Four Freshmen and Me
I stumbled the other day onto a Youtube site about the singing group, the Four Freshmen. Back in 1948 the original group was four actual freshmen at Butler University, discovered by band leader Stan Kenton who led them to a recording contract with Capitol. By the late 1950s their jazz oriented, closely layered harmonies on many standards from the American Song Book enraptured me. I went to see and hear them when ever they performed at the Prom Ballroom in Saint Paul, across the river from my home in north Minneapolis. The original members were Bob Flanigan, Ross Barbour, Don Barbour, and Ken Albers. They were instrumentalists as well as vocalists. The high tenor lead singing of Bob Flanigan helped create a unique sound, one that Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys later said he tried to emulate. He said he wanted to sing that high lead like Flanigan and you can hear Wilson clearly doing so on the Beach Boys’ recording of “Surfer Girl” among other of their recordings.
In the mid 50s I was in a vocal trio, something my friends and I started as a quartet in high school and continued as a trio after graduation. Our trio consisted of me, Ed Knutson, and Jerry Longie. Unlike the Four Freshmen none of us were instrumentalists so we sang acapella, doing some gigs in small downtown Minneapolis clubs, making very little money but enjoying the performing. We tried to create our own sound with tight harmonies, sometimes not too unlike the Four Freshmen.
Back then Jerry Longie had a part time job at a downtown parking lot just across 6th Street from a club called Murray’s, a popular restaurant and lounge that’s still there serving seafood and big steaks. Jerry discovered the Four Freshmen were going to be booked into Murray’s for a night or two. He was determined to get Bob Flanigan to listen to us and on a bitterly cold winter night, the three of us squeezed into the small parking lot attendant’s tiny booth with Flanigan who was on a break between sets of that evening’s performance at Murray’s. For Flanigan we sang “Autumn Leaves,” an arrangement we more or less styled after the sound of the Freshmen, with me on the high tenor lead. As I recall, Flanigan was tall, dark haired and wore a dark blue overcoat, collar turned up high, standing jammed into that booth with we three young wannabees. I don’t remember much more of that night other than the Minnesota cold, our breathing frosting over the glass of the attendant’s booth, and at the end of our song Flanigan giving us a generous compliment, wishing us luck and saying, “I’ll see you on the road.”
I was going to the University of Minnesota then. I was married and had one child with another on the way. There would be two more before I finished at the University. Ed and Jerry wanted our trio to go on the road, determined to become successful in the difficult world of show business. But I was committed to finishing my pursuit of a degree from the University so I declined and wished them luck. I don’t think I was yet totally focused on a career in photography although I know I had ambitions to be a writer. A college education wasn’t really pushed in my family; getting a job, preferably one with security such as a job with the city was favored. However, I was determined to go beyond that, although I wasn’t at all sure just how.
As things worked out Ed and Jerry found a replacement for me in the trio and took to the road as a folk singing group, not exactly in the Four Freshmen’s style but folk music was then very much in vogue. They made a couple of recordings which I thought were good but after just a couple of years they came off the road and followed other careers and day jobs for the rest of their lives.
When I hear the voices of the original Four Freshmen group on Youtube or put on one of my Freshmen LPs, it always brings me great pleasure. To hear “It’s a Blue World” with those extraordinarily smooth vocal moves is to experience something quite special. Their sound was so intricate and elegant. There have been about 22 different groups of Four Freshmen over the more than 60 years since the original members. The group I’ve been listening to lately on Youtube is from about six or seven years ago and they were phenomenal, so close to the original Four Freshmen sound although I don’t believe they are still together. Through the years the groups have varied with one or two members now and then being replaced with passing time. Many days away on the road has always been a reason for such a group not being able to sustain consistency in membership. Touring constantly leaves little time for family life if one has a family.
Bob Flanigan was the last member of the original Four Freshman to leave the group, finally stepping aside in about 1992 and passing away in 2011 at the age of 84. There has been for some time a Four Freshmen Society whose members meet annually to confer, discuss and trade their collection of Freshmen LPs and their best meeting the Four Freshmen in person memories. I believe they usually manage to have the current Four Freshmen group perform at the convention. When I see some of those Four Freshmen Society gatherings on Youtube I wonder out loud that, whoa….those folks look awfully old. Then I think that turning 80 at the end of this September probably makes me easily eligible for being in such a society of Four Freshmen appreciators. I certainly would qualify considering the love we all share for that unique sound. It’s a sound that resonates every bit as good to me today as it did on those nights in the 1950s at the Prom Ballroom in Saint Paul when I was standing up close to the stage listening to “I Remember You.” Hearing those voices blending so perfectly resonated in my heart and mind the way music can when it’s truly wonderful. Those were cherished nights and moments back then; nights when the world and I were so much younger and life so promising.