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A hand we were lucky to be dealt

The music of the late Al Alberts and the Four Aces captured an era.

By Carl Golden

Growing up in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1950s meant high school football on Friday nights, hanging with friends downtown on Saturday afternoons, pickup baseball every weekend, and - for those fortunate enough to own a car - cruising the main street every night.

And it meant music. Music played a dominant role in our lives. Radio stations both in and out of town joined portable 45-r.p.m. record players to occupy us with the best sounds ever put on vinyl, from Bill Haley and the Comets to dozens of doo-wop groups.

Among the best was the Four Aces, whose founder and lead singer, Al Alberts, died last month at the age of 87.

How many times did I shuffle slowly across the high school gymnasium floor, girlfriend held close in the dimmed lights, listening to Alberts lead the Aces with "Tell Me Why"?

The close harmony of the romantic ballads gave the music a quality of purity and emotion that went directly to the hearts of teenagers. "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" gave voice to what we couldn't find the words for, and "Three Coins in the Fountain" transported us to Rome's cobblestone streets. "Dream" and "It's no Sin" spoke to the angst that only young lovers experience - and sent a reassuring message that everything would work out in the end.

The music industry described the Aces' style as "shuffle rhythm," which meant, I suppose, that it was designed to be danced slowly to, sung along with, or simply listened to. We did it all.

In 1955, I saw the Four Aces in concert at a place called the Saylors Lake Pavilion in the foothills of the Poconos, about a half-hour's drive from my hometown, Easton. For some 90 minutes, Alberts and his three partners, attired in the group's trademark tuxedos, delivered a smooth, polished performance that remains in my memory to this day.

Forty years later, I saw Alberts in person again, when he was one of the featured attractions at the New Jersey State Fair. My wife was the coordinator of the state government's participation in the fair and, as such, had backstage access.

So, there I stood, the most recently issued Four Aces CD - "The Greatest Hits" - in hand, chatting with Alberts while he autographed it. He said he recalled playing the Saylors Lake Pavilion, and - even though I understood he was someone who had played thousands of one-night stands in his career - I believed him.

By the time I met Alberts, the Four Aces had been disbanded for many years, and his solo appearances were infrequent. His audience at the State Fair was a fraction of what the Aces drew in their prime, but Alberts ran through the repertoire every one of his listeners remembered. He was older and heavier, and his once jet-black pompadour was silver, but the voice was the same as the one that had echoed off the Saylors Lake Pavilion's walls a half-century earlier.

The stories of Alberts' death focused on his post-Four Aces career as the host of a children's talent show that ran for three decades on Channel 6. He interviewed 5- and 6-year-olds, sang a little, and appeared to have enjoyed himself immensely.

The early to mid-'50s glory of the Four Aces had dimmed with time. Alberts and the Aces predated Elvis, the Beatles, the British Invasion, heavy metal, Springsteen, and rap. Their shuffle-rhythm style and smooth ballads became old and stale as new waves of music drew larger audiences and filled arenas and outdoor stadiums. This wasn't music for the Saylors Lake Pavilion.

The bookends of my generation were two conflicts, the war in Korea and the war in Vietnam. We were too young for the first and too old for the second. We were lucky to have lived and reached young adulthood during a time of calm and innocence - a time exemplified by the music of Al Alberts and the Four Aces. We were living American Graffiti long before someone in Hollywood got the idea to make a movie about it.

It's risky to immerse oneself in nostalgia. It is, as a poet once said, "a seductive liar." But as I slip a Four Aces CD into the player, and the Saylors Lake Pavilion emerges from the speakers, I think I can take being lied to seductively for 45 minutes.