Still Full Of Spring: Celebrating the Four Freshmen At 60.
By: Todd Baptista as published in Goldmine Magazine, 2008
Universally hailed as pioneers of the jazz-infused close harmony sound, the Four Freshmen have few rivals in the vocal group harmony field. The quartet celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2008 by honoring and acknowledging its past, and continuing to provide its enthusiastic international audience with fresh, sweet sounds. The group’s 22nd different lineup, unchanged since 2001, has been selected Best Vocal Group by the readers of JazzTimes magazine for three of the past five years, and continues to record and tour worldwide.
It’s music to the ears of the Freshmen’s fiercely loyal audience as well as founding member, Bob Flanigan, who retired from the road in 1992 but remains active in their affairs. “This is the best Freshmen group ever,” the 81 year-old admits from his Las Vegas home. That’s pretty lofty praise from the lead singer, bass player, and trombonist who spent 44 years at the helm, but a point he makes emphatically. “All four are marvelous musicians, and they’re gentlemen. They’re very dedicated to what they’re doing.”
The original quartet was formed at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music at Butler University in Indianapolis in 1948 by Hoosiers Flanigan, his cousins, second-tenor-guitarist Don Barbour (1927-1961), younger brother, Ross Barbour, 79, who sang baritone and was proficient on several instruments including drums, and Hal Kratzsch (1925-1970), who sang and played trumpet and mellophone.
“When we started, we used to sing barber shop for our college,” Flanigan explains. “Then we decided we wanted to do something else. The big influence on us was Mel Torme’s group with Artie Shaw called the Meltones, and the group with Stan Kenton’s band, the Pastels. We dissected those things and tried to sing it with four guys.” The group developed its own unique style of “open harmony”- singing five-note chords with four voices – changing the octave of a chord’s third and fifth notes or utilizing augmented or diminished chords, while dropping root notes.
After leaving school, the Freshmen had been working in clubs and bars in the Midwst for a year and a-half when Kenton himself dropped in to hear them at the Esquire Lounge in Dayton, Ohio on March 21, 1950. “He was out with the Innovations Orchestra, and a couple of disc jockeys said, ‘You’ve got to hear these guys’,” Flanigan recalls. “He didn’t want to at first, but he came down. We were working behind a bar, and he heard the first few chords, and he came and stood by the bar with his mouth open. He said, ‘You guys have the greatest potential of anybody I’ve ever heard.’”
That night, Kenton and the Freshmen forged a lifelong friendship. His arranger, Pete Rugolo, produced a demo tape on the quartet that Kenton delivered to Glen Wallichs at Capitol Records. The group’s first two releases, issued in 1950-51, drew little notice. “We were not very popular with the label because we weren’t selling any records. There was a disc jockey in Detroit, Bob Murphy, who used to come out and hear us. He said, ‘Do you have anything that I can play that hasn’t been released yet?’ So, Stan got an acetate of ‘It’s A Blue World’ to Bob. We got 40 plays in a day!”
Their intricate reworking of Tony Martin’s 1940 chestnut, backed with a unique interpretation of “Tuxedo Junction”, began the public’s love affair with the Freshmen. “The (arrangement) we did on ‘Tuxedo Junction’ was something that nobody had ever done before. We tried to reproduce (the big band sound) vocally. That was the thing, and then to try and play behind it (on stage). All the early things we did were (arranged) by air,”
Flanigan concedes. “We didn’t have anyone to write them out. We took it one chord at a time. That’s how things like ‘Blue World’ and ‘Poinciana’ were done. We did it the way we wanted to hear it.”
Downbeat magazine awarded the quartet the Best Jazz Vocal Group honor in 1953, a feat they’ve repeated twice in the past decade alone. During their 15-year tenure at Capitol, the Four Freshmen consistently raised the bar with the assistance of brilliant arrangers including Pete Rugolo, Dick Reynolds (1923-1988), and Billy May (1916-2004), versatile songwriters like Bobby Troup (1918-1999), who penned “Route 66” and “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring”, and creative production team members including Lee Gillette and Kenton himself.
For many vocal groups, even a single personnel change can wreak havoc. That the Freshmen have been able to flourish through 60 years with 22 different lineups speaks volumes for the artists and their dedication to their craft. To many casual fans, the transitions have appeared seamless. “We’ve been in a constant stage of change since 1953 when Hal left,” Flanigan explains, “and we’ve had 23 different people come in. It’s still the Four Freshmen. There were a couple of guys who came in, and it was just over their heads and they didn’t last long. It takes about six months to really know what the Freshmen are all about. No matter how good the guy is, it’s always been that way.”
Michigan native Ken Errair (1927-1968), replaced Kratzsch in 1953 and was, in turn, replaced in 1956 by Ken Albers (1924-2007), who stayed 26 years. Versatile enough to sing both the second and fourth parts, Albers also played trumpet, flugelhorn, mellophone, and bass and served as musical director and arranger. Bill Comstock replaced Don Barbour in 1960 and remained for 13 years.
Their 1954 debut album, Voices in Modern, including a fascinating “Over The Rainbow”, featured a modicum of complex harmony patterns which were essentially cut live. “The only overdubbing we did in that album was on ‘Street of Dreams’,” Flanigan clarifies. “Some of the instrumental tracks were overdubbed. I would overdub the trombone solos and Kenny or Hal would overdub the trumpet solos. It would be hard to do (when cutting vocals) because your horn is never warmed up.”
