Image courtesy of Avedon Image courtesy of Avedon
By Amy Phillips Penn

Sometime in the mid-sixties, Ford model China Girard was feeling bored. Bored in the sixties was an elongated oxymoron, and had to go.

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: China Girard

Image courtesy of China Girard

“We’re sitting around here doing nothing. Why don’t we start a rock band?” she asked her brunette model counterpart, Diane Hartford.

Diane’s ex was Huntington Hartford, “Hunt” to “People Like Us.” Huntington Hartford was the heir to the A&P Grocery fortune, and was everywhere on the New York party scene.

Diane didn’t miss a New York beat before she breathed in a very polished, soft-spoken but decisive voice, “Ok.”

Image courtesy of China Girard

Image courtesy of China Girard

How experienced were these girls?

“Diane had played the piano a little bit and I had no musical experience,” said China. Diane‘s acting career was comprised of “three sentences on screen,” by her own admission.

The ladies took lessons, studied other musicians — including Dave Brubeck — and added two members to the group: Cathy Cochran, a Foxcroft grad and devoted horse woman, who had learned to play the guitar when dismounted and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Burke, who worked in the financial world (“she was the only one of us who had to work,” China added.) and learned how to use drum sticks in a hurry to complete the group.

It took six months of a whirlwind courtship that flirted with wishful thinking to land a contract for the newly named “The What Four” with Columbia Records.

Image courtesy of China Girard

Image courtesy of China Girard

“The name has a double meaning,” China told a television host, who took more than a drum roll to “get it.” She explained it to him.

“What Four, what for?” She gave him the 411.

That was not the only explanation in demand.

“I want to know how you got Paley to sign in on this? Which one of you did what to whom?” Columbia Records president, Goddard Lieberson asked China.

Lieberson’s background included producing studio cast recordings of Pal Joey and The Boys from Syracuse on Broadway, as well as raising funding for My Fair Lady.

Signing a contract with “The What Four,” with Paley’s decree, was a new twist.

Columbia Records had merged into the newly formed CBS/Columbia.

Bill Paley, the C.E.O. of CBS, had taken a small radio station into one of the most powerful TV/radio networks in America. A phone call from him was not to be ignored.

Bartle Bull, a lawyer and Harvard Law School grad, was negotiating the contract for the “The What Four.” He happened to be socializing with William Paley and family in the country, a sweet coincidence if ever there was one.

Bill Paley asked what Bartle was doing in the law firm. Bartle replied that he was working on the Columbia contract for a group he was representing called “The What Four.” He told Paley that they were very good.

Soon after, Paley called  Goodard and told him to sign the group.

“Are you trying to take over Columbia?” a soon to be a major force in Columbia Records asked China.

He wasn’t kidding.

“Why the hell would I want to do that?” China brushed it off.

“It gives me great pleasure to bug people,” she added later.

The ladies had made their entrée into the music world with the wherewithal of New York Blue Blood confidence, youth and savoir faire.

“The What Four” toured, they recorded, and they appeared on TV.

“The only thing we didn’t like about touring was the men in suits from Columbia Records, who went along with us,” said China. Not your usual chaperones.

Known as “the first all girl rock band from the sixties, their Cinderella-minus-the-rags-rock-story played it forward onto Variety’s “Top Single of the Week” and Billboard-Spotlights HOT 100. 2005 Rhino Ent., a division of Warner Music presented the first-ever box set to celebrate girl groups of the 1960’s. “The What Four” were included in VARIOUS ARTISTS – One Kiss Leads to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found which boasted two Grammy Award nominations.

While “The What Four” is no more, we thank the once-upon-bored ladies, who decided to be anything but boring.

In true sixties fashion, they paved the way for other ladies and the less lady-like to ease and rock on down the yellow brick road. Rock on, ladies, rock on.

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