The Four Freshmen were the most innovative and imitated jazz vocal quartet ever to grace vinyl. Innovative because of their unique concept of singing “open” harmony, moving the third and fifth notes of a chord an octave higher or lower, or using ninths and elevenths while dropping root notes of a chord. Emulated because every type of artist heart something fresh and exciting in their sound not only jazz groups, but acts as diverse as THE HARPTONES in the 50’s, THE BEACH BOYS of the 60’s, and THE MANHATTAN TRANSFER in the 70’s heard a redefinition of harmony that stirred their own imaginations. That doesn’t count THE HI-LOS, THE HILLTOPPERS, THE LETTERMEN, SPANKY AND OUR GANG, and THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS.
The group started out as Hal’s Harmonizers, with brothers Don and Ross Barbour, Hal Kratzsch, and Marvin Pruitt. All four members were students in 1947 at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music, a division of Butler University in Indianapolis. Hal convinced his music theory classmates that forming a barbershop quartet would be a great source of income.
Hal, from Warsaw, Indiana, sang and played bass as well as trumpet and mellophone. Don and Ross were raised in Columbus, Indiana; Don sang second tenor and played guitar while his younger brother Ross sang baritone and played trumpet. The top voice was Marvin’s. Decked out in Gay ‘90s apparel (armbands, exaggerated false moustaches, and waiters’ aprons) the quartet began singing “Sweet Adeline” at fairs and conventions until they became bored with the confinement of barbershop chords. Not wanting to give up the income base they became a second group, the Toppers.
As fans of Stan Kenton they began using diminished and augmented chords, creating a jazz vocal style, and sang at local malt shops near the school. They graduated to the LVL Club where an audition with a ribald army classic, They Stole My Wife While I Lay Sleeping,” earned them a three night a week job for the astounding sum of $5 a night each.
As their popularity grew so did the audiences and so did their first real problems: Marvin developed acute phobia of the masses in other words, stage fright.
By the spring of 1948 Marvin and his nervous condition had resigned from both groups. The Toppers then dropped the Harmonizers and with Nancy Sue Carson, Ross’s girlfriend (and future wife), pressed on. It became apparent that a fourth male voice was more appropriate for their sound, so Don and Ross contacted their cousin Bob Flanigan, who had sung with them as kids and lived 90 miles up the road from Columbus in Greencastle. Bob was in a high school quintet singing MODERNAIRES styled songs. He also played trombone and had a reverence for jazz greats Charlie Parker and big band trombonist Jack Teagarden. Bob’s phrasing, pitch, and musical ear sold the group on him as their new lead.
With combined influences ranging from Stan Kenton and Woody Herman to Mel Torme’s Meltones and the Pastels, the quartet developed a style of singing five-note chords with four voices; one voice would be shifting. None of the foursome were arrangers, so they worked out each song by ear, rehearsing in a parked car with the windows closed.
The group soon dropped out of school and drove to Chicago where they met agent Dick Shelton. The agent already had a group called the Cottontoppers, so he renamed the ex-first-year students the Freshmen Four. The guys reversed the words and debuted at the 113 Club in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on September 20, 1948. They nearly lost the job since the owner had never heard jazz chords, but his daughter had a crush on Hal and saved the day actually the week.
While playing the Midwest lounge circuit they shifted their instrumentation, with Hal and Bob alternating bass playing and brass solos and Ross moving from piano to drums while Don remained on guitar.
Their big break came on March 21, 1950, while playing the Esquire Lounge in Dayton, Ohio. Stan Kenton, who had been told at his own show earlier that night about a quartet in town that sounded like his 43-piece ensemble, was sitting in the audience. He was sufficiently impressed to send the Freshmen to New York to make a demo which he would take to Capitol Records president Glen Wallichs.
The demo was produced by Kenton’s former arranger, Pete Rugolo, and it contained “Laura,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Dry Bones,” and two other songs. In May, Kenton sent a letter telling the group to come west, and when they arrived their mentor arranged to have them perform at Jerry Wald’s Studio Club on Sunset Boulevard. The entertainment industry packed the club nightly to hear vocalizing as they’d never heard before; the one week job turned into eight weeks.
On October 13, 1950, the Freshmen recorded a rhythm and blues number called “Mr. B’s Blues,” which was released in November and became an instant collectors’ item. Next, Steve Allen took the quartet to New York for his new TV show, but after one week of grumbling from New York’s musicians union over the group’s nonmembership status, he sent them back to Los Angeles where they landed their first and only motion picture appearance in Rich, Young and Pretty with Jane Powell and Vic Damone.
Their second single, a soft ballad called “Now You Know” (January 1951), also failed to grab radio’s attention.
In their only session of 1951 the group recorded a Kenton-suggested “Tuxedo Junction,” but the vocal work was so intricate they had to lay down the instrumental track first and then do their complex scat vocals separately, reportedly the first time this kind of multitracking had been done. The second song, “It’s a Blue World,” had been a Tony Martin 1940 hit (#2), and upon completing the recording the group knew the song epitomized their style.
Capitol didn’t agree, canning the tape and dropping the Freshmen in December.
In May 1952 the group met up with Kenton in Chicago. Furious that Capitol gave up o his find, he demanded Capitol send demo copies of the songs to the group so they could promote it. That’s just what they did, breaking the record of “Blue World” in Detroit at WJBK and then at every other Detroit station.
