The Us Four

The Us Four, clockwise from left: Duke Freeman, Donnie Keeling, Mike Winebrenner and Jack Richardson

From Louisville, Kentucky, the Us Four were Donnie Keeling guitar, Mike Winebrenner keyboards, Duke Freeman bass and Jack Richardson drums.

They released two 45s, the first being the very catchy “The Alligator”, featuring funky drumming and percussion and a nice keyboard and fuzz combination. “The Alligator” was produced by Buzz Cason and released on the Rising Sons label in March of 1967, and reached #6 on Louisville station WAKY 790 AM in April. It’s played at 60’s DJ nights to this day.

Rising Sons was run by Cason and Bobby Russell. Both “The Alligator” and the flip side, the more conventional “By My Side” are credited to Keeling and Richard Williams, Cason’s longtime associate from when they were in the early Nashville rock ‘n roll group the Casuals in the ’50s.

The Us Four released one other 45 in January 1968, “She Loves It” pts. 1 and 2, written by Don Keeling; a more commercial production full of harmony singing. Around this time they changed their rhythm section, bringing in Jim Bower on bass and Paul Hoerni on drums. When the Us Four broke up, Hoerni went to the Oxfords.

The Us Four, from left: Mike Winebrenner, Donnie Keeling, Duke Freeman & Jack Richardson

Duke Freeman, bassist and vocalist wrote about how he became involved in music and his bands, including the Us Four:

I was always singing around the house. My Dad and I would sing nearly every day, He’d sing the lead and I’d sing the harmony. I’d have to say that started when I was about 7 years old and lasted until I went into the USAF in 1969. Dad couldn’t play a thing but that man sure could sing.

At age 8 it was the accordion. Yes that’s right! It wasn’t exactly a direct path to rock & roll. That lasted about eight months, then it was the guitar which lasted equally as long. In the 8th grade I started playing trumpet and it lasted for about a year.

In my sophomore year I met four guys who had a “garage band”. They were all underclassmen. I went to one of their practices, sang a few songs and they were impressed. They needed a bass player so I convinced my Dad to loan me the money to buy a bass and amp with the agreement that if I didn’t stick with it I’d pay him back.

I worked with those guys for about a year then moved on to another group with a bit more talent. It was while I was with that group that I met Don Keeling at a teen local club. He’d been playing with the Cavaliers and was a very good lead guitarist. The Cavaliers had broken up and Don was looking for something new. He’d already located a keyboard player, Mike Winebrenner and was still looking for bass player and drummer. We hit it off pretty well and so we got together shortly after that with Jack Richardson on drums.

We rehearsed for a few months getting tight and doing a lot of current material. Other than trios which played small bars and clubs (playing nightclub music) all other groups in the area were at least 5 pieces. We were the first four piece group that I know of. Donnie and I handled most of the lead vocals, with Mike singing a few. Harmonies were excellent and we were able to reproduce most anything that was being played.

If I remember correctly our group didn’t want a flashy name. We wanted to keep it simple and easy to remember. Also there wasn’t anything flashy about us so our music spoke for us, “US FOUR” that is.

At that time the Oxfords were working for the Joni Agency (Gene & Vi Snyder). Our guitar player had worked for them before so were were going to audition for the agency during the Oxfords breaks at a local teen club. We’d been rehearsing for several months to get everything tight. I remembered that we had no extra money for clothing so we all wore jeans and yellow short sleeved sweatshirts with the name of the ban written in black magic marker on the front (real classy).

I remember when we stepped up on stage for that first 15 minute set. I was so nervous and we could hear some of the crowd laughing at the way we dressed. Anyway we played about 5 numbers and the crowd went wild. The Oxfords were great at what they did, but this crowd wanted to dance and they didn’t play a lot of top 40 dance music. Needless to say we signed with the agency and wound up on the circuit. We thanked the Oxfords for allowing us to share the stage with them and apologized for all the commotion. They were great guys and understood because they had all been there before.

