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The Four Freshmen

Butler University is located in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1948, the university lay witness to a harmonic rendezvous--a renaissance of harmonies untold to the human ear. What was to become of four freshmen who never stuck around long enough to become sophomores? They became, "THE FOUR FRESHMEN," and sent the nation into a harmonic rhapsody--trembling with the new vocal sonorities they gave birth too.

Lurking behind the shadows of the ivory walls, the four young men met, as freshmen, at Arthur Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis and formed a vocal quartet--average age of 20 years. They began singing together; they explored the harmonic relationship that soon gave birth to their wholeness definition as a modern vocal group. It didn’t take them long to become known, for on September 20th, 1948, they went on the road in search of fame and fortune--they found it! The Four Freshmen made their professional debut on September 20, 1948, at the "113 Club" in Fort Wayne, IN.

This couldn’t happen to a more deserving vocal group then The Four Freshmen. They managed to get booked into the Esquire Lounge in Dayton, Ohio, in 1950; a club where many aspiring young talent get discovered. When band leader, Stan Kenton, heard about the Freshmen at the Esquire, he dropped in for a set and was shaken loose with the incredible sound of The Four Freshmen. Stan got on the phone to Capitol Records, his label, and made arrangements for a recording audition at Capitol in New York; he paid for all expenses out of his pocket. "Sign them," he told his label!

On the album cover above we have, from left to right: Ken Albers replacing Ken Errair in 1956, who replaced original member Hal Kretzsch in 1953: The Barbour brothers, Ross and Don, and Bob Flanigan. Replacing a member of the Freshmen is not easy. The replacement must be a musician, have perfect pitch--intonation, good knowledge of chords, and be able to blend with the other members. In the case of Ken Albers, he could hear the intricate harmonies, sing the bottom note, play acoustic bass and improvise on trumpet and mellophone--you get the picture!

The Four Freshmen were the forerunners in using intricate block-harmony perpetuating one nuance after another. This innovative approach to a rich sound with four voices won them praise and awards from Billboard, Playboy, Downbeat, and a score of other publications. The Four Freshmen, with personal changes, were to experience five decades of popularity.

In addition to their incredible harmonic rendezvous with the greatest standards ever written, The Four Freshmen are a brass section and a rhythm section all in one; they accompany themselves, especially in a concert environment. All the members of the Freshmen are accomplished musician in their own right! For an example of the instrumentation used by the Freshmen in concert, we go to THE FOUR FRESHMEN-LIVE. CD-0101 produced by Hitchcock Media Records. The Freshmen played the following instruments: Ken Albers-Bass, trumpet, flugelhorn and tambourine, Ross Barbour-drums and trumpet, Bill Comstock-guitar and Bob Flanigan-bass and trombone.

The year, 1952; the place, Pasadena Civic Auditorium; the city, Pasadena, California. It was at this time and place I had the ordained pleasure of seeing and hearing the original Four Freshmen in concert. Being a 17 year old musician, I was delighted to see the array of musical instruments on stage: Trumpet, trombone, acoustic bass, guitar, snare drum and two cymbals, tom tom, and on the floor what looked like a tambourine--it appeared as though they were ready to play and sing just about any chart!

The Four Freshmen had a great sense for humor, as was evident when Ross Barbour introduced Bob Flanigan to play a trombone solo. It went down something like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Flanigan would like to play a solo on his trombone, with overhead valves, hot-spark ignition, racing cam ." The audience came through with charged particles of hand clapping. The concert was 50 years ago, so forgive me if I don’t remember the song.

Also in 1952, the Freshmen recorded their hit, a galactic frontier of sonorous, modern harmony, with a rendition of "It’s A Blue World." This recording swept the nation like a harmonic tidal wave; the record launched what was to be an uncompromising recording career for the Four Freshmen. "Graduation Day" was introduced by their hit record. And let there be love within the infinite layers of their uncanny musical breadth, as the Four Freshmen continue on their journey into the unknown sector of harmonic resolution.

In light of "Elvis’s" shake-a-leg legacy, the unsettled "Folk Singer" entourage, "Beatle-Rampage," and the "Acid Rock" eruption, the Four Freshmen continued on with a steady, on top-of-it-all series of albums--sales which have reached beyond the two million mark. Along with this success they have won every music poll during their years together. These four giants of the modern vocal world experienced an ongoing harmonic rendezvous with embellished chords untold within the heaving bosom of the popular music of their day--the heavenly rapture of sounds that will consummate the unchangeable vogue of The Four Freshmen--a wave of unending sonorities emanating from four fabulous voices!

In early 1956, after Ken Alber replaced Ken Errair, the Four Freshmen performed another colossal concert at Compton Junior College, Compton, California. The album from this incredible interstellar display of virtuosity is: THE FOUR FRESHMEN IN PERSON; Capitol Records High Fidelity T 1008. The Freshmen performing on this date were: Ken Alber-trumpet, mellophone, and bass, Ross Barbour-drums, Bob Flanigan-bass and trombone, and Don Barbour-guitar. The album has some great selections with "It’s A Blue World," their big hit of 1952, the chart that defines the essence of their signature. Then there’s "Day By Day," and despite their hundreds of performances, it never fails to rock the pillars of an auditorium. The Four Freshmen were already number one in popularity at college campuses all over America.