By the time Capitol re-signed the quartet and issued the single in July it had lost some momentum but still became their first national chart record reaching number 30 in late August.
In the spring of 1953 after several years on the road, Hal Kratzsch decided he’d had enough of touring and asked the group to replace him.
In May they came up with Ken Errair of Redford Township, Michigan, and his first session in July was their next chart single, “It Happened Once Before” (#29, September 1953). The year ended with the group winning the coveted down beat poll as Best Jazz Vocal Group of 1953.
In August 1954 the Freshmen issued their first LP, titled Voices in Modern. It gave birth to their next chart single, the beautiful “Mood Indigo,” which reached number 24 on November 27, 1954.
In 1955 the group did a Jay Livingston-Ray Evans song called “How Can I Tell Her” for the film Lucy Gallant starring Charlton Heston and Jane Wyman. It came off so well they decided to try it as a single. The flip side, hastily chosen at the last minute, was Frank Sinatra’s 1946 hit “Day by Day” (#5). They gave the ballad an up-tempo Latin feel and waited to see what happened. Following a June release, radio gave cursory response to the film song and flipped the 45 chart single their fourth. The next Freshmen release, a Guy Lombardo 1927 smash (#1), gave them their first and only back-to-back top 100 number, reaching number 69 in December 1955.
The February 1956 Four Freshmen and Five Trombones LP set a standard for modern jazz vocal groups; it reached number six nationally and resided on the charts for over eight months.
Ken Errair, who had only a year before married actress Jane Withers, begged off of the road and was replaced by Ken Albers of Pitman, New Jersey, a member of the Stuarts jazz vocal group.
With Ken firmly in place, the Freshmen decided to break ground with new audiences and became one of the first groups to play college auditoriums and field houses. Now pursuing a younger audience, they came up with the relevant “Graduation Day,” their biggest chart hit at number 17 in the spring and summer of 1957. It might have been a top five hit had the song’s publisher not given it to Canada’s Rover Boys, who not only used it to get an ABC-Paramount record deal, but early on beat slow-moving Capitol to the marketplace with a version that finished at number 16.
In 1960 the group recorded the masterful “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring.” It so enchanted a young Brian Wilson that he lifted the vocal arrangement note for note, fist as “A Young Man Is Gone” (Little Deuce Coupe LP) and then under the original title for the Live Beach Boys ’69 LP. (Wilson even dropped by the Freshmen’s office in Hollywood during the Beach Boys’ formative years to secure copies of their vocal charts.) The Beach Boys ultimately found their niche playing Chuck Berry rhythms with Four Freshmen harmonies, but they did direct credit to the Freshmen.
In 1960 Don Barbour became the next to leave, replaced by Bill Comstock from Delaware, Ohio (also of the Stuarts). The group stayed with Capitol till 1965, then moved briefly to Decca and Liberty. In 1972 Bill Comstock left and in 1977 Ross Barbour followed. By 1982 Ken Albers had also retired from the group.
In 1986 they received a Grammy nomination for their 41st LP Fresh in the category of Best Jazz Vocal Performance Duo or Group.
Today, Bob Flanigan keeps the name and values of the Four Freshmen alive touring with three new and highly talented members, Autie Goodman, Mike Beisner, and Greg Stegeman. Hal Kratzsch went on to sing with THE SIGNATURES and died of cancer in November 1970. Don Barbour never finished the work he started on his solo LP for Capitol having died in a car accident on October 5, 1961. Capitol issued The Solo Voice of Don Barbour the following year. Ken Errair did one Capitol solo album in 1957 called Solo Session and then went into California real estate. He died in a small plane crash on June 14, 1968.
The Four Freshmen legacy is based not only on the music they created but also on their unswerving determination and courage in establishing a new sound that would make them a cornerstone of vocal group history.
– Jay Warner
A vocal group from the 1950s taking inspiration from barbershop quartets and Mel Tormé’s Mel-Tones, the Four Freshmen’s close-harmony vocals went on to become a major influence on pop groups like the Beach Boys as well as the jazz-oriented Manhattan Transfer. Originally formed as the barbershop group Hal’s Harmonizers by brothers Ross and Don Barbour, the duo became a small jazz band named the Toppers, but later that year, the duo added lead vocalist Bob Flanagan (their cousin) and Hal Kratzsch to become the Four Freshmen. Soon after coming together, the quartet gained the notice of both Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, the latter of whom connected the group with Capitol Records.
Early in the 1950s, the Four Freshmen gained their first hit with “It’s a Blue World,” previously recorded by Tony Martin and Glenn Miller (and later by both Tormé and Frank Sinatra). Kratzsch left in 1953, and his replacement Ken Errair was himself replaced two years later by Ken Albers. The Four Freshmen had several moderate hits during the years 1953-56, including “It Happened Once Before,” “Mood Indigo,” “Day by Day” and “Graduation Day.” The group entered the LP era in the late ’50s with several album hits, including their instrument series (Four Freshmen and 5 Trombones, 4 Freshmen and 5 Trumpets, etc.). Though Don Barbour left in 1960, the group kept on going with replacements, with Bob Flanagan becoming the only original member still left after Ross Barbour’s departure in 1977. In one form or another, the Four Freshmen continued to tour into the 1990s.
— John Bush