In 2018, Bad Times at the El Royale rocked my little world. Was it my favorite movie of the year? Yes, yes it was. Now, the independent thriller isn’t really relevant to our story here… only the first scene.
*Clip Not Suitable for All Audiences at the 2:05 mark*
As I sat in that crowded movie theater and stared up at the big screen, I found myself captivated by the experience. I watched Bad Times at the El Royale another four times in cinemas and while I enjoyed the full feature, everything started for me with this scene.
I can only remember a handful of instances where the use of a song in a non-musical hooked me to this extent. Even with no knowledge of the rest of the movie, this moment feels unique. It’s cathartic. And to be perfectly honest, it felt like this film was made for me– all thanks to the use of this single song. I had to know more. (Granted, as a millennial who grew up listening to Denver’s lone forties and fifties radio station… I should have already known more!).
For those not in the know, the song which holds such a prominent place in this memorable opening sequence is “26 Miles” performed by The Four Preps, a group which quickly landed on my “Listen While I Shout About Them from the Rooftops” list.
Even a superficial dive into The Four Preps quickly shines a light on how utterly delightful this group is, from their colorful and entertaining live albums in an era of music often considered highly produced, to lovable, giggle-inducing YouTube clips showing the group at their most relatable (more on this later!).
Furthermore, a deeper examination shows a new side to The Four Preps. They were also four individuals, each as talented and richly creative as the last, with compelling and formidable careers on their own. There’s so much here to love and it’s my goal to spread it around.
Luckily, I was able to sit down with The Four Preps founder, lead singer and chief song writer Bruce Belland as he helped me shine a light on The Four Preps beyond the YouTube clips: their work, their stories and the men behind the music (including his own captivating life story). Read on, gentle readers. Read on!
The questions below are only a snippet of the facts I was able to pull together from what was certainly the most insightful, enjoyable and dare I say, delightful interview I’ve been a part of here on Ticklish Business. I’ve put together the full audio of the interview above for your listening pleasure (if you’ll ignore your’s truly sounding utterly starstruck).
Your biography references delivering newspapers in Beverly Hills after you moved to Hollywood as a child. This sounds like a surreal and fascinating memory could you talk more about this experience?
We came from Illinois, Jefferson Park, a tough little suburb on the northwest side. It was the first time we drove down Sunset and saw Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Hollywood and Vine and the Hollywoodland Sign. It was like we’d gone to Oz. We got off on (Route) 66 and here we were on the Yellow Brick Road.
When I was 12 or 13, I talked the manager of the Hollywood Citizen News in Beverly Hills to letting me deliver to all the stars…. One day I’m delivering and a guy calls from his front porch, comes over and talks to me about throwing the paper better so it goes on his porch instead of in the bushes. He showed me how to do it, and it was Gene Kelly… I delivered to Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Rosalind Russell….I once delivered flowers to Ira Gershwin’s backyard garden party.
The Four Preps came out of Hollywood High School. What was the experience like going there? Do you think it normalized or made entering the industry more obtainable for you?
Hollywood (High School) was a real education for me because these kids were sitting next to me in algebra class. Some of them still had make-up on from shooting that morning. Some of them had to leave early to go shoot. The guy that played one of the brothers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a buddy on the track team… David and Ricky Nelson where there…. The whole atmosphere made it seem more obtainable…. We were virtually in the shadow of the Capitol (Records) Tower, sot that whole irony would come into play.
I was meeting kids who already were in the business and (were) very businesslike about it…. Everything was positively reinforcing what I thought I wanted to do with my career.
What entertainment were you a fan of growing up? Were you a radio listener? A movie watcher?
I decided I wanted to be a singer when I was four…. My mom would hide her movie magazines under her bed in Chicago. My dad was a minister and didn’t approve. At (ages) 7, 8, 9 I would crawl under the bed and just get lost in all the movie magazines with pictures of this place called Hollywood…. I love Mickey Rooney and to this day I can name you just about any movie made during World War Two, from Spencer Tracy to Van Johnson.
(At) a very early age, I was fascinated with show business and singing. I would sing along constantly with Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers. And as they say, I had a choice of getting baseball cards or a piece of sheet music, so I said, give me a piece of sheet music.