We played the Kentuckiana area regularly with occasional trips to Lexington. One of our regular stops was the Golden Horseshoe which was located around Lebanon, Kentucky. I’d say our main competition were the Oxfords before their split and reorganization. If you would have asked me back then who was the best group, I would have said the old Oxfords [with Steve McNicol] / the Rugbys and I still believe that to this very day.

[We met Buzz Cason] through Gene Snyder (Joni Agency). He was friends with Richard Williams who was Brenda Lee’s piano player. Richard and Buzz were great friends. Richard was looking for a group to record for him. He’d noticed the the dance “The Alligator” was sweeping the colleges across the US and he thought it would be a great idea to have some relatively unknown midwestern group record it.

He called Gene with the idea and asked if he knew of a group that would fit the idea. We were asked to show up at the agency to meet someone who had something we may be interested in. that’s when we meet Richard for the first time and he shared his idea with us. He wanted us to come up with the song and he’d fly us to Nashville for a session and we’d record 4 sides. That meant we needed 4 songs.

You’ll notice that Richard Williams and Donnie Keeling are credited with writing the song, but actually Donnie and I wrote the lyrics, the band as a whole penned the music, and Richard merely came up with the idea. Since Richard was paying the bill, who could argue? Donnie also wrote “By My Side” and “She Loves It”. I wrote “Opposite Ends of the World” in a Nashville hotel room the night before our recording session.

Time became a constraint and we ended up only having enough time to record the two sides. As you know “She Loves It” was eventually recorded in Louisville, and “Opposite Ends of the World” never made it to the studio.

It was in 1968 that Donnie and I had a disagreement and I thought it would be best for me to leave. I was immediately picked up by the Keyes, Jim and Tom Owen had been playing for quite a while and when Jim gave up playing I was recruited. Tom had worked with his brother for so long that it was difficult for me to really fit in.

With the Keyes I was more of a sideman and didn’t have that influence that I had in Us Four, even though I carried a lot of the vocal duties. I’d been with them less than a year when Tom announced that Jim was coming back and I wouldn’t be needed any longer.

It wasn’t long after that their drummer Charlie Jones, keyboardist Bob Ernspiker, contacted me about wanting to leave the Keyes and form a new group, We ended up hiring Denny Enzer (Inzer?) to play lead and “Justice” was formed. If this group would have survived it may have topped everything that every came out of Louisville. The musicianship, vocals, and rich harmonies were unbelievable. We played for only about 6 months and booked ourselves, but we made strides that it took most groups years to make.

Uncle Sam was wanting me badly and the group was short lived. It was just after that group’s demise that the Rugbys were looking for a bass player and I was asked if I’d be interested in the job. I had to turn it down due to the draft. A year or so later I saw them on TV and thought that could have been me.

Duke Freeman, December 2008

Thanks to Duke for sharing the history of his band and photos of the group.

Clockwise from left: Duke Freeman, Jack Richardson, Donnie Keeling and Mike Winebrenner, with Mike’s Doric organ

34 thoughts on “The Us Four”

  1. Wow, it is so interesting that I came across this page. I know Donnie Keeling and his family. He still loves to sing and perform!

  2. Hi,
    I’m Duke Freeman. I was visiting You Tube tonite and typed in “The Rugbys’ to hear “You, I” again. One thing lead to another and I ended up on this site.
    I played bass with US FOUR from the band’s creation to sometime in 1968. I then joined the Keyes and worked with them for about a year before entering the USAF.
    Married in 1969 and had one daughter, divorced in 1978, remarried in 1979 and have one son.
    I gave up playing on and off for a few years here and there but am still playing now. i worked with a band in Indianapolis a couple years back doing lead vocals and playing bass. We did 60s, 70s and 80s. My favorite sone very night was “Separate Ways” by Journey because it stretched me tot he limit.
    I’m currently living in Martinsville, Indiana but still own a home in Louisville. If anything shakes loose in the Louisville area as far as a renuion, let me know. I’ve lost track of all the guys Donnie, Mike & Jack. I believe Mike was the one I saw most recently but that was over 20 years ago.
    If you see any of the guys or know where they are pleae give them my email address.

    hejunior@netzero.com

    I miss the 60s and I miss Louisville.

