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The Natural Four

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The Natural Four began their quest for stardom in Oakland, CA, in the mid-'60s, landing their first deal with a local outfit called Boola Boola Records. Initially, they had two 1969 releases on Boola Boola — "You Did This for Me" and "Why Should We Stop Now" — that did well in the San Francisco/Oakland area. ABC Records took over distribution and pushed "Why Should We Stop Now" to number 31 R&B in 1969. At this junction the group consisted of lead singer Chris James, Allen Richardson, John January, and Al Bowden.

Three more releases followed on ABC: "The Same Thing in Mind," an old Boola Boola track named "I Thought You Were Mine," and a remake of the Temptations' "Message From a Black Man." Nothing approached even the minimal success of "Why Should We Stop Now," and their relationship with ABC ended on a sour note.

In 1971, they did a one-off single for Chess Records ("Give a Little Love"), after which Chris James completely overhauled the Natural Four. By 1972, Richardson, January, and Bowden were out and in came Darryl Cannady, Steve Striplin, and Delmos Whitney. They signed with Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label and released "Things Will Be Better" in 1972; it flopped, as did their second Curtom release, "Eddie You Should Know Better" (a remake from Mayfield's Superfly album). The third Curtom release was the charmer "Can This Be Real," which soared to number ten on the R&B charts in 1973 and cracked the pop Top 40. Its successor, "Love That Really Counts" (1974), was too similar to "Can This Be Real" to be taken seriously: same melody, different lyrics.

Leroy Hutson, the first replacement for Curtis Mayfield in the Impressions, produced the Natural Four on Curtom for several promising releases, but four flops followed during 1975-1976: "Heaven Right Here on Earth," "Love's So Wonderful," "It's the Music," and "Free." Curtom released three LPs by the Natural Four: The Natural Four, Heaven Right Here on Earth, and Nightchaser. The Natural Four certainly deserved better; they had a crisp, smooth lead singer in Chris James, who had a tenor similar to the Spinners' Bobbie Smith but heavier and more melodious. The group had no writers of substance though, and were usually at the mercy of producers and songwriters. Still, the Natural Four voiced some of the sweetest harmony ever laid down. Sequel later compiled all three LPs on two CDs in one sweet package.

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