Can you talk about writing “26 Miles”? Did you write the song before The Four Preps came together?
I started to write (“26 Miles”) before there was any Preps. I was 17 on the beach… in Southern California. We had been surfing and I always brought my ukulele…. Afterwards, one of the guys said “Hey, there’s Catalina”. Someone else said, “How far is it?”. And some guy…. said, “I think it’s about 26 miles”. So I picked up my ukulele.…
(Then) I‘m 19 and recording for Capitol. We haven’t had a hit. It may have been Lincoln our arranger, or Glen my partner who said, “Hey man, that Catalina song, let’s get it out and take a look at it”. I tried for a year to get Capitol to release it and they wouldn’t take it seriously…. Our producer at Capitol, who was a very hip guy, he produced (Frank) Sinatra and the Four Freshmen…. He said, “No, no, no. You’re a singer… singers don’t write songs. Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney. They don’t write.
I’m jumping ahead of myself though. The Four Preps sprung to life out Hollywood High School where the four founding members (Bruce Belland, Glen Larson, Ed Cobb and Marv Ingram) were all students when they came together as performers after Preps founders Belland and Larson put together an act for a school talent show.
We did one show where we weren’t even called The Four Preps. They introduced us as The Bruce Belland Quartet. So we didn’t have a name. I have a picture of us in light dinner jackets with two guys from the choir. One of them had already signed to go into the navy…. and the other guy already had a scholarship to Stanford and he wasn’t going to be in any kind of pop group…. We just grabbed them, Glen and I for that first show.
Glen Larson, my partners since grammar school, had an eye for talent. He had an eye for spotting people…. It was his idea to get Marv. Marv was a boy soprano in the Mitchell Boys Choir. He sang in the Bing Crosby movie, Going My Way. So, he already had credentials as a singer. (Marv was) the best tenor I ever shared a stage with and I’ve sung with some good guys.
Ed lived across the street from me and he and I used to sit on the port all the time with the ukuleles and harmonize.
We were all from hard scrabble backgrounds. Glen was raised by a widowed mother with his younger brother. She was a waitress at night up on the Sunset Strip. So he’d babysit his little brother…. Both of Ed’s parent’s had full time jobs…. Marv was an orphan whose parent’s had been killed in an auto accident. He was living with his aging grandmother in a little rented bungalow in the parking lot of a church…. We were real driven guys.
You mentioned Nancy Sinatra had a role in the release of “26 Miles” as a single…
We have 26 Miles recorded. It’s in the can and hasn’t come out yet… Nancy Sinatra and alot of her gang were friends of mine, of all the Preps. Her Girl’s Club for University High School rented a Palm Springs motel chain of four or five rooms and spent Easter week down there. Well, of course we got our guitars and went down. We slept in our cars at night and sat around the pool during the day. When we get back to town, about a week later, we ran into Nancy, in a movie line… and she says, “When are you guys going to release that song! I love that song! I can’t stop singing it…. that one you taught us in Palm Springs… the one about the island! We all love it, we’re making up harmony to it”. So now I go back to Capitol and I go to our producer, who also happens to record Frank Sinatra and said, “Frank Sinatra’s daughter’s girls club will buy enough records to pay for it”.
There is a clip floating around YouTube featuring The Four Preps singing “Down By the Station” on The Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show. In the clip, three of you are struggling to hold yourself together with laughter. I was wondering if you could talk more about what was happening behind the camera?
I wrote about in the book, in fact, the name of that chapter when I talk about our friendship with Dick Clark (is)…. “A Dead Fish in the Mail, Dirty Cue Cards and Fake Dog Poop”. Because… we sent him a fish wrapped in gift wrap….that sat in his office in Philadelphia forever… when they opened (it) they had a fumigate the office. He writes about it in his book, and then in my book, I excerpt his telling of the story. When this package from The Four Preps arrives in the mail and nobody thinks to open it…. he was gonna get even with us…. you know, you’re walking downstage and you look down as subtly as you can to see that “x” they want you to get to, your mark. So we look down and there’s a pile of dog crap there. It’s great to have a trick played on me by Dick Clark. It’s an honor.
Could you talk about your experience working on Gidget (1959)?