    Duke

    PS: Tell Steve McNicol I said hi, and ask him what ever happened to Glen & Chi Howerton.

  3. Is there any chance that I know you? Your interest in this is uncanny. Did you follow us?

    It was through Gene Snyder (Joni Agency). He was friends with Richard Williams who was Brenda Lee’s piano player. Richard and Buzz were great friends. Richard was looking for a group to record for him. He’d noticed the the dance “The Alligator” was sweeping the colleges across the US and he thought it would be a great idea to have some relatively unknown midwestern group record it.
    He called Gene with the idea and asked if he knew of a group that would fit the idea. We were asked to show up at the agency to meet someone who had something we may be interested in. that’s when we meet Richard for the first time and he shared his idea with us. He wanted us to come up with the song and he’d fly us to Nashville for a session and we’d record 4 sides. That meant we needed 4 songs.
    You’ll notice that Richard Williams and Donnie Keeling are credited with writing the song, but actually Donnie and I wrote the lyrics, the band as a whole penned the music, and Richard merely came up with the idea. Since Richard was paying the bill, who could argue? Donnie also wrote “By My Side” and “She Loves It”. I wrote “Opposite Ends of the World” in a Nashville hotel room the night before our recording session.
    Time became a constraint and we ended up only having enough time to record the two sides. As you know “She Loves It” was eventually recorded in Louisville, and “Opposite Ends of the World” never made it to the studio.

  4. I just wanted to mention a little about Donnie Keeling. When I was still in your typical unknown garage bands, Donnie was working the Louisville circuit with the Cavaliers. Donnie was without a doubt the best guitar player in Louisville at the time. You had Steve McNicol who was a better vocalist and writer, and you had Wayne Young who was very good as well and was eventually the best, but at that time Donnie had no equal in 1966/67.
    As for me, I was a vocalist that played bass, not a bassist that sang. If you’re a musician you know what that means. Comparing me on bass to Donnie on guitar was like comparing hamburger to prime rib. Vocals were my forte’ and the fact that I could play and sing was a plus and meant less musicians and more pay!

    Thanks so much, Chris, for setting up this website. It’s great reminising about the 60s and how louisville played such an important part in my life. I love Louisvile!

  5. Duke, I’m living in Pendleton Indiana with my wife of 29 yrs and 2 daughters ( my wife is from Louisville & graduated from Iroquois high school) Pendleton is about 60 miles north east of Martinsville.

    The story about your Mom is great! I bet she was HOT..

    We had a friend that was a DJ @ WAKY for a while and we got tired of cruising 4th street we would call him and he open the back door and let us come in (promising not to touch anything)we would set. I always asked him to play a record from the local bands and he always would plus give us previews of the “new” music.

    I don’t have any pictures only 45’s and a great tape I recored in 1987 when WHAS did a 2-3 hr special on the Louisville groups…some of those records are non-existant today. But like I said earlier I’m always looking!!

  6. John,
    I have contacted WAVE TV several times. They used to have a TV show on called “Teen Beat”. Our group was on there several times as was most every group in the Kentuckiana area. I don’t know who I spoke with but they said all that old stuff is no longer around. I’d be willing to bet they’re in their archives somewhere.
    I have two children whom have graduated from college. My daughter is 37, married and has one daughter. My son is 26 and single. Both are living in Indy. My wife and I have lived in Martinsville since 1990, and Indianapolis previous to that. I still play and sing but it’s contemporary christian music at our church. I’m blessed to be surrounded with some very talented christian musicians who grew tired of the “bar scene”. It’s been quite an enjoyable experience to play for over 500 believers every Sunday.
    If you ever want to contact me my email address is
    hejunior@netzero.com/