The epic 1956 Four Freshmen and Five Trombones album peaked at #6 in 33 weeks on Billboard’s LP chart and set a standard for vocal group excellence that few have equaled. “Lee Gillette, our boss at Capitol, said, ‘You’ve been compared to the Kenton trombone section,” Flanigan recalls. “Why don’t we do something with trombones and a rhythm section?’ So we got Tommy Pederson and (Kenton trombonists) Milt Bernhardt, Harry Betts, Frank Rosolino, and George Roberts. We had a lot of fun and it showed in the record. Some of the vocals were hard to do because Pete Rugolo mixed five trombones and four voices all in one mix, so you’re not singing the normal chords you would sing. That album is probably the most important thing we ever did.”
Despite a quickie cover by the Rover Boys, “Graduation Day” helped the Freshmen transition their act into colleges and universities in the mid to late ‘50s. “That’s one reason the group is still around,” agrees Flanigan. “We worked every college in this country at least once, and a lot of people who belong to the Four Freshmen Society saw us when they were in college, and they bring their kids in (today).”
Many inspiring artists who saw and heard the Freshmen, including the Four Preps, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and Manhattan Transfer, incorporated the styles and artistry of the quartet into their own. From the British Invasion through the Disco Era and beyond, the Freshmen, with varying personnel (Ross Barbour retired in 1977) continued recording and performing the music they loved. “We never bent into rock’n’roll, because that’s not us,” Flanigan explains. True to themselves, the quartet was rewarded with their sixth Grammy® Award nomination in 1986 for Fresh, the 41st LP of their career.
Today, lead vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist and arranger Brian Eichenberger, 32, of Minnesota, second voice and trumpeter-flugelhorn player Curtis Calderon, 33, of Texas, California-born baritone singer, trombone player and bass virtuoso Vince Johnson, 37, and drummer and fourth voice, Bob Ferreira, 37, a Washington State native and the group’s elder statesman with 16 years of service, are the Four Freshmen. They’re on the road about a third of the month- usually playing self-contained but occasionally backed by a big band or symphony.
“Each of us came in through the audition process,” explains Eichenberger, who first joined as bass player and second voice in 1996. “Part of finding the chemistry is finding the right guy, but I think more of it is that we all really listen and try to make it sound our own. We try to make it as tight as we can. We’re not necessarily trying to sound like they did in the ‘50s or ‘60s.”
The group’s critically acclaimed 2005 studio CD, In Session, featured 11 classic songs the Freshmen had never tackled before. Eichenberger selected and arranged much of the set, including a unique interpretation of “If I Only Had A Brain”. “I saw Carl Fontana in Las Vegas, and he played that song. So, I started playing it and the arrangement developed and we added harmony on the bridge and a couple of key changes.” Be it a new arrangement or a classic from the group’s archives, each part is meticulously charted and documented. “I set it out note by note,” Brian admits.
“There are times when something doesn’t sound the way I thought it would, or someone has an idea to go in a different direction, and we’ll figure it out together. But we write it all down. There are lots of old charts. Our good friend Dave Bentley has an extensive collection, and any time there’s a new chart, he gets a copy. He’s been doing that since the ‘60s, and he’s our go-to guy. We’ll say, ‘Do you have a chart on ‘Give Me The Simple Life’? He’ll look, and fax it over.”
Established in 1987, the 3,000-member strong Four Freshmen Society provides the group with a unique support network. “We have conventions every year,” Flanigan explains. “These people have helped us recording-wise, and whatever money they make, they put into the Freshmen. Saying ‘thank you’ just doesn’t seem like it is enough for all the work they do.” “They help fund recording and production costs and we supply them with product,” Brian adds. “It’s a great relationship.”
While each member has his own musical interests, Eichenberger explains that it’s not difficult to balance their tastes against the history and legacy of the Freshmen. “I think the style and material of the Four Freshmen is some of the best sounds that you can make with four guys harmonizing. To continue making those sounds is an honor, and it’s fun. I’m more into pop and rock, but I wouldn’t try and bring four-part harmony into that because it doesn’t fit. The style that we do is the way four guys singing together should sound. We have a large list of songs to try, and we won’t get to half of them. About a month ago I got a Peggy Lee CD, and there’s songs on there I can imagine us doing. The majority of what it takes to put a song in our repertoire is really getting the four-part harmony in tune, and, logistically, how it’s going to work.”
About 80% of a typical Freshmen audience today is comprised of fans dating back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. “I’m not really sure what can be done as far as getting younger people involved,” Brian confesses. “All we can do is make it as cool and as fun and as beautiful sounding as we can. That’s our job. I think it would be great if we could end up on one of these late night shows. If we just get heard, I think we’ll get a younger audience. We don’t want to change our style. I feel like we’re making the best sounds we can as a four-part male harmony group. We’re not going to do a pop album or a tribute to Britney Spears. We’re going to keep doing what we do and hope that it’s heard.”
“We’re the Four Freshmen,” Flanigan affirms. “That’s what we do. The Four Freshmen are 60 years old and still have a lot of class and are very good musically. I’m just so proud of these guys. I try to think of things that I should change, and I can’t think of anything. Brian Wilson is a good friend, and the guys played in Palm Springs and he came in for the show. I said, ‘Brian, what do you think about the Freshmen?’ He said, ‘Not one wrong note. No blend problems. They’re marvelous.’”
On May 9, 2008, Ross Barbour and Bob Flanigan returned to Butler University to receive honorary Doctors of Music awards. “In all the years I was with the group, I can say I enjoyed every second of it,” Bob admits, reflecting on the 60-year milestone. “We’ve been all over the world and, whether it was in Japan or Czechoslovakia, there were always some four guys who would come up and sing, usually ‘Blue World’, and that makes you feel you’ve done something worthwhile. When I was in the group, I didn’t listen to the records too much, because I couldn’t do it objectively. I heard what I didn’t do, and it would bug me. But since I’ve been gone for a while, I’ve gone back and listened, and we did some awfully good things.”