Okay, we had by (Gidget), “26 Miles,” “Big Man” (and) “Lazy Summer Night”. So we had some singles, but we didn’t have any big hits until “26 Miles”. Well the moment “26 Miles” hit was same moment that Columbia bought the rights to the novel written by Fred Kohner about Gidget. And somebody and I don’t to this day know who it was, but we were with MCA and they, I mean, come on, they got us costar billing with Sinatra and Crosby and we hadn’t even had a hit yet. So MCA somehow stepped in and said we all would be great…. they’re saying (we) could release a record of the title song (“Gidget”) and (we) had hits, and (our) next was gonna be a hit and boom, somebody said yes….Then we got Dick Clark to endorse the movie, mainly because we were in it. (He) had never endorsed a movie before.
(It) furthered our reputation as the beach group because now we’re in the sand in that luau scene, we call it the “orgy” scene… guys are carrying women over their shoulders. I mean, it was our idea of really racy stuff. They wanted the scene to open with the tiki torches, the bongo drums are beating and girls in bathing suits are running by and the whole thing. And they want to clap. louder and louder. And then we come out and sing. So they ran it with the extras…. and it wasn’t loud enough to clap. So they got on the phone and they called like 15 executives from the building next door at Columbia Studios. These are guys in suits and ties and they all came in and stood just off camera clapping along with the luau. It was just one world meets another. I just got the biggest kick out of (it). (If) people could see 10 feet away and all these guys in suits and ties….
I loved Sandra Dee I thought she was adorable. I made a fool of myself trying to woo her. I say in the book, “She was mine for a while, then Bobby Darin came along”. The day I finally got my nerve to say hello to her, it was four days on the set before I could work up my nerve, I totally blew it. While I was saying hello, I walked into a water fountain which knocked me on my ass. That’s a hard one to recover from. Cliff Robertson was an an absolute, total gentlemen. Jimmy Darren was quiet, but very sure of himself.
I met the director (Paul Wendkos). I was a huge fan of his. He came up and looked around and the other guys already had instruments… I didn’t. He said, “Can you play this?”. I said, “No, I don’t think so, but I can fake it”. He said, “Okay, have fun!” as he hands me (a) saxophone. So, boom, the cameras are rolling. And I’m playing the saxophone solo.
So you know, the whole thing was great experience. There were some guys out there that went on to huge success. A guy named Burt Metcalfe who was just one of the extras on the beach produced M*A*S*H for the entire eleven years it was on as a series. There is a guy named Tom Laughlin made a hit movie as a character called Billy Jack, he was… an American Indian martial artist. So there are lots of talented people in the crew and the cast and it was a great experience for us.
You recurred on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for a number of years, both as a member of The Four Preps as well as on your own. Could you talk about your experience working on this legendary series?
Oh, boy. Well, I went to school with Rick and David. I would see David every day in the locker room because I was on the track team and he was on the football team. So I kind of knew him halfway. And then Ricky came to school and he and I became friends. And right about the time we signed with Capitol, he signed with… Imperial Records. I don’t remember (if) he called me or (if it was) Glen and said, “Will you guys consider coming on the show and singing backup for me? I’m going to make a record”. So of course we did and we didn’t have our SAG (Screen Actors Guild) cards and usually it is a very hard union to get into… it takes a lot of time. In 24 hours. Ozzie Nelson had our SAG cards. He just got on the phone. He was Ozzie Nelson, after all.
We went down as his (Ricky’s) background singers, and did that for two or three or five episodes. (In) one we spent a night in jail because we pitched our tents in a park and didn’t have a permit… all this exciting stuff. But it was always the four of us backing him and… slowly, show after show, they started giving me lines and comedy schtick with Rick… and Ozzie. Finally, The Preps, I think, did one or two seasons and left and I was there for two or three more seasons as “Bruce”, Ricky’s roommate, confidant and all that stuff. But it was the most amazing experience my life.
Ozzie Nelson (was an) absolute, absolute genius. I saw him handle situations that were so tense and can be so ugly, and not productive and just walk his way through with the velvet gloves and make it happen. I mean, (he was) just (an) impressive, creative guy. (He) was the first man in television history to be the writer, the producer, director and the star of a series (and) in total control. I never knew him to make a mistake, I never knew him to lose his temper. I saw him work his way out of situations with actors that were difficult and… I have enormous admiration for him.
