Originally comprised of the four Polk siblings, Gordon, Elva, Vernon and Lucy Ann, in descending order by age, the Town Criers are probably best remembered today for their work with Tommy Dorsey in the late 1940s, though they made their first appearance on the bandstand in 1942, with a career that spanned six years and five orchestras. Lucy Ann became the breakout star of the group, with Gordon also making a name for himself as a novelty singer and comedian.
The Polks 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. Elva married drummer Dick Shanahan and retired from singing. Vernon, overshadowed by Gordon and Lucy Ann, went out to make his own way in show business, working with a variety of other groups as a singer and guitarist.
Gordon and Lucy Ann continued on with the Town Criers, bringing in replacements. In mid-1946, other members were Gus Bivona and Ralph Collier. 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 Lucy Ann and Gordon had begun to make names for themselves as soloists. When Georgia Carroll, who was Mrs. Kay Kyser, retired from singing at the end of 1945 due to pregnancy, Lucy Ann took her spot as the band’s featured female vocalist. Billed as “Lucyann” Polk during her time with Kyser, she made her first solo recordings with the orchestra in 1946 on Columbia. That same year, Gordon became featured novelty singer for Crosby’s band, making his first solo recordings with them 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. In July 1946, Lucy Ann announced that she’d been secretly married to trombonist Dick Noel, whom she had met while with Brown and who was currently with Harry James.
By early 1947, both the Town Criers and Lucy Ann had left Kyser. They remained with Crosby, touring with his orchestra and appearing on his radio show until May 1947, when they joined 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 also sang solo for Dorsey. In January 1948, the group was once again comprised of two men and two women.
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. The vocal group limped along on its own for another year or so, bringing in Carolyn Sherwood, sister of Bobby, to replace Lucy Ann. In 1949, Lillian Lane was a member, leaving in September to go solo.
In 1953, the name Town Criers was once again in the spotlight, this time led by Canadian Jack Duffy with four fellow countrymen. This version of the Town Criers had emerged from the second version of the Sentimentalists vocal group that had worked with Dorsey in the late 1940s alongside the original Town Criers. Dorsey owned the name Sentimentalists, and the group had to find a new name when they left the band. They recorded with Wingy Manone on the Atlantic label but had disappeared from the music press by year’s end.
After leaving the Town Criers, both Gordon and Lucy Ann went on to have successful careers during the 1950s – Gordon as a singer, comedian and actor, and Lucy Ann as a popular vocalist.
The Polk’s ages ranged within a year-and-a-half of each other. Gordon was born on May 17, 1923, and Elva on December 21, 1924. Vernon was born in either late 1925 or early 1926, and Lucy Ann on May 16, 1927. ↩︎
Vernon was a founding member of a sextet called the New Revuers in winter 1947. They soon changed their name to the Upstarts and supported Mel Tormé for a period before playing 10 weeks in Honolulu and then breaking up because of “too much talent.” Vernon later spent two years in the army and then became a part of Les Brown’s band, as a guitarist, from 1953 to 1957. He next joined brother-in-law Dick Noel’s combo as a guitarist, helping to support Lucy Ann’s solo career. Vernon’s obituary states that he also sang with Tex Beneke and Ray McKinley and that he was a later member of the Modernaires. He passed away on August 22, 1981 at age 55. Both Elva and Gordon preceded him in death. ↩︎
Gus Bivona was also a clarinetist, and Ralph Collier was a guitarist. Both were also part of the music group Don Brassfield and His Swing Sextette, which featured Gordon on vocals. ↩︎