of their genre to record three consecutive “LIVE” albums.
A second satirical single “The Big Draft” follows featuring their uncanny impressions of artists from The Platters to Dion and the Belmonts. (And later The Beatles).
The Preps soon buy their own plane, average over 150 concerts per year and reign as one of nation's most in-demand college concert attractions for three straight years in the early to mid 60's.
During that time, they survive a hair-raising emergency landing – and perform an hour later.
By now, with gold records, a hit movie and TV successes, the Preps have achieved most of their goals with one exception – a Vegas engagement.
That dream finally comes true in late 1962 when the Preps are booked to appear in Vegas with George Burns and his new comedy partner Broadway legend Carol Channing.
While the Preps are preparing for their long-awaited Vegas debut, President Kennedy responds to the Berlin crisis by activating certain select National Guard units– including the Preps’ 146th Air Transport wing in Van Nuys.
Their big Vegas break is looming, and they will now be on full-time active duty in Los Angeles.
To save the engagement, the Preps instigate an audacious plan.
With the permission of the brass, they moor their plane at the base, and each afternoon at 4:05 clamor on board and hustle to Vegas.
In Sin City, they don silk tuxedos, do two sold out shows every night, mix with chorus girls and adoring fans and get treated like stars.
The next morning it’s back to grungy fatigues. And in Bruce’s case (and this is true!) emptying and cleaning the over ripe latrines on the enormous transport planes landing after a 14 hour flight with 120 men.
After Vegas the troupe moves to Lake Tahoe and the Preps clock even longer hours in a plane… and Bruce cleans more latrines.
Their bizarre double life during that turbulent time is so outrageous and provocative, that years later, Bruce will turn the entire adventure into a comedy feature film called “Weekend Warriors” starring Lloyd Bridges and Jack Lemmon’s son Chris. (Internationally called “Hollywood Air Force” - SEE PHOTO)
During this period the Preps are mentored by George Burns, who soon adopts Bruce, coaches him in comedy and becomes his show business Godfather.
During their year of active duty, the Preps never mis a roll call, do over 60 recruiting shows and at the end of active duty are awarded the Distinguished Airman citation from The Department of the Air Force.
They are honorably discharged after a year’s active duty.
Successful tours of Europe and Asia follow as well as regular appearances in top nightclubs here and abroad.
By now all the members have married, started families and begun to enjoy their own success in other fields of entertainment.
Bruce, who by now is a semi-regular on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”, is doing voice overs for films like “Jungle Book” and later TV shows like “Happy Days”, writing title songs for Disney films and comedy acts for other artists.
Glen, who had always aspired to be a television producer, is selling scripts as fast as he can write them and impressing the brass at Universal.
Ed Cobb is well on his way to becoming a major songwriting and producing force and Marv is heavily involved in the stock market
None-the-less Bruce and Glen see one more opportunity for their patented social satire – and perhaps one final hit. They write “Letter to the Beatles”, a novelty song satirizing the marketing phenomenon of Beatlemania.
The backing band is the Wrecking Crew - some of whom have recorded with the guys since day one - and everyone smells a hit.
The Preps throw in a quick impression of the Beatles and then proceed to poke fun at the merchandising of the new band from Liverpool.
“Letter to the Beatles” hits the Billboard Hot 100 the first week at #85 with a bullet.
The Preps are on their way to one last hurrah.
Brian Epstein hears the Preps gentle jibes and threatens to sue both them and Capitol (also the Beatles label) for defamation if the record is not immediately withdrawn from the airwaves and all retail outlets.
Capitol panics, issues cease and esist orders and the record disappears.
It will mark the last chart action for the group and that setback, plus the British Invasion and Motown tsunami portend the inevitable decline in their popularity.
None of them wants to end up performing in a bar in Bakersfield.
Ed Cobb is the first original member to leave in 1967.
He is replaced in that final year by David Somerville, original lead singer with the Diamonds of “Little Darlin’ “ fame.
Several more releases – including one arranged by maverick newcomer Leon Russell - gain little traction.
In 1969, after 13 high flying years, the Four Preps amicably disband to pursue other projects.
Bruce and David then form Belland and Somerville a folk/comedy duo which debuts on The Tonight Show, makes 33 TV guest appearances in its first year, tours and records until disbanding in 1972. (SEE PHOTO)
In 1977 Bruce, who by now is a successful TV producer, is approached by Ken Ehrlich – prominent Hollywood Walk of Fame Producer of the Emmys and Grammys for 30 years. He asks if Bruce can put together a one-time version of the Four Preps and appear on the First Annual Billboard Awards hosted by the Bee Gees. He specifically wants them to perform their patented comedy impressions of the top groups of the Sixties for the star-studded crowd of recording greats.
Bruce talks Glen – by now a TV mogul -- Ed Cobb - already a recording giant-, and David Somerville into joining him for the one-shot reunion. Their on-air antics evoke gales of appreciative laughter and they end the number with a spot on imitation of the Bee Gees. The celebrity crowd gives them a thundering ovation and they then return to their individual careers.
In 1989, after a 20-year hiatus, Lead Singer Bruce Belland and bass Ed Cobb re-form the Four Preps at Dick Clark’s suggestion with David Somerville and Jim Pike of The Letterman. (SEE PHOTO)
That All Star line up debuts with two sold out shows at L.A.’s Greek Theater then tours nationally and becomes one of Atlantic’s City most popular attractions with a showroom specifically created for them.
In 1993 Pike is replaced by Jim Yester of The Association). (SEE PHOTO)
That All Star foursome records two albums produced by Cobb, that today are considered prime examples of masterful harmonizing. (See details) That stellar combination tours until Cobb retires in 1998 (He dies in 1999 as does the retired Marv Ingram.)
At that point, Yester, Belland and Somerville re-name themselves TRIPLE GOLD “The Three Tenors of Pop” and perform under that name until disbanding in 2003.
In 2004 , PBS asks Bruce to assemble a “one shot” version of The Four Preps for “Magic Moments” a musical special featuring hit makers of the Fifties: Pat Boone, Patti Page, Debbie Reynolds, The Maguire Sisters, The Four Preps and their high school idols… The Crew Cuts and The Four Lads.
Over 200 million Americans have viewed that award-winning Special and the Preps’ brief appearance starts a groundswell of demand for a full blown Four Preps tour which intensifies with the 50th anniversary of their first million seller “26 Miles”.
As the only original member still actively performing, Bruce can’t resist the prospect of singing Lead in a great harmony foursome again.
In 2007, he forms the third version of The Four Preps (PIC) with three veterans of the Diamonds and Crew Cuts and tours extensively until 2019 when the Covid pandemic brings a halt to their traveling. (SEE PHOTO)
At that point Bruce embarks on writing a memoir about the Preps unique and unprecedented career.
“ICONS, IDOLS and IDIOTS of HOLLYWOOD – My Adventures in America’s First Boy Band” is published by Bear Manor Media and is now available on Amazon.
The four-year-old’s dream came true and took him and his three musical brothers to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
And what they accomplished will never fade away.
All you have to do is push “PLAY.”