(When) I (learned) he was dying from David, I sent him a letter…. there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t use something I learned watching (him) function. And I got I got the nicest letter back from him. I framed (it) on my wall as matter of fact, “We were a family. We were a show. I always loved you kids. I was your surrogate father and oh, you I’m so glad you’re doing well at NBC”. And so that whole thing to me, that’s a whole part of my life.
I was crazy about Harriet, she was a great ‘Dame’ in the best sense of the word. She could tell a dirty joke and inhale a cigarette with the best. You know, she was a flapper in the Cotton Club in New York before she married Ozzie… She was the Chanteuse at the Cotton Club. In fact, I have some pictures in the book or this slinky evening gown.
YouTube and Spotify have taught me an important lesson… about The Four Preps 1964 single, “A Letter to the Beatles”. And frankly, I’m sad it took me this long! Could you talk about the background of this track? Why on earth was it pulled from circulation?
We always did songs about all kinds of topical things. We did it on granny dresses. We did it on pot, draft dodgers, we did it on Mother Teresa. We did it on Fidel Castro. We did it on ‘The Jerk’ and ‘The Frug’ and ‘The Monkey’. So we were always (looking at) what was the big fad (and) what was “in”.
Well, now Glen and I are established as writers and we have a publishing company and some of the young songwriters are bringing us material that they’d like to record. We have a label called LarBel Records as in Larson Belland. Ivan Ulz comes to us and says, “I wrote a song about a guy that’s a fan of Hayley Mills and he sends her letter and he keeps getting a thing back saying send in 25 cents”. We like it. We take him to the studio, we record it (and) we release “A Letter to Hayley”. It didn’t sell at all.
So, (about) a month or so later, I don’t remember if it was Glen or me, one of us said, “You know something? The Beatles are so damn hot. Why don’t we just do it ourselves?”. So, We said to Ivan “Is this okay with you?”. He says, “Are you kidding? Oh my god. Yes”. And we split the song, the royalties three ways with him. We record it. Then we throw in the imitation. We were so proud of our imitations. We worked so hard on them. And some of them were pretty goddamn good.
We had it out, it was number 80 or something… and everybody was talking about it and everybody was playing it. In Capitol Towers, from all I can learn and I’ve asked all the parties involved and nobody has the same story, from our producers to the promotion man. Somebody said that either Brian Epstein, or some people thought it was the Beatles attorney, called Capitol Towers and said, “We are not happy. We’ve heard….The Four Preps new release (and) we feel it puts the boys (The Beatles) in a very unfortunate and unfavorable light and we’re going to sue for defamation if you don’t pull the record”. Well, they pulled it real fast.
It was like it was poison. You couldn’t pay to hear anywhere, it was gone. And we were just in shock…. I mean, have they heard it? They would think it was funny, I would think….They were so fanatic, at Capitol about this that… months after it happened, I got a letter from a gal who was a secretary at the Capitol pressing plant in Sydney, Australia. And she said, “All the girls in the secretarial pool came… back from lunch the other day and were told to report down to the basement where we were handed sledgehammers and marched over to a pile of 1000, 45 records of “A Letter to the Beatles” and spent the afternoon smashing them to bits…. we were crying. We were such fans of yours”… And she said, “I actually snuck one out. I hid it under my skirt that afternoon,”…. And now it’s all over YouTube, I don’t know if The Beatles changed their minds.
It really was the turning point for us. It was our last stab doing something really current and funny … and have a hit. And by them, you know, Ed’s writing hits and Glen is writing TV shows, and I’m doing stuff. So. But that was a hell of a way to go out. I mean, it’s corporate power and corporate cowardice, frankly. How foolish am I to think they’d side with us instead of this red hot group? We had been with them for thirteen years, afterall.
Was there ever a time when you found yourself starstruck when you were working with someone? Were there any personalities you found yourself idolizing during your career?
George Burns, but I go very quickly over that, because he wouldn’t let me be intimidated. George Burns is really who I consider my primary mentor as far as my approach to just about everything. You know, how to be happy and comedy timing and all that stuff. So he would be my idol, there’s no question about it. He was willing to teach. He would take me in the dressing room after every show… he mentored me…. He watch every show, everywhere we sang. He’d call me “Kid”.
