The Four Freshmen


Introduction for The Four Freshmen

The Four Freshmen are an American jazz vocal group which have had a long and fruitful career in the music industry, and they still perform up to this day although with all newer members – for the last original Freshmen Bob Flanigan had retired in 1993. Particularly during their heyday, the Four Freshmen were unique for the fact that although they were first and foremost a vocal group, the band members also accompanied themselves on various instruments that they themselves played. Since some of the members performed more than one instrument, they would switch roles among each other. The nucleus of the Four Freshmen were two brothers Ross and Don Barbour, who both studied music at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1948 they formed together a barbershop quartet, called Hal’s Harmonizers, with Marvin Pruitt, Hal Kratzsch and Flanigan who replaced Pruitt. Their repertoire were jazz and big band music, and the group derived their early influences from The Modernaires and Mel-Tones. The Four Freshmen’s talents were soon discovered by big band leader and renowned jazz musician Stan Kenton, who brought the group to Capitol Records, with which the Four Freshmen would have a long and fruitful relationship. Their first single, “It’s A Blue World”, was released in 1952. They would score more hits such as “Moon Indigo”, “Charmaine”, “Day By Day”, and “Graduation Day”. The Four Freshmen’s albums were also consistently placing high on the Billboard 200 especially between the years 1956 to 1960, with Four Freshmen and Five Trombones and 4 Freshmen and 5 Trumpets both ranking on Top 10. They never ran out of bookings which kept them going up until the early 1960s. When the British Invasion swept America in the early to mid-1960s, The Four Freshmen’s mainstream appeal began to fade, although they never disbanded. They continued to perform their own kind of music, easily placing them on the easy-listening department. Over the years the band have undergone various personnel changes and continued to perform, record and release a number of LPs and singles. They have also won numerous awards and citations, including the Best Vocal Group of the Year by Downbeat Magazine’s Reader’s polls numerous times, the first being in 1953 and the last (as of yet) in 2001. They Four Freshmen were also nominated in the Grammy Vocal Group Perfomance four times. The last original member Bob Flanigan retired from actively performing in the group during the early 1990s, and served as their manager. He died in 2011, aged 84. Ross Barbour also died in 2011, aged 82. The current incarnation of the band consists of Brian Eichelberger, Curtis Calderon, Vince Johnson, and Bob Ferreira. The Four Freshmen Society is a convention held in Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, the origin of the group. It has been held since its formation in 2008, and fans (called “Society members”) have been attending the convention as a way of honoring the Four Freshmen’s longevity in the music industry. 

The early years of The Four Freshmen

The American all-male vocal band The Four Freshmen scored a few moderate hits during the 50s music era such as “It’s a Blue World,” “Charmaine” and “Graduation Day.” Hailing from Indianapolis, California, the group was started by the Barbour brothers Ross and Don who were also the founders of the barbershop quartet The Harmonizers in 1948. The group also consisted of Hal Kratzsch and Marvin Pruitt who was later replaced by Bob Flanigan.

The group soon embraced a more jazz style. At first, they derived inspiration from Glenn Miller’s the Modernaires and Mel-Tones of Mel Torme, but eventually learned to improvise  their own vocal harmonies. At first they called themselves the Toppers, but eventually toured as the Four Freshmen. Their jazzy leanings earned the admiration of jazz legends like Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie.

The Four Freshmen’s releases and hit singles

In 1950 band leader Stan Kenton discovered the Four Freshmen and arranged for them to an audition at Capitol Records. They made it, and later that year they released their first single on Capitol, “Mr. B’s Blues.” They also made their first and only movie together, Rich, Young and Pretty.

Despite releasing a few more singles on Capitol over the next two years, the Four Freshmen weren’t able to achieve any commercial success. The flops eventually prompted the label to drop them. However, this infuriated Kenton who demanded to Capitol that the latter send them the demos so that they could get the songs on the radio by themselves. When one of their songs “It’s a Blue World,” eventually charted at #30 on the Billboard pop chart in 1952, Capitol re-signed them in July that same year.

Kratzsch, who felt exasperated because of constant touring, left the group and was replaced by Ken Errair in 1953. That same year, the next single “It Happened Once Before” peaked at #29 on the pop chart.

In 1954 the group covered the jazz classic “Mood Indigo,” which was featured on their LP Voices in Modern. The following year the Four Freshmen scored a couple of hits: “Day by Day” (#72 pop) and “Charmaine” (#69 pop). In 1956 they achieved their highest-charting single yet with “Graduation Day,” which became a Top 20 pop hit at #17.

The album Four Freshmen and 5 Trombones (1955) peaked at #6 on the Billboard album chart, setting the standard for jazz vocal groups. In 1960, they cut a session with “This Hearts Were Full of Spring” that was later covered by The Beach Boys in 1963, changing its title to “A Young Man Is Gone.”

Although they weren’t able to score any more hit singles, the Four Freshmen continued to release albums that still did well commercially up to the early 60s music era.

Recent years

The Four Freshmen still continued to perform and release singles, attracting nostalgia-seekers and oldies music enthusiasts.  In 1993, the last original member Bob Flanigan decided to retire from performing in order to manage the new breed of The Four Freshmen. On May 15, 2011, Flanigan died from congestive heart failure. Months later, one of the founders, Ross Babrbour died of cancer on August 20, 2011. The legacy of the group was passed over from generation to generation, still actively performing up to this day. The recent members of The Four Freshmen (as of 2015) include Tommy Boynton, Curtis Calderon, Stein Malvey and Bob Ferreira.

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