Friday, June 4, 2010

Four Coins


Canonsburg has a holy trinity of musical talent: Perry Como, Bobby Vinton, and the Four Coins.

The Four Coins got their start as members of Bobby Vinton's "Band of Tomorrow" back in the day before the Polish Prince was a household name. Jim Gregorakis, George Mantalis, and Jack Mahramas were horn players for Vinton's big band.

In 1952, they began doing side gigs as the Four Keys, joined by Mahramas' brother Michael. They became a vocal act, harmonizing along the lines of the Four Lads and other popular acts of the time.

In January 1953, the group performed on the "Wilkins Amateur Hour," a KDKA-TV talent contest in which listeners selected winners by phoning in votes. The group won the top prize for a performance of the Detroit-based Gaylord's 1952 debut "Tell Me You're Mine."

The ethnic mix in Canonsburg played a hand in capturing the cup. The Greek guys sang part of the song in Italian ("Tell Me" was lifted from an old Italian ballad), a "get out the vote" strategy that proved successful for the Wilkins' poll.

They left Vinton in 1953 to strike out on their own. The Four Keys became the house band at a Pittsburgh club called the Blue Ridge Inn for the next year, pulling down the princely sum of $250 per week.

George Heid liked their sound after hearing them cut a demo in his downtown studio, and signed them to his Corona Records label. He released their first wax, "Hot Toddy," in 1953 and the following year cut "I'll Make the Best Of It."

The recordings led to some regional gigs for the band, and they hit paydirt in Columbus, Ohio, when they impressed visiting General Artists agent Danny Kessler, who was there on his honeymoon. Kessler was also Johnnie Rays' rep.

Canonsburg orchestra leader Lee Barrett took them to Cincinnati for a contract-winning audition with Kessler. He became their manager, inked them to a Columbia Records deal, and they recorded the group on Epic, which would later become Bobby Vinton's label.

Of course, that called for another name change, and they became the Four Coins, influenced by the 1954 flick "Three Coins In A Fountain." Or maybe it was because of the Four Aces, who sang the movie theme. Take your pick; it was probably a combination of both.

The group’s first Epic single was 1954's "We’ll Be Married (In The Church In The Wildwood)," followed by a cover of Charlie and Ray's "I Love You Madly," and "Memories of You," which was the theme song for the movie "The Benny Goodman Story." All three tunes cracked the Top Thirty on the charts.

Their next hit (after a six-song drought) was to become their signature song. In 1957, the group released "Shangri-La," a powerful ballad that sold more than a million copies, earned the group a gold record, and just missed making the Top Ten, stalling at #11. It was the most-played record of 1957.

"Shangri-La" has been covered by several times over the years. Robert Maxwell rode it to a Top 40 instrumental hit in 1964, Vic Dana scored a Top 40 hit with it in 1964, and versions by the Lettermen and Al Capps appeared in 1969 and 1973. Jackie Gleason even used his melody for the TV theme of his Reginald Van Gleason III character.

The follow-ups fared well, too. 1957's "My One Sin" reached #28, while 1958's "The World Outside" peaked at #21, just missing becoming their second million seller, and "Wendy Wendy" charted at #22. They were so hot that they even turned down the chance to record "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which became a monster track for the Tokens.

But the hits stopped coming after that, and the label-jumping began. In 1960 they switched to MGM Records and later continued on to record for Jubilee, Vee Jay, Laurie, Roulette, and Columbia Records, undergoing personnel changes along the way. Jack Mahramas took his brother Michael's spot when Mike left to become an actor.

In the mid sixties, the Mahramas brothers George, Jack, and Michael, formed the Original Three Coins, later to morph into the Brothers James. Clevelanders Tommy Richards and Ronnie Fiorento took their spots. The group carried on until 1970, when they called it quits.

They left behind a sweet legacy. The Four Coins had ten hit singles which sold more than 500,000 copies each, a gold record, and eight songs that charted.

They appeared many times on "American Bandstand," twice on "The Perry Como Show," and three times on "The Ed Sullivan Show." They also performed on "The Patti Page Show," "The Tonight Show" with Steve Allen, and several times on "The Mike Douglas Show."

The group also appeared in the 1957 Warner Brothers rock and roll movie "Jamboree," singing "A Broken Promise," and performed in the nation's top nightclubs, including the Copacabana in New York and the top Las Vegas casinos. They worked 48 weeks per year, good for the bankroll but hard on the bod.

After the break-up, they scattered to Canonsburg, South Park, Phoenix, and Palm Beach. They took on careers as a laundromat owner, business manager, maitre d', and cell phone exec. For the next three decades, they carried on their everyday life.

Then, in 2003, they decided to get together for a farewell concert at the Pepsi Roadhouse in Hanover Township after a 33-year hiatus. The crowd convinced them they shouldn't be saying good-bye, but maybe starting all over again.

The success of that gig persuaded them to repeat the show in 2004 and eventually returning to the road for short, mostly regional, stints.

The revival was helped along when they took part in T.J. Lubinsky's 2004 PBS special "Magic Moments: The Best of '50s Pop." The Four Coins reunited for the taping in Atlantic City at Trump Taj Mahal, performing "Shangri-La" in their first appearance on television in more than 40 years and restoring their mojo.

So they're back on the road again, spacing out shows and traveling the country spreading their harmonies.

The Four Coins have played the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, Greensburg's Palace Theater, the Silks Lounge at the Meadows, Cleveland's Holiday Inn and St. Demetrios Church. They've also gigged at venues in the Poconos, Johnstown, and Columbus.

And never let it be said that the Coins are prophets without honor. They are inducted members of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and the Canonsburg civic fathers named "Four Coins Drive" for them.

Good music never ages; it just gets better, like a fine wine, over the years. Cent'anni!

Four Coins - "Shangra-La, 1957

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