Harmony Lane: The Four Freshmen celebrate 60 harmonious years

Universally hailed as pioneers of the jazz-infused close harmony sound, the Four Freshmen have few rivals in the vocal group harmony field.
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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,” Flanigan said.

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) and 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 barbershop 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 Midwest 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