The Four Freshmen first hit the pop charts in 1952 with “It’s a Blue World,” a vocal harmony feast introducing a rich, sophisticated sound that stood out on radio playlists filled with songs by Johnny Ray, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, Frankie Lane and Rosemary Clooney.
The quartet would have several more hits over the next few years, including “Mood Indigo,” “Day by Day” and “Graduation Day.” However, as rock-n-roll took over the music world in the late ‘50s, the Freshmen were among the many performers swept off the pop music scene by the new sound. By the mid ‘60s the group was virtually unknown to the teenybopping record buyers of the era.
But Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys hadn’t forgotten them or their expansive harmonies. By wedding their gorgeous vocal blend with the rudimentary blues licks of Chuck Berry, he created his own distinctive, wildly popular sound. And he never failed to mention them as a primary influence on his band’s music.
“The Beach Boys really loved the Freshmen,” Vince Johnson told me earlier this month. “They took the sound of the soaring harmonies and the high voice, and they turned it into a little more simple-to-understand harmony. And it really caught on.”
Johnson is one of the four young men carrying on the Four Freshmen name and sound these days. They’ll be in Norfolk Friday night for a Jazz on Granby concert at the Roper Performing Arts Center. They’ve been consistent crowd pleasers in previous appearances here and are among promoter Blake Cullen’s personal favorites.
But I wondered how four guys born in the 1970s were even aware of the Four Freshmen, much less interested in singing their songs and playing their music.
“The other guys joined in different ways,” Johnson said, “but me, I was a fan just following the group. Probably around junior high school is when I was first exposed to jazz and this kind of music, and I really enjoyed it. When I heard the Freshmen, it was just a sound that clicked in my head. I thought this is great what these guys are doing; ‘Cool,’ I think, is a good word for it. So for me, it ended up being what I wanted to do.”
Like the original foursome that got together back in 1948 at Butler University in Indianapolis, the current lineup is a self-contained unit, singing four-part harmonies and playing their own instruments. Each is an accomplished musician—lead singer Brian Eichenberger plays guitar, Curtis Calderon plays trumpet, Bob Ferreira is the drummer and Johnson plays bass and trombone.
“What I think is great about the tradition of the group,” Johnson explained, “is that we’re doing the same instruments they did when they first started. That, to me, is what the Freshmen sound is all about. We’re trying to keep that sound the way that it was when they were doing it.
“The Freshmen have gone through quite a lot of generations with a lot of technological change. The first thing that affected them was the Beach Boys and The Beatles changing the music industry. Before that, jazz was a popular music. Duke Ellington was being played on popular radio; the Four Freshmen were being played on the radio too. So music has gone through a huge change since 1952 when ‘It’s a Blue World’ came out and I think it’s wonderful how we can still keep it going and keep the same sound through all of these different electronic ages.
“We do a lot of the original arrangements and sing the exact same notes that the original four sang. They’re so great—the way the guys put the voices together is a very special thing.”
But lest you think this edition of the Four Freshmen is a mere revival outfit or nostalgia trip, Johnson notes that they continue to expand the repertoire, making new recordings and writing new arrangements:
“In Session, the new CD, is all brand new arrangements. They’re jazz standards or songs from the Great American Songbook that we have done brand new arrangements of in the Freshmen style. We like to tune into our four specific voices, and the new, more contemporary arrangements have a little bit of a new spin on the Freshmen sound because there’s a few different harmonies that they might not have done in the ‘50s, but were starting to do later.
“The original group was really innovative too. At that time, the sounds that they were making with their voices were sounds that were only being made by instruments, maybe even more complex and sophisticated harmonies than on instruments. I think bringing that concept to the group now in 2007 is a neat thing to do, to put even newer harmonies in and make it contemporary.
“We have complete control of the music and we could do all new arrangements if we wanted to, but I think the fans want to hear ‘It’s a Blue World,’ ‘Graduation Day’ and some of the older songs. It’s probably 60 percent stuff that has already been done and 40 percent new arrangements, that’s what we’re doing now.”
And they have the blessings of the two living members of the original quartet.
“Bob Flanigan, the original lead singer, trombone player and bass player is 80 now, and he comes to three or four shows each year. And Ross Barbour is still with us too. Of the very first group, those are the two gentlemen who are still here.
“Bob and Ross like to call us and talk about everything. They don’t tell us what to do, but they appreciate what we’re doing with it. And I think it’s wonderful that they give their stamp of approval—they were very particular about the music the way they wanted to do it. So we really appreciate the fact that they like what we’re doing.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.