  7. John,
    Thank you for the compliments. I couldn’t think of a better time than those days in the 60s when we were playing each weekend all over the Kentuckiana area.
    I want to share a funny story with you about one special event we did. I believe it was WAKY’s “Weird Beard” (Bert Markert) who was the emcee for this event. Bert and I graduated from Waggener High School a few years apart. Anyway it was a sneak preview of “A Fist Full of Dollars” down on 4th street. I think it was at the Rialto Theater and we were set up under the marquee. 4th street was blocked off and there was a huge crowd. My mother and father were just beyond the marquee, right up front. Apparently there were some people from WAKY on top of the marquee. Now picture this. My mother is only 4’10”, a tiny woman who could easily get lost in the crowd. Well they started throwing dollar bills off the marquee as a promo and the crowd rushed forward burying Mom. It was nearly 5 minutes before it thinned out enough to see her sitting in the street scratched up and bruised with her clothing torn. Dad and I both we worried sick when she disappeared, but when we found out she was okay we couldn’t help be laugh. Boy was she pissed at us. It was a Lucille Ball moment if you know what I mean.
    I’d sure love to have a band reunion but I’ve lost track of everyone and unless they see this site, I doubt that will become a reality. Plus I’d like to see if any of them have photos to post here. Mine were lost in a flood last year.
    One other thing. I want to make a correction to one statement that Charles made at the end of my history. He referred the “Us Four” as my band. While I was one of the four founding members and one of the originals, it was Donnie Keeling who brought us all together so if the band actually belonged to anyone, it was Donnie.

    You said you grew up in Southern Indiana, so where are you located now?

    1. Duke, Do you by any chance remember a group that was around a few years after you called the Vanguards? Or do you by any chance know my friend Bob Brickley? And whatever happened to Bill Bailey of WAKY, do you know? Cruising Jerry’s and Frisches….those were the days!!!

      1. Dennis, I used to know a guy that had a band, “The Bob Brickley Band” that toured clubs in the 70’s and 80’s , wondering if it’s the same guy you’re talking about.

  8. Duke, I really enjoyed reading the history of “US Four”.Growing up in Southern Indiana and being a hugh fan of the Rock Bands from “Big Lou” I still find myself looking for any information I can find on the groups. The memories I have of US Four was seeing you guys at Ewing Lane and then recomending to our High School(Charlestown In) student counsel that we try to get US FOUR to play at a dance we had..you did! Corny as it may sound I still have the original 45 of Alligator. Thanks for the memories. I miss Louisville and the sixties as well.

    1. I also still have a copy of the 45 Alligator….I was a senior at Atherton High when it was recorded. It was my favorite song….just loved the beat!!! I have talked about it for years and recently googled and found the soundtrack!

  9. It was great to see a few of the guys from Us Four this weekend. Thank God for Facebook. I’ve been trying to contact them for 6 months and one of them found me on Facebook. Art McKenzie was as much a part of the band as any member. For lack of a better word he was our road manager and a very dear friend. He gave me Jack Richardson’s phone number and Jack gave me Mike Winebrenner’s. I met with Art, Jack & Mike for the first time in over 40 years. Donnie Keeling was on vacation and unavailable.
    It was a great time and we’ve made plans to meet again in the next month or two. Donnie, Jack and Mike no longer play but who’s to say that won’t change in the next few months. I feel a reunion coming on!

    Duke

  10. Us Four was my favorite band back in 60’s! I have nothing but wonderful memories of sock hops and dances around Louisville, listening to Duke and Donnie and the band. Truly “dreamy” guys! And so talented! I can still hear them singing “I’m on the outside looking in …..” It was nice to find this site just to “re-live” some fond memories of yesterday.

  11. Duke, I’m trying to find Mr. Winebrenner myself. I am a US Marine stationed in NC, but I was born and raised in Louisville. I am familiar with the UsFour through my mother who followed the band. I believe she was acquainted well with Mr. Winebrenner. If you are still in contact with him, I would appreciate the opportunity to talk with him about the band. If you respond, I can send you my email address. Thank you very much! Jennifer

  12. Jennifer,
    I lost Mike’s phone number when my phone sim card went bad a few months back. I’ll try and get it for you. You can email me at:

    hejunior@hotmail.com

    Also, several of the musicians I worked with in the 60’s, and I, have decided it’s time to start playing again so we’re rehearsing. I’m talking about guys such as Jack Richardson, Pogie Decker, Bobby Decker and George Shields. We had asked Mike if he wanted to, but he’s got some health issues that won’t allow him to do so. We have a few others people who are going to be in the group and hopefully we’ll be playing by early to mid-summer.

