The Four Freshmen - Biography
By J Poet
The Four Freshman never won a Grammy, but they’re one of the most influential jazz vocal harmony groups in pop music. While they were a self-contained instrumental combo as well, it was their unique method of singing “open harmonies” that made them innovative. To sing five part chords, they spread the notes they sang over a wide harmonic range to produce and overtones that created the illusion of the fifth voice. They always sag a bit behind the beat, giving the vocals a full, rich, relaxed sound. The Beach Boys modeled their harmonies on the Freshman sound, and almost every jazz and pop vocal group that’s come after them, including The Hi-Los, Modernaires, The Lettermen, and The Mamas and Papas, owes a big debt to their pioneering sound. The original quartet called it quits in the early 70s, but under the guidance of founder Bob Flanigan, various Four Freshman groups have continued to thrill audiences to the present day.
The Four Freshman started at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music at Butler University in Indianapolis in 1948 by Don Barbour and Ross Barbour and Hal Kratzsch. The chose the name Hal’s Harmonizers, and became The Toppers after their cousin Bob Flanigan joined. They started out as a traditional barbershop quartet, but soon switched to a more jazz oriented sound, modeling themselves on Mel Torme’s Mel-Tones and Stan Kenton’s Pastels. They developed their open harmony sound and dropped out in 1948 to go on the road as The Four Freshmen.
In 1950 Stan Kenton caught they act. He’d heard about them from Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Herman and when he heard their sound his jaw dropped. Kenton and his arranger Pete Rugolo, made a demo tape with the group and helped them land a deal with his label, Capitol Records. He also get them a gig at LA’s Studio Club on Sunset Boulevard. Soon the biggest names in the music biz ere packing the clubs, like Kenton amazed by their sound. They stayed at the club for two sold out months.
Their first singles for Capitol failed to get much attention. In 1951 they cut an intricate vocal arrangement of “Tuxedo Junction,” and a ballad “It’s a Blue World,” a Tony Martin hit from 1940. Capital hated the sides and dropped the group. Kenton pressed the label to send out demos of the two songs to jazz DJs and when WJBK in Detroit began playing it, it became a regional hit. Capitol re-signed them, released the record officially, and it cracked the Top 40. In 1953 Hal Kratzsch left and Ken Errair sang on their next single “It Happened Once Before”, which went to #29. They also won the Down Beat poll as Best Jazz Vocal Group of 1953 a feat they repeated for the next four years.
Their first album, Voices in Modern (1955 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice) was a hit with jazz and pop audiences and the freshman became a headlining act at clubs and in Las Vegas. The well thought out approach they brought to their vocal arrangements carried over to their albums. Along with Sinatra, also with Capitol at the time, they put together albums with unified themes or instrumentation. Four Freshmen and 5 Trombones (1955 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice) set a high standard for jazz vocal music and hit #6 on the pop charts, and stayed there for almost a year. The group’s harmonies and Pete Rugolo’s arrangements made it a timeless classic. They followed it up with Four Freshmen and 5 Trumpets (1957 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), Four Freshmen and 5 Saxes (1957 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice) and “Graduation Day,” their biggest pop hit, which was #17 in the summer of 1957.
The group was now doing college concerts and major venues, as well as jazz clubs. Voices In Latin (1958 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), was actually a credible Latin Flavored effort, followed by The Freshman Year (1958 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), Voices In Love (1958 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), Four Freshmen and 5 Guitars (1959 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), Love Lost (1959 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), Voices And Brass (1960 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), and First Affair (1960 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice). They also had another hit single with 1960’s “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring.”
When the British Invasion and the Folk Rock Revolution changed the face of popular music, the Freshman didn’t try to go pop the way many other vocal groups did, usually with embarrassing results. Their chart success diminished, but they still put out quality albums like Voices in Fun (1961 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), The Freshman Year (1961 Capitol), Stars in Our Eyes (1962 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), The Swingers (1962 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), Day By Day (1962 Capitol), Got That Feelin' (1963 Capitol), More Four Freshmen and 5 Trombones (1963 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), Funny How Time Slips Away (1964 Capitol, 2005 Collector’s Choice), That's My Desire (1967 Capitol), and A Today Kind of Thing (1968 Capitol). They had a big influence on Brian Wilson, who used to hang out at the Freshman office in LA and often bought copies of their vocal arrangements, which he put to good use. They copied the Freshman’s arrangement of “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” note for note on their album Live Beach Boys ’69 (1969 Capitol).
At the end of the 60s they moved to Liberty for Today is Tomorrow (1968 Liberty), on which they finally took on some contemporary tunes by the Beatles, The Association and 5th Dimension, but the jazzy arrangements retained the group’s trademark sound. They didn’t try to “rock out.” They also cut Different Strokes (1969 Liberty), My Special Angel (1970 Liberty), Return to Romance (1971 Liberty), and Mount Freshmore (1977 Liberty). By 1977, Bob Flanigan was the only original member still singing with the Freshmen. The group continued to perform, with Flanigan holding new members to the same high standards as his former band mates, but their glory days were behind them. Still, they managed to get a long overdue Grammy nomination for Fresh! (1992 Ranwood) and Still Fresh (1999 Gold) carries on the group’s trademark sound. Bob Flanigan retired in 1992, but he continues to oversee the band. Worthwhile overviews include Four Freshmen: Complete 1950 - 1954 Studio-Issued Recordings (2004 Jazz factory), Four Freshmen - Greatest Hits (1993 Curb), and Four Freshmen: Capitol Collector’s Series (1991 Capitol) 21 of their best early tracks and the 24 track The Best of The Four Freshmen – The Liberty Years (2002 Collector’s Choice). The current version of the Freshman has been together since 2001.