Don Barbour - vocals, guitar; Ross Barbour - vocals, drums; Bob Flanigan - vocals, bass, trombone; Ken Albers - vocals, trumpet, mellophone
In 1958, Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein cut a deal with Al Banks from the Sheraton Corporation to produce a festival in the Midwestern town of French Lick, Indiana, birthplace of Boston Celtics basketball great Larry Bird. As Wein said in his autobiography (Myself Among Others): "It was a stone's throw from oblivion. I had never heard of it. No one I knew had heard of it. Nevertheless, Mr. Banks sounded like a trustworthy character and I knew that the Sheraton Corporation had capital." The Sheraton hotel in French Lick, located near the Kentucky border, was an early 20th century woo-framed hotel ("an aging oasis in the heart of a Midwestern wasteland," as Wein put it). The three-day festival took place on an adjoining golf course and featured talent on par with the Newport Jazz Festival. One of those groups was the Four Freshman, a vocal quartet known in jazz circles for their Stan Kenton-influenced harmonies, potent improvisations (they each played an instrument) and infinite capacity to swing.
The Four Freshman (Don and Ross Barbour, Bob Flanigan and Ken Albers) opened their Midwest Jazz Festival set with the beguiling ballad "Angel Eyes," a popular jazz standard recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole to Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra and Dave Brubeck. Their lush four-part harmonies on this minor key vehicle (which they recorded on their 1955 Capital album Four Freshman and 5 Trombones) are dreamy and sophisticated, underscored by Don Barbour's deft chordal work on guitar, his brother Don's subtle brushwork on drums, and Flanigan's upright bass. It also features some melodic improvising on mellophone (a cross between French horn and flugelhorn) by Albers. Next up is an upbeat, swinging rendition of the Harry Warren-Mack Gordon tune "There Will Never Be Another You," a popular tune from the Hollywood musical Iceland that was subsequently hijacked by the jazz world and covered by hundreds of artists from Woody Herman and Lionel Hampton to Zoot Sims, Chet Baker, Red Garland, Johnny Griffin, George Benson and countless others. Albers again shows his adeptness and swinging and improvising on the oversized brass band instrument, the mellophone.
Drummer Ross Barbour then steps forward for his vocal feature of the set, offering a comical Donald Duck-voiced take on the standard "Sweet Lorraine," which the crowd responds to with a smattering of laughs. As Albers says after that performance, "That was a dirty trick to play on a good song. We should apologize before we go any further." Next up is their brand new arrangement of the wistful "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," a Tin Pan Alley number that was a hit for various singers during the big band era. Performed here for the second time, the a cappella sections of this harmonically rich ballad best showcase The Four Freshmen's beautifully sophisticated vocal blend. They follow with the lovely lament, "It's a Blue World," the group's first Capital single from 1952, and conclude their set on a raucous note with a rocking rendition of Billy Eckstine's shuffling "Mr. B's Blues" that features a potent flugelhorn solo by Albers.
More than 50 years later, The Four Freshmen are still together in name only (the original members have since been replaced by several different combinations of singers, but the signature close harmonies and mellow tones remain intact). Originally formed at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, the 20-year-olds were discovered by renowned bandleader Stan Kenton, who caught their act at the Esquire Lounge in Denton, Ohio in 1950 and immediately arranged for an audition with Capitol Records (his label at the time). Rooted in the barbershop tradition and influenced by such contemporary male vocal groups as The Mel-Tones (with Artie Shaw), The Pied Pipers (with Tommy Dorsey) and The Modernaires (Glenn Miller), The Four Freshmen set themselves apart from other ensembles by also accompanying themselves on instruments (a tradition that goes back to the Mills Brothers and Cats & The Fiddle). During six decades of performing around the world, The Four Freshman recorded 48 albums of popular material, with nods to such well known jazz standards as "What's New," "Star Eyes," "Chelsea Bridge," "My Funny Valentine," "Yesterdays" and "Mood Indigo." The influence of their polished, close harmonies can be heard in groups that followed in their wake, like The Lettermen, The Association, The Four Seasons, The Swingle Singers, New York Voices, The Manhattan Transfer, Take 6 and The Bobs. In his autobiography, Brian Wilson attributes the success of the Beach Boys' initial sound to the harmonic chord choices found in Four Freshmen arrangements, which is perhaps best exemplified by the lush vocal harmonies on Wilson's "In My Room."
The history of the group goes back to early 1948, when brothers Don and Ross Barbour formed a barbershop quartet while attending Butler University's Arthur Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis called Hal's Harmonizers. They gradually began incorporating more jazz-oriented repertoire and by the end of 1948 they began performing on the road until they had their chance encounter with Kenton nearly two years later, leading to their recording contract with Capitol. In 1952, they released their first hit single, "It's a Blue World" and scored another hit in 1954 with a lush take on Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo," followed by similar successes with "Day by Day" in 1955 and "Graduation Day" in 1956. The earned their first Grammy nomination in 1958 for The Four Freshmen in Person and repeated in 1961 with Voices in Fun and in 1962 with The Swingers.
The group made a number of television appearances through the 1950s and 1960s, eventually losing their mainstream following with the advent of the British Invasion of the mid '60s (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, etc.). But they maintained a full performance schedule through the '70s and '80s. The last original member of The Four Freshmen, Bob Flanigan, retired in 1992. Flanigan now manages the group and owns the rights to The Four Freshmen name. The current incarnation of The Four Freshmen features Brian Eichenberger (lead, guitar, keyboards, arranger), Curtis Calderon (second voice, trumpet, flugelhorn), Vince Johnson (third voice, bass, trombone, whistler, scatter, arranger), and Bob Ferreira (fourth voice, drummer, soloist). Their most recent recording is 2009's Live from Las Vegas' Suncoast Hotel and Casino. (Bill Milkowski)