    Duke

  13. Don Keeling is my father in law and will love to know this site is out there. I have been in the family for a few years and wanted to hear the song now I have and love it.

  14. Jeff,
    This is Duke. I saw your father-in-law last August, at the Turner’s Reunion, for the first time in 43 years. I mentioned to him that we ought to have a reunion of the group and do a show but he didn’t seem the least bit interested in playing anymore. So now I’ve been putting together a group to play around the Louisville area. At present it may be a fairly large one, about 9-10 pieces.
    My email address is below should you need to get in touch with me.

    hejunior@netzero.com

  15. Hi Duke.

    This is Donnie Jr, is there any chance you have By my side or She loves it? I get the credit for destroying the 45s when I was younger and cannot find anyone with copies. Thanks for uploading the alligator!

    Thanks,
    Donnie Keeling, Jr.

  16. Duke

    Don is a perfectionist, you know that, he thinks he cant move the fingers as well as he use to, I bet you any thing he could get it back pretty quickly. He likes the Karaoke so we need to put the guitar in his hand again. I myself would love to hear you all do this number live.

  17. I can’t imagine Donnie not being able to do anything he set his mind to. He was one of the most talented guitar players in Louisville and it was an honor to work with him. Mike has arthritis in his hands pretty bad. I know he could play Alligator because it’s fairly simple, but I doubt he could do much of anything else.
    I’ve been rehearsing with a bunch of guys coming out of retirement and it appears we’re going to be ready to play in about 2-3 weeks. We’re just polishing everything up and getting our promo materials together. Ages range from 57 to 61 so this ought to be a lot of fun. To be quite honest, the group is going to be pretty hot and could be as large as 10 pcs.
    Anyway, you can give Donnie my email address if he’d like to throw something together or when our group finally gets it’s “wings” perhaps we could somehow get Mike & Donnie to rehearse a bit, show up at one of our gigs and we could do it.

    Duke

  18. Donnie, Jr.,
    I’ll have to look and see if I have those. I went through a flood about two years ago and lost a lot of stuff, but perhaps those are stored away somewhere. I can’t promise you it will be in the next few weeks, but I can assure you it will be soon as I’ll be going through all of my stored items in the next couple of months to get rid of any junk.
    Don had a “reel to reel” tape recorder with a lot of “live” Us Four recordings. Do have any idea if he still has those?
    Also if you’d like to communicate by phone, send me an email and with your number and I’ll give you a call, or I can forward my number so you can call me.

    hejunior@netzero.com

    Duke

  19. Well the new group is finally coming together. STILL KICKIN’ is made up of the following people:

    Jack Richardson (Drums/Harmonica) formerly of The Contrasts, Us Four & Second Time Around
    Pogie Decker(Lead Guitar/Vocals) formerly of The Contrasts, Midnite Special & the Revelators
    Bobby Decker (Vocals) formerly of The Contrasts
    David Decker (Keys/Vocals) formerly of Second Time Around & City Lights
    George Shields (Guitar/Bass/Vocals) formerly of The Decades and Copperfield
    Art Kessler (Trumpet/Percussion/Vocals) formerly of Carnations
    Reed Wrege (Tenor Sax/Baritone Sax/Percussion/Vocals) formerly of The Bushmen, The Carnations & Autumn
    Dugie “Duke” Morris (Trumpet/Trombone/Vocals) formerly of Autumn
    Sherry Landesman (Keys/Vocals) formerly of Juilliard School of Music, New York City
    Duke Freeman (Bass/Harmonica/Vocals) formerly of The Contrasts, Us Four, The Keyes & Justice.

    This is the largest group I’ve ever worked with and it’s unbelieveable how much talent there is. This hasn’t been the easiest endeavor I’ve ever attempted but the results have been well worth it. Right now it appears that STILL KICKIN’ will debut on Saturday, September 25th from 8-11 PM at the Lebanese-American Club, 3020 River Road, Louisville KY. Tickets are $10 per person and will be available on September 1st. This is a small venue so reserve your tickets early. Send all ticket requests to
    stillkickinrocks@hotmail.com
    Remember to leave your contact info. See you there!