There’s been so many changes in the music industry, particularly as it relates to listenership as “apps” have came in and radio stations have started disappearing. Do you feel that the music from the 1950s and early 1960s will benefit from these changes and increase listenership? Or is there something organic to traditional radio?
For many years before that even started to happen I was, you know, always frustrated going up and down the dial because I couldn’t find people who would play Nat Cole and Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Jo Stafford, The Four Freshman and all these great groups that I grew up with, artists that I love. Then I got enlisted, thanks to my son in law… in something called IODA, it was something about internet online distribution. The point is they make all The Four Preps recorded tracks available for people to download. And since that started about four or five years ago, I’ve gotten a very nice royalty check every month now– it’s now called Orchard for some reason, I think Sony bought it. I sent them every track The Preps ever recorded, I think there were 75 single recordings and 13 or 15 LPs, so they have every track there, they’ve made it available to download and while I don’t hear us on the radio, somebody is downloading it and then paying for it because I am getting royalties. So while you know it’s not accessible on a large scale on the radio itself, there seems to be (a) way for people to find music from that era and if they’re interested you can get a hold of it. It’s a double edged sword, let’s face it. While those stations may have disappeared…. you can now hear our tracks from anywhere around the world, so you know we’ve gained a few things and lost a few things…. all I can say (is) that I’m really grateful and constantly surprised at the fact that people, month after month after month, are buying our stuff. My god, we haven’t made a record in 50 years.
I was fortunate to grow up in the fifties, in LA where there were half dozen, I guess you would call them Top 40 stations (with) some of the personalities and disc jockeys. That’s as much of what I miss as much as the music. Some of these guys were really personable and quick witted and funny and articulate. And it was great. You got to be fans of theirs as well. And of course on weekends, they present record hops all over Southern California. You got to meet the guys you listen to on the air, which is always a big kick and a thrill. And The Four Preps ended up recording three, consecutive in-person albums that are on campus…. In each one of those, we picked a prominent disc jockey from Southern California to introduce us as the show started. I love these guys and they were good to us. And from the very start even before we had a hit, the disc jockeys really adopted us. We’d put a record out and it wouldn’t sell 10 copies, but you’d hear it all over the airwaves.
Are there any musicians, movies or music groups you feel never received the attention they deserve and you wish more people would know about them?
Okay, first of all the movies… (One) of my favorite movies is Spinal Tap…. The other one is Harold and Maude, which I think presents a wonderful outlook on life. Ruth Gordon’s character of Maude just says so many profound things that I love… I wish more people were aware of (those), particularly Harold and Maude, which makes much more of a sociological point than Spinal Tap. Spinal Tap just tickles me because it’s so absolutely representative of what groups go through on the road.
As far as recording artists, there’s wonderful singer songwriter that I always liked a lot and never felt he got what he deserved, named Kenny Rankin who’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful singer.
And then a terrific young woman singer around Capitol with us for years named Sue Raney, who really deserves to be as well known as many of the greats like Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford and I don’t feel she ever got that either.
As far as groups are concerned and my being a group singer, it would have to be The Four Freshman. Well, millions of people love, adore and respect The Four Freshman, I think the whole world should know about them because there’s never to me been another vocal group that ever came close to what they did in terms of harmonic innovation. People are missing a rich experience (hearing) these four guys and what they do harmonically, it just gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it.
The 1950s was such a rich, complex and complicated period in our nation’s history and as a critic, I don’t feel it get’s the attention it deserves, especially as it relates to entertainment.
I really don’t know that there was any more colorful period in our pop culture history than the fifties. And the funny thing about the fifties, people don’t really think about it, but the fifties lasted until 1966. I mean, people think well, the fifties ended in 1961, or 1960, but the whole folk fad and style came in… well, it started with the concert up north, the music festival where The Mamas and Papas and Janis Joplin held….Monterey Pop Festival. But up until ’66, in fact, Ozzie and Harriet the show that I was on, went off the air in 1966. It was on from 1954 to 1966. So what some people think of as the sixties didn’t really start till the middle (or) into the late sixties. So the fifties lasted a long time. And it was a colorful era. I mean, with sock hops and hot rods and drive-ins and American Graffiti and Grease. It was a great time to be a teenager, especially in Southern California, where all that stuff was just, you know, blossoming.
