The Versatile Four

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Also known at times as the Versatile Three, the Versatile Four was an Afro-American string band that grew out of the Versatile Entertainers Quintet, an ensemble that performed at James Reese Europe's…
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Also known at times as the Versatile Three, the Versatile Four was an Afro-American string band that grew out of the Versatile Entertainers Quintet, an ensemble that performed at James Reese Europe's Clef Club in May 1910. The core players were banjoist Anthony Tuck, born in Danville, VA around 1880; pianist Charles Wenzel Mills, born in Quincy, IL circa 1883; and Chicago drummer Charles Wesley Johnson, believed to have been born in 1885. In yet another professional link with James Reese Europe, these three were hired to accompany exhibition dancers Vernon and Irene Castle during their summer 1913 tour of France. By November of that year the instrumentalists were in London collaborating with banjoist Gus Haston to form the Versatile Four. Haston was born in St. Louis around 1879, studied music in Toronto, toured Europe in 1905 playing mandolin with Ernest Hogan's Memphis Students, and settled in London shortly thereafter. The Versatile Four toured England and Europe, retreating to the U.S. after the outbreak of the First World War but returning to the U.K. after discovering how little paying work there was for black entertainers in the United States at that time. They played the London Pavilion and Murray's Club in early 1915 and made their first disc recordings in February 1916, using banjolines, piano, snare drum and woodblock. Beginning in 1915 saxophones became part of the act, and there is evidence that the group performed as a saxophone quartet in 1917. Charlie Johnson went back to the U.S. in December 1917. The Versatile Three now began working at times with drummer George Archer or an Afro-British percussionist from Liverpool named Gordon Stretton. In February 1919 the Versatile Three made the first of a series of recordings for the Edison Bell Winner label. By September 1919 Gus Haston was beginning to use the C-melody saxophone in the recording studio; an alto saxophonist, possibly Edmund Jenkins, is audible on some of this group's recordings from November 1920. The Versatile Three made records as the Diplomat Orchestra in 1921, accompanied Dewey Wineglass' Dancing Demons, made a handful of records for English Columbia in March 1923, and returned to U.S. soil in 1926 to tour the Orpheum circuit, billed as a British ensemble. Mills up and quit the band and was replaced by Julius Maceo Covington, who soon accompanied the Versatiles on a return trip to England but disbanded forever in February of 1927. Covington perished shortly afterwards in Paris. Gus Haston showed up in New York and recorded six sides for Victor in December 1931, then retreated into the woodwork. Tuck ended up in Argentina where in 1936 he gigged in Buenos Aires with a band led by Gordon Stretton.