    Duke Freeman

  20. Mike, I went to Ahrens with you and you showed me how to play keyboards in 1968. 1000 bands later and i don’t know how much money i have spent on key’s….Thank You.

  21. Where THE HECK did you get a Doric organ with reverse color keys?!? Further, Why on earth would you guys pick a Doric organ, with all those bass keys (apparently more than any other portable back then)when your group had a bass player? My band (Pentagons/Connecticut/GarageHangover) had the Doric because we had no bass player, and I ran everything from middle “C” down through a separate bass amp to fill the bottom. Our big hit record(yeah,right)”About The Girl I Love” begins with a Doric riff. Reverse color keys? Never seen it. Never even heard they existed on a Doric. Unbelievable. -John Cog.

  22. We actually took all the covers off the organ, masked off the electronics and painted the keys reverse color. Mike chose the Doric because he couldn’t afford a VOX. Mike eventually purchased a Hammond B3 and two Leslie consoles. At the beginning we were a very poor band and I mean that literally. I had a ’50 Ford that was falling apart. Donnie was the only one in the band who had a decent car (1964 LeMans Convertible with a 326 and 4 speed) because he had a pretty good job. Within a year I was driving a 1965 GTO and I believe the other members had better vehicles as well.
    This kinda brings up a conversation with a fellow musician I hadn’t seen in over 43 years. He said the one thing he remembers about The Rugbys (another band in Louisville) and our band was the muscle cars and sports cars which included a 67 Corvette, a 65 GTO, a 66 Nova 327/375, a 64 LeMans Convertible with a 389 and two 67 SS396 Chevelles. Just think of how much money those cars would bring today.

    Hope that answers your questions about the Doric. Sorry I rambled on.

    Duke

  23. Sad to report that Dr. David Decker has passed. He was my family doctor for a number of years but I never knew he was in the music scene. City Lights was one of my favorite bands years ago. I’m sure David will be missed by many.

  24. As you’ve probably already noticed, I posted the death of David Decker in January of 2011, longtime keyboard player and great friend.
    Louisville lost another one on January 4th, 2012, when Eddy Vernon, keyboard player formerly of the Rugbys passed away.
    On another note, Arthur McKenzie, longtime friend and a vital part of US Four passed away on December 22, 2011 at the age of 63. Art wasn’t a musician but he had a keen ear for music and not only traveled with us as a roadie, he also helped us dial in our sound at every gig. He will definitely be missed.

  25. I shared a while back the details of a band I was putting together called “STILL KICKIN”. The band has evolved quite a bit. We still have four of the original members and a total of 8 members. Our name didn’t click and really limited the number of venues we were able to play due to the reference to “age”.
    About a year ago we decide to rename the band. I was paying a Louisville Gas & Electric bill (LG&E) when it finally hit me, and the new name was born. LOUISVILLE BRASS & ELECTRIC or LB&E.
    Since then things have better and the group is slowly developing a following in the Louisville area. It’s still difficult booking a group this large, but it sure is fun to perform with such great group of guys and talented musicians.

  26. I went to Ahrens with Donnie Keeling. I remember, I think it was my senior year (65-66), Donnie and some other classmates who played in bands at the time got together for a talent show in the school auditorium. I think I remember Bernie Dumas (The Chateaus) and Chauncey Hobbs, I don’t remember who he played with, and they rocked out the auditorium that day. Funny how things like that stand out in your mind after all these years. I’m glad I found this site. I’ll be doing a lot of reading on here now to see what I can find out. Donnie if you’re reading this, you might want to join the Ahrens alumni web site. There’s going to be a 50th Class reunion next year also. You can get info on the alumni site.

  27. I forgot to mention, anyone interested in the Ahrens Class reunion, I think it’s for the years ’66-’68. Just get on facebook and type in Ahrens Trade High School Alumni.

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