There’s some classic films about that era, although, I’ve had kind of a mild resentment towards the film Grease. Because a lot of young people see that (and) think that’s (the fifties). I didn’t know anybody like Danny Zuko, the Travolta character with the greasy hair and the duck tail. I didn’t know anybody like that at Hollywood High. We didn’t have greasers. I mean, we were very innocent with the saddle shoes and the whole thing. But, you know, that was an aspect of the fifties that that was there, but I just regret it when younger people think that’s all there was, the greasers and the hot rods, when (there) was a lot more to it than that.
What do the next few months/years hold in store for you as it relates to projects?
Well, my main emphasis now is the book itself. When I initiated working on it… three years ago… although I had a group called The Four Preps that I toured with, I was really excited about doing a one man show, in addition to singing, telling some stories and weaving some tales.
That was my initial motivation for writing the book… to create a one man show. That may happen again as the pandemic clears up, but right now I need to get the book done. I did take two or three days off, and try and add some more stuff to (my) website. The book itself, getting that website going, and I gotta tell you, I get (a number of) emails a week from people, some of them quite young, who want to join The Four Preps fan club and wonder where they can get our products and so forth. So that keeps me busy. But my main goal right now is to get the book finished and get it out… I end the book in 1969 when The Preps disband. And so I’ve got another book coming where I produce television and go to NBC and write movies and stuff like that.
There is so much more which is yet to be written and produced about Bruce Belland and The Four Preps. They did reform a number of times (and in various forms over the years); however, it’s equally as interesting to see where (and how) each of these talented men evolved in their post pop-group years, each showing true ‘renaissance man’ like flair.
Belland continued working with passion after The Four Preps went their separate ways. Check out a link to his bio here as it’s virtually impossible to do his creative history the justice it deserves. As the years passed, he not only continued singing and performing, but also working as a prolific songwriter and lyricist. Throughout the decades, he continued to develop outside of the music industry, not only writing for film and television, but also producing and even working in advertising.
Meanwhile, those who watched television from the 1970s though the 1990s have most certainly heard Glen Larson’s name. After his years with The Four Preps, he established himself as one of the most prolific TV writers and creators working during the period, creating shows like: Battlestar Galatica, Knight Rider, Magnum P.I. and Alias Smith and Jones (to name a few).
Ed Cobb continued in the music industry as a songwriter, most (if not all of you!) have heard his work on the song “Tainted Love” (yes, that one!) as well as, “Dirty Water“. Cobb also worked as a recording engineer and producer with hugely influential groups like Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and Pink Floyd.
Marv Ingram stepped back from the industry, focusing on a career as a commodities broker.
Bruce Belland is busily putting together a treasure trove of information over at his website, brucebelland.com, which is truly a must see for fans of The Four Preps. Heck, I’d even extend that to those who just love the music of the 1950s and 1960s. He includes everything from a compilation of the various YouTube videos where The Four Preps make an appearance, to all their work available on Spotify, and even where you can purchase it on Amazon. It’s a great resource.
I’ve written it before and I will continue to stump for the music of the pre-British Invasion era. In fact, the creators, musicians and artists throughout the 1950s don’t get the love they deserve. Pop culture consciousness is relatively short and as time has passed, so many names, faces and stories have faded into time. It does this entertainment historian’s heart good to see Bruce Belland continuing to work, create and tell his stories. As a relatively new fan of The Four Preps, it is Belland’s passion and dedication keeping these songs and stories alive for generations of new fans to come and it is so great to see.
Fans of classic entertainment know how fast works can vanish or become lost to time. With AM radio stations disappearing faster than it’s easy to comprehend, it is a treasure that we have a performer from this musical era capturing and compiling not only his work, but the stories and memories behind the music. He’s currently hard at work on his memoirs: ICONS, IDOLS, and IDIOTS—My Adventures with the greats of Show Business… from Ozzie and Harriet to Elvis… Sinatra to the Beatles… Bob Hope to the Beach Boys. It’s sure to be a fascinating and fun read.
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