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Memories came flooding back to Warren Miller in Kalona when a visitor to his restaurant, The Tuscan Moon Grill on Fifth, brought in a 52-year-old gospel record, “I am the way,” by the Northwood Quartet. Warren was a 17-year-old high school student when he recorded the album with Tony Ramirez and twin brothers Marlen and Arlen Hershberger. The older three were in college at the time.
The visitor, Karl Jones, who now lives in Arizona, said he came into its possession while cleaning out his mother’s house after her death. Like many adults at the time, she was a fan of the wholesome looking foursome whose repertoire included “How Great Thou Art,” “Mansion Over The Hill,” “Pease In The Valley” and “I Am the Way.”
The song and name of the album, “I Am The Way,” was written by the group’s lead singer, Arlen. The back of the album notes Arlen “is one who has his heart in Gospel music. He and twin brother Marlen have spent many hours singing together since their childhood.
On Marlen, the album noted that the baritone’s ambition is to become a public accountant, “but he will also spend much of his time singing Gospel music.”
The pianist, tenor and Colorado native, Ramirez, is described as having a natural ear for music that enables him to play a variety of musical instruments. He joined the group after Miller’s older brother, Bob, dropped out.
And of Miller, the album related, “The youngest member is 17 years old Warren Miller, a high school senior, Warren’s attractive personality and rich bass voice is a great asset to the quartet wherever he sings.”
Miller grew up captivated with Gospel music and a cappella. “I loved the harmony,” he recalls.
His first public singing was in the Lower Deer Creek Mennonite Church and in concert choir at Iowa Mennonite School. He remembers later taking long trips to Des Moines on Wednesdays with his fellow band members to hear national Gospel groups. His favorite was the Plainsmen. All the way home, he recalls, they’d sing their favorite songs from that evening.
Their harmonic voices and youthful enthusiasm made them favorites of the local churches and they kept them busy singing after services and at youth events.
A typical news item in The Kalona News was like the one printed Aug. 27, 1964, “Following a 10 day tour through the south and west, the Northwood Quartet will present a program of sacred music at the East Union Mennonite church on Wednesday evening. The public is cordially invited to attend.”
Miller does recall one venue that was often requested but not as enjoyable – funerals.
A very major fan was Kalona farmer Vertan Miller, who Warren Miller described as “a kind, kind person.” Vertan fronted the money for the Cedar Rapids recording sessions and was later paid back from record sales.
Today, Miller’s love of four-part harmony can still be observed, though it is not a Gospel group, but The Four Seasons.