Male vocal quartets were commonplace in the 1920s and '30s, but there was nothing commonplace about the four young men from the Pacific Northwest who called themselves the Foursome. The group was originally formed in 1926 by two boys from Spokane, Marshall Smith and Dwight Snyder, along with Harry Isaacs and Kearney Walton. They toured theatres on the East Coast and recorded for Columbia with Paul Ash before splitting up. Isaacs and Walton (who went on to become a bandleader) were replaced by Jimmy Davis and Raymond Johnson in 1928; Davis soon left to be replaced by Del Porter, a pal of Johnson's from Oregon State College, and the reorganization of the group was complete.
The Foursome appeared in several short films and the Clara Bow feature The Wild Party before going on to New York. Their dismal debut in Ripples (singing songs by Oscar Levant and Irving Caesar) was followed by the hit George and Ira Gershwin show Girl Crazy (1930). They stopped the show with a song called "Bidin' My Time" and suddenly found themselves the toast of the town. Soon after, a song plugger persuaded them to record a brand new song called "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," insisting it would be a smash; they did and it was.
What gave the Foursome its unique sound and distinguished them from other male quartets was a gourd-shaped instrument called the ocarina (dubbed the sweet potato due to its shape). "We worked like hell to get them in tune," observed Ray Johnson, the group's vocal and instrumental arranger. "You'll never hear that sound again -- nobody would be fool enough to do it." The Maple City Four and other groups tried to copy them, but none could duplicate the sound.
The Foursome recorded with Red Nichols (who led the all-star pit band in Girl Crazy) and Roger Wolfe Kahn (minus Dwight Snyder, alias the Kahn-a-Sirs) and traveled with the Smith Ballew-Glenn Miller band before going back to Broadway. Cole Porter's Anything Goes kept them busy for two years; during the Broadway run they had their own radio program on WABC, requiring a police escort to get them to the theatre on time.
The quartet returned to Hollywood for Born to Dance with Eleanor Powell and Buddy Ebsen, and remained to become semi-regulars on Kraft Music Hall. They recorded extensively for Decca in the late '30s, often with Dick Powell or Kraft host Bing Crosby, notably on his hits "Alla en El Rancho Grande" and "When the Bloom Is on the Sage." They also recorded with Ray Noble, Shirley Ross, Pinky Tomlin and Frances Langford.
The group broke up late in 1941 at the outset of World War II. Del Porter, the only member to remain in the music business, re-formed the group with Ray Johnson after the war; they recorded as the Sweet Potato Tooters (with Dwight Snyder) for Capitol transcriptions and with alternate personnel as the Starlighters, backing Bob Hope and Margaret Whiting on "Home Cookin'."