Flat Foot Four
The Flat Foot Four was organized in the Oklahoma City Police Department by the Mayor, O. A. Cargill, in 1923. The quartet's personnel changed many times over the years, but Johnny Whalen was always the tenor.
The original foursome was Whalen, lead Frank Sheppard, Roland Cargill, the mayor's brother, on baritone, and bass Bill Parrish. The quartet made their first public appearance at a meeting of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
Losing and replacing an average of one man per year, the quartet was still functioning in 1939 when Whalen, with Britt Stegal, lead, baritone Granville Scanland, and bass Sam Barnes competed against some 20 quartets at the first SPEBSQSA national contest in Tulsa and came in fourth.
In the summer of 1940 at the New York World's Fair, with Red Elliott in the baritone spot, the Flat Foot Four copped the championship from a field of 200 entrants.
- Tenor: Johnny Whalen
- Lead: Britt Stegal
- Bass: Sam Barnes
- Bari: Red Elliott
- Lead: Frank Sheppard
- Bass: Bill Parrish
- Bari: Roland Cargill
- Bari: Granville Scanland (1939)
- 1939 4th (Tulsa, OK)
- 1940 1st
Flat Foot Four by Grady Kerr
taken from Golden Memories - History of the Southwestern District - pub 1996
The quartet has quite an interesting history. Johnny Whalen (tenor), Britt Stegall (lead), Red Elliott (baritone), and Sam Barnes (bass) were, as you might have guessed, all policemen and the pride of Oklahoma City. They were not, however, the original foursome. The first police quartet formed way back in 1924.
The mayor of Oklahoma City, O.A. Cargill, thought four singing cops would be a "novelty". The problem was, there weren't four cops in the whole town who could do anything with Sweet Adeline or I've Been Working On the Railroad. At least that's the was the way Daily Oklahoman newspaper described it, There were two good voices on the force. One was Frank Sheppard, a jailer, and desk sergeant Bill Parrish. It so happens that the mayor's brother (a car salesmen) Roland Cargill could sing and he knew another car salesmen who was a fine tenor. The four had sung together before.
When the mayor heard the quartet, he gave the two salesmen some extra uniforms and appointed the four an official police quartet. A year later, Whalen, the tenor, had joined the force along with new baritone, Red Elliott. It was then they were first called, The Flat Foot Four and the name fit well. Even with a six year "ban" by a new police chief who thought singing was less than professional, they continued to sing together, but not as an "official police quartet"
Over the course of their legacy, there were many participants in the quartet as members retired or accepted other law enforcement work. The other members include Ralph Kaylor, Bill West, Jack Roberts, Lefty Walker, Sleepy Chapman, and Frank Heffington. Several were also talented enough to switch parts over the years to keep the quartet going. But for all of their 17 years, Whalen remained as the only original member and their only tenor.
A New Chief To The Rescue
In 1937 Mr. Granville Scanland became chief of police. Since he was known for his fine baritone voice, one of his first acts was to restore the quartet (he sometimes pulled rank and sang along). With more personnel changes, Stegall and Barnes joined the quartet and, as legend has it, the blend was exceptional. By 1938, their popularity had grown and quartetting demanded much of their time.
When the Society was organized in 1938, it didn't take a detective to figure out that OK City would be the site of a new chapter and the Flat Foots would become members. In the first national contest held in Tulsa in 1939 they competed with Scanland singing baritone. They only placed fourth.
They won the qualifying state contest in the spring of 1940 by a wide margin and won the right to travel to New York City and the Worlds Fair for the Second Annual National Convention and Contest. The second contest took place on July 26, 1940 and was judged by such celebrities as former New York Governor Al Smith, Mayor La Guardia, Fred Waring, Sigmund Spaeth, Geoffrey O'Hara (composer of The Old Songs), Harry Armstrong (composer of Sweet Adeline) and O.C Cash. Instrumental accompaniment was permitted but scarcely used. There were 200 other quartets in that competition.
Serving With Harmony
Following their win and their becoming our "World Champions", they made hundreds of appearances nationwide. They were named the official American Legion Quartet for the state of Oklahoma. Since the Flat Foot Four's inception, every man who had sung with the quartet had been a World War I veteran.
Thanks to Columbia Records, they were one of the first quartets signed to produce a recording. The four record set of 78s includes all their standards: Annie Laurie, Old Aunt Dinah, Ride Tenderfoot Ride, Oh Joe, Maggie Blues, My Mother's Rosary, Harbor Lights Yodel, and Shine.
As "model policemen", they also served the community on the job. Whalen was well known for his work with area children. Giving lectures for schools and just talking to kids he served the people he protected. His outgoing personality gained him many friends and much respect among his peers. On September 6th, 1941, The Flat Foot Four sang at the Phillips Petroleum Company Community House southeast of OKC. On the way home, Johnny Whalen suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was rushed to the hospital. He died a week later at the age of 44.
The story was front page news and reading the coverage, one can see that all of Oklahoma City suffered in the loss. Both the Bartlesville Barflies (1939 champs) and the Chord Busters (1941 champs) sang during the service.
The City Responds
A huge Johnny Whalen Memorial show was soon announced. Sponsored by the local chapter, and lead by Big Bill Morris, talent from all over Oklahoma answered the call. It turned out there were two memorial shows held. The first was a special screening of the movie, "Lady Be Good" at the Criterion Theater on September 27 with over 300 people attending.
The stage show was held on the 30th at the Municipal Auditorium. The show featured The Barflies, The Chord Busters, a 600 voice chorus including members from Tulsa, and 16 other entertainment acts including skaters, indian dancers, radio stars and other quartets from all over the Southwest. The finale was an appearance by the three remaining members of the Flat Foot Four. The show was a sell out. All services were donated and the money raised went to the Whalen family to pay the mortgage of their home, debts, and for his two children, Mike (5) and Patricia (3).
What ever happened to The Flat Foot Four? Unfortunately, few know the answer. After Johnny died, they tried to find another tenor but never did. It just didn't seem right. The other three were "officially" invited to attend the Third Annual Parade of Champions in Chicago in 1946, but could not attend. Britt continued to sing with the chapter and sang with the Boresome Foursome for many years with Grady Musgrave, Ernie Dick, and Hank Wright.
The remaining members of the quartet have all passed away. Bass, Sam Barnes died October 4, 1958 at 59. Lead, Britt Stegall died on October 11, 1961 at 69. And baritone, Clyde "Red" Elliot passed away July 22, 1969 at the age of 72.
But What Were They Really Like?
Seeking first hand knowledge, I asked Tom Masengale of the Chord Busters what he thought of the Flat Foot Four.
"They had a big sound, I remember them coming on stage, removing the microphone, and filling the hall with sound. They were excellent showmen and sang songs the audience wanted to hear. One of the reasons for their popularity was they always "milked the chords". They weren't the best quartet I've ever heard, but they were the most enjoyable and gave me the most pleasure out of listening as any quartet I've heard since. They really enjoyed singing and everyone in the audience could tell."
Despite their short history as one of our past society gold medalists, the Flat Foot Four played an important part in our past. Their contribution to our heritage should not be overlooked.