Still another marvelous chart from their IN PERSON album, "Somebody Loves Me," features an incredible solo from the trumpet artistry of Ken Albers who was considered one of the top modern jazz horn men of his time. All of the Four Freshmen are accomplished musicians and can play jazz with the best of them.

All of my record albums are worldly treasures, many are from the 1950’s. Contrary to popular belief that CD’s produce better fidelity, well, I leave this up to the listening ear. When a record album is protected--keeping the grooves clean, in the paper sleeve, and in the album cover. Add to that a close servalence of the stylus condition, and replacing it as needed. This ongoing procedure is the reason I can still play and enjoy my Four Freshmen albums.

The Four Freshmen were nominated for six Grammys ; these nominations are not given out by mere happenstance--they are earned. Enter, innovation. The Freshmen were unique--they gave birth to a new vocal quartet sound of modern jazz harmonies; they were the first male quartet to place the melody note on top of the chord; in concert performance, you will not see them reading sheet music; they select their notes with trained ears--harmonic instinct!

Melody note on top of the chord; what does this mean? Except for a triad (a three note chord), chords usually contain four notes. With the Freshmen, these notes are embellished, producing a nuance effect with every chord. An example would be a Cm6 chord with the melody being the 6th, or A. Below the 6th we have Em, C, and G. The Freshmen might drop the C down a half step to B and provide some dissonance. If you have a good foundation in harmony, you might try a few of you’re own examples with the lead note on top of the existing chord.

My first exposure to the Four Freshmen was in 1950 while playing tenor saxophone in the high school jazz band. I bought a few albums and soon I became captivated by their modern jazz harmonies. Only in the last decade-retirement-did I take an interest in the construction of their intricate harmony. I have yet to hear the Freshmen use vibrato; maybe at the tail end of a phrase--if any at all. I bring this up for a reason-- vocal intensity of their sound as felt and heard by listeners. I took a look at the audio electronics centered around the use of vibrato and no vibrato. Here’s what I hope will be a reader friendly scenario about waveforms of the music produced by the voices of Four Freshmen.

If we look at a voice signal--waveform--on an oscilloscope with no vibrato, we would see the fundamental tone, or note, and whatever harmonics are allied with the voice. If Don Borbour and Bob Flanigan were to sustain the same note with no vibrato, you might be able to tell which voice is which because of the distinct waveform of their individual voices. It’s the relative amplitude and phase of all the harmonics that give each voice it’s characteristic sound.

When using vibrato, it makes the waveform compress and stretch slightly. When this happens, more energy is required. Without the use of vibrato, several benefits arise: The Freshmen voices project with more energy which leads to more intensity, providing the listener with the most uncanny modern jazz vocal sound in the history of the music.

During their five decades of harmonic domination--the vocal world of modern jazz vocalizing, the Four Freshmen under went several personal changes. In 1992, Bob Flanigan retired from performing and remained on as personal manager. After the Freshmen were on their way with the great sound they created, Bob Flanigan had this to say about their sound:

"After we first heard ourselves make that sound, we never wanted to sing any other way."

When we move ahead to the twenty-first century we find today’s Four Freshmen in the photo at left; courtesy of FreshFan-Dan de la Torre. The photo was taken in Las Vegas in early 2002 I have yet to hear the Freshmen of today. I’m certain they covet the Freshmen name with respect; add to that, the use of embellished modern harmonics.

Aside from their wardrobe, what stands out in the photo is the bass played by Vince Johnson; a solid piece of wood with four strings terminating into a microphone pick-up and then to an amplifier. This bass is not what Ross Barbour would call a, ‘violin with hormones’--acoustic bass. In my many years as a musician, I have worked with a few solid-body basses; they do not, and never will, have the illustrious sound of the acoustic bass!

One could go on writing about the five-decade career of the fabulous Four Freshmen. However, by now you should know who they are and the unique contribution they have made to the modern jazz arena of the vocal quartets. Here are a few closing words about the Four Freshmen:

The modern musical wonder born from four innovative freshmen who were responsible for the "Harmonic Renaissance of 1948," will continue ad infinitum. The name, "The Four Freshmen," prevails with continuance; in that it shall uphold the reputation of the four entrepreneurs who opened the door to a harmonic revelation--a new and refreshing music of a modern vocal quartet--using embellished harmonies.

About the author:

Richard V. Duffy has been a musician since 1948--clarinet. In 1950, the tenor saxophone became his lifetime companion. Later with the help of a few arranging books, he taught himself to arrange music for big bands--10 to 20 pieces; especially for his own big band.

Upon retiring from 28 years of aerospace engineering at TRW, Redondo Beach, California, he moved to Mexico for what turned out to be an eight-year writing sabbatical. Of his many literary works, jazz articles for, others in France and Italy, many articles on the Internet, two novels, three years researching Albert Einstein, and in the last three years, his masterpiece, "THE ABYSS OF JAZZ." The most unorthodox and powerful dissertation about jazz existent; now published "online" by The ABYSS is a culmination of over 50 years of exposure, experience, and knowledge of the subject--JAZZ!

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