Novelty singer Gordon Polk began his career as part of the Town Criers vocal quartet in the early 1940s. He quickly became one of the standout members of the group and by the mid-1940s had begun to work as a featured vocalist while still remaining with the quartet. After leaving the Criers in 1948, he continued as a band singer through the mid-1950s. Known for his comedic skills, Polk, who was once unflatteringly described by a Billboard magazine reviewer as a “cadaverous guy who looks like Boris Karloff” and whose name was once famously mispronounced by a radio announcer as “Golden Pork,” applied his talents to television as a character actor in the late 1950s.
The Polk siblings, Gordon, Elva, Vernon, and Lucy Ann, from oldest to youngest, were born in Idaho during the 1920s and raised in Spokane, Washington, where the family moved not long after Lucy Ann’s birth. As children they began performing at a young age, often at local theaters to gain free admission to films. In addition to singing, they backed themselves by playing guitar, bass and xylophone. In 1936, billed as the Four Polks, they earned their own radio program on Spokane station KHQ. They also sang on KHPY and later spent a year on Seattle radio before winning a contest sponsored by Al Pierce, who brought them to Los Angeles in 1940 or 1941 to sing on his radio program. The siblings, along with their parents, remained in California, performing at local clubs and theaters and making two soundies for RCM, The Old Oaken Bucket and Miss You, before they caught the attention of bandleader Bobby Sherwood, who hired them for his band in mid-1942.
The Four Polks stayed with Sherwood only a few months, joining Les Brown’s band in November 1942, where pianist Willie Rowland dubbed them the Town Criers, the name that they would use for the rest of the decade. With Brown, the group began to attract national attention. After leaving the orchestra at the end of 1943, they did club and radio work before ending up with Bob Crosby, touring with his band and appearing on his radio program. They made their first recording with Crosby in summer 1944 on the ARA label, just before he entered the Marines. With Crosby in the service, they became part of Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge. When Crosby returned from the service in late 1945, they once again joined him while also still appearing with Kyser. They recorded again on the ARA in 1945.
The Polk siblings remained together until at least early 1945. Sometime after that and before mid-1946, both Elva and Vernon left the group. Gordon and Lucy Ann continued on with the Town Criers, bringing in replacements. Aside from singing, their act featured comedy, mostly provided by Gordon, and gimmicks. They appeared in two films in 1945, RKO’s Radio Stars on Parade and an uncredited appearance in Columbia’s musical western Song of the Prairie starring Ken Curtis. In 1946, they appeared in another Columbia Ken Curtis musical western, Cowboy Blues, for which they received credit.
By the mid-1940s, both Gordon and Lucy Ann had begun to make names for themselves as soloists. In 1946, Gordon became featured novelty singer for Crosby’s post-war band, making his first solo recordings with the group on ARA. Gordon also recorded as vocalist for Don Brassfield and His Swing Sextette on the Mastertone label that year as well. In addition to their solo work, both Lucy Ann and Gordon continued singing with the Town Criers, who still appeared with both bands throughout 1946. The vocal group made several recordings on the ARA label and also recorded for the Music Survey label, which pre-tested songs for music publishing firms.
By early 1947, the Town Criers had left Kyser, though they remained with Crosby, touring with his orchestra and appearing on his radio show until May 1947, when they joined Tommy Dorsey’s new group, formed after his original outfit had disbanded in December 1946. Aside from their duties with the Town Criers, both Gordon and Lucy Ann were also featured singers for Dorsey. The Town Criers, with Gordon and Lucy Ann, left Dorsey in March 1948 to do a solo act, bringing in three more members. The new act failed to take off and both Polks returned to Dorsey in May, this time without the Town Criers.
After Dorsey released Gordon in late 1948 as part of a cost-cutting measure, Polk went on to sing for a variety of big bands, including Frank DeVol in late 1950, Skinnay Ennis in early 1952, and Harry James in mid-1952. Polk rejoined Dorsey in early 1953 and remained with the new combined Dorsey Brothers orchestra when Tommy and Jimmy reunited the following year, finally leaving in mid-1954. He then sang on Al Donahue’s KABC television show in August of that year and joined Vido Musso’s band around the same time. In early 1955, he was back with James.
Polk left James by mid-1955, teaming up with Gene Wesson in a comedy night club act. The duo received good reviews and earned a contract with NBC to appear on variety shows. In 1956, Polk opened on Broadway as part of the Ethel Merman vehicle Happy Hunting. His comedy talents brought him into the world of television as a character actor starting in 1957. He appeared on a number of programs, mostly playing rural or western types. His credit’s included The Real McCoy’s, The Phil Silvers Show, Have Gun Will Travel, Death Valley Days, and Wanted: Dead of Alive. He also appeared in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind.
Tragically, Polk’s career was cut short in June 1960 when he passed away in Hollywood during heart surgery. He was only 36.
Brassfield’s sextet also included clarinetist Gus Bivona and guitarist Ralph Collier, who were the other two members of the Town Criers at that time. ↩︎