Don Barbour - vocals, guitar
Ross Barbour - vocals, drums
Bob Flanigan - vocals, bass, trombone
Ken Albers - vocals, trumpet, mellophone
On the surface, the appearance of the Four Freshman at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival might seem an odd booking. And yet, the vocal group from Indiana had done recordings with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and with arranger Pete Rugolo which received critical acclaim. The members of the group also played instruments while singing and in at least a couple of cases were solidly swinging jazz improvisers. But it was their ability to create lush, harmonically sophisticated chord voicings within appealing pop songs that gained them a wide following. Not as swinging and full of improvisational verve as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, to be sure, but ambitious nonetheless. The four gentlemen comprising The Four Freshmen - brothers Don and Ross Barbour, Bob Flanigan and Ken Albers - charmed the Newport audience with their professionally run show, which included renditions of quite a few jazz standards. Their July 2nd set was marred, however, by the presence of a stubbornly out-of-tune guitar, which Don Barbour struggled with throughout course of the show. Nevertheless, the Newport crowd can be heard cheering for more at the end of their hour-long performance at Freebody Park in Newport, Rhode Island.
Following Newport program announcements from master of ceremonies Willis Connover from Voice of America and band introductions from The Four Freshmen spokesman, drummer Ross Barbour, they kick it off with a snappy, upbeat rendition of George Gershwin's "Somebody Loves Me." While it is clear from the outset that Don Barbour's guitar is badly out of tune and distorting through the sound system, they plow ahead and Ken Albers delivers a decidedly jazz trumpet solo in the middle of that oft-covered chestnut, which is underscored by Ross' deft brushwork on the kit. "You're All I See" is a bit of lush schmaltz with an appealing trombone solo by Bob Flanigan while the exotic "Grenada" features a opening trumpet fanfare by Albers that sets the proper tone for this flamenco flavored piece. Guitarist Don Barbour I heard trying to adjust his intonation in time for the fourth tune, the harmonically rich jazz ballad "Angel Eyes," to no avail. But in spite of his rough going, trombonist Flanigan delivers a beautiful trombone solo that salvages the gorgeous piece.
They swing their way through "There Will Never Be Another You," with drummer Ross Barbour setting a brisk tone with his brushwork and Flanigan offering another convincing trombone solo. The intonation problems on the guitar are eliminated on the next piece - an acappella version of the wistful ballad "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." Then drummer Ross steps forward for his vocal feature of the set, offering a comical Donald Duck voiced take on the standard "Sweet Lorraine," which the crowd seems to respond to with good natured laughs. A mambo rendition of "Day by Day," a big hit for the group in 1955," features another potent trombone solo by Flanigan and The Four Freshmen close their set on a rousing note with "Mr. B's Blues," their first single cut in 1950 for Capitol which launched them on their way.
Sixty 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. (Milkowski)