Four Freshmen + Five Trombones = One Fabulous Album (And A Father-Daughter Dance)

Most of my classic jazz posts highlight an individual performance or an entire career. Only a few highlight a particular album that is especially noteworthy. We did this with June Christy’s “Something Cool “(1954) and the Miles Davis Nonet’s “Birth Of The Cool” (1949). A long and agonizing decision over just the right song for a dance with my daughter at her wedding brought me back to another stellar album. In 1956, a group called The Four Freshmen released the album “Four Freshmen And Five Trombones”, which launched the group into the big leagues (which continues to the present) and influenced some others who became quite successful themselves.

There were lots of male vocal groups as the 1940’s turned into the 1950’s. Many of them made several hits but have become little more than background music for their era. The Four Freshmen had maybe two radio hits (modest ones, at that) but they broke new ground in adapting the musical language of postwar jazz into a unique vocal style – a style that has stood up extremely well through the passage of the decades. And for this Hoosier blogger, there is also a hometown connection as a bonus.

Brothers Don and Ross Barbour had grown up in Columbus, Indiana and, after a stint in the military, enrolled in 1947 as freshmen at Butler University’s Jordan Conservatory of Music in Indianapolis. With buddy Hal Kratzsch (from Warsaw, Indiana) and another friend, they started a barbershop quartet. But as fans of jazz, they soon became bored with barbershop harmonies and branched out into modern styles as “The Toppers”. When the 4th singer dropped out, the Barbours reached out to their cousin Bob Flanagan (from Greencastle, Indiana) to join them. After some local appearances, they met an agent, changed their name to The Four Freshmen and had their official debut at a long-gone nightspot in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1948.

The Four Freshmen, c. 1948. Hal Kratzsch (left), Bob Flanigan (top center), Don Barbour (bottom center) and Ross Barbour (right).

In March of 1950 they were singing in a Dayton, Ohio lounge when Stan Kenton came through town with his 43-piece band. Someone told Kenton about a group that sounded like his band, and Stan had to go see. He liked what he heard and took them to LA where he got them signed to Capitol Records. After some forgettable recordings, the group taped another couple of songs in late 1951, including a version of “It’s A Blue World”. Capitol decided that the Freshmen were never going to get anywhere and cut them. Kenton demanded that Capitol at least give the Freshmen the recording to see if they could sell it anywhere else. After some plugging to local radio stations, the song got some traction – and Capitol re-signed them and released it on their label in 1952.

A “Soundie” film from no later than 1953 with the original personnel, left to right: Ross Barbour, Hal Kratzsch, Don Barbour, Bob Flanigan. Kratzsch left the group in 1953 and his bass voice was replaced by Ken Errair.

“It’s A Blue World” nailed what would become “the Freshmen Formula” – the use of jazz chords and lush, innovative harmonies that came together in an unmistakable sound. The guys were also accomplished instrumentalists, with Flanagan on trombone and string bass, Ross Barbour on drums, Don Barbour on guitar and Kratsch on trumpet. They built their vocals arrangements by trial and error, basing their sound on groups like The Mel-Tones and on Stan Kenton’s strong trombone section. They could sing chords of more than four notes by shifting voices in the middle of a chord, and pulled chords out of songs that nobody else knew were there.

Four Freshmen and Five Trombones was the group’s second album. The first (Voices In Modern, 1954) had been a mishmash of the sublime and some that completely lacked the Freshmen magic. This follow up effort, however, was built from the start as a single concept. The arrangements were by Kenton alum Pete Rugolo (who was also a VIP at Capitol) and featured five heavy-hitter trombone players (with a few other pieces) that worked beautifully with the vocals. This album is proof of my belief that there is not enough trombone music in the world.

The lead track, “Angel Eyes” sets the concept with a moody arrangement of a great saloon song that has been sung by anyone who was anyone in jazz, most memorably by Frank Sinatra in his 1958 album “Only the Lonely”.

Everything you need to know about the Four Freshmen can be found in this track. There is Flanagan’s strong, clear tenor at the top, with bass and middle tones all woven together in ways that constantly change and blend into a vocal synergy in which 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 somehow equals something approaching infinity.

Readers here know that I love jazz that is fast and loud. While the Freshmen included some up-tempo pieces in this album (this one, called “Love” is an example), it is the ballads that keep me coming back to this album over and over. I am not alone, because the album hit the charts and stayed there for 8 months, topping out at number 6. In November of 1956 the album placed 5th in Billboard Magazine’s 9th annual Disc Jockey poll – bested only by albums from Sinatra, the cast of My Fair Lady, Harry Bellefonte and Ella Fitzgerald.

“I Remember You” is another gorgeous rendition that proves that jazz and a beautiful ballad can coexist in a single recording. This tune features lyrics by Johnny Mercer that are said to have been inspired by his brief affair with Judy Garland. This song is not nearly as well known as some others, but after hearing this version I have been hard pressed to find a better one.

When my daughter asked me to pick a song for our father-daughter dance at her wedding, I agonized over that choice for a long while. It had to be something classic, but not something that has been overused to the point of cliche’. Many of my favorites had lyrics that, to put it politely, did not translate well to the context of the love of a father for his only daughter.

I bought an original issue of this album in the late 70’s when perusing some vintage discs in a used book store – along with the group’s 1957 effort “Four Freshmen And Five Trumpets”. During my deep dive into classic danceable jazz my mind went back to this one and, on listening to the lyrics, realized that I had a winner. I did not know it until researching for this piece that George Gershwin wrote the lyrics in tribute to his brother Ira, shortly after Ira’s untimely death. Gershwin’s words resonated with me in this context too. This song never used to bring tears to my eyes, but it does now.

Certain albums remain relevant as time continues its march, and this is one of them. It was included in Tom Moon’s 2008 book “100 Albums To Hear Before You Die”, where he describes it as “one of the great underappreciated records during the transitional period during the middle ’50’s when pop and rock were on opposite trajectories.” It also made the cut in the 2007 edition of “The Mojo Collection” of the greatest albums of all time. If you want to listen to the entire album (and you absolutely should), you can find it here.

If some of these remind you a little of The Beach Boys, there is a reason for that. Several sources say that this was the first album purchased by Brian Wilson, who absorbed almost everything the Freshmen did over several years. Wilson has openly credited the older group as the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ harmonies.

The Four Freshmen of late 1953 to late 1956 – Ken Errair (3rd from left) replaced Hal Kratzsch. Other members are the same with Ross and Don Barbour (left and right) and Bob Flanagan (second from left). This was the group that did the album featured today.

One secret to the Freshmen’s longevity is the way in which members have been replaced one-at-a-time, going back to almost the beginning. Hal Kratsch was replaced by Ken Errair in 1953, who was replaced (after this album) by Ken Albers in 1957. Don Barbour left in 1960 and his brother Ross in 1977. Bob Flanagan was with the group for longer than anyone else, from 1948 to 1992. But even with the original members long gone, the Freshmen are still a going concern and have maintained the group’s unique sound.

The Four Freshmen have made many, many albums over the decades. Some have hewed more towards a pop sensibility while others towards jazz (like a 1974 live performance at their alma mater Butler University, backed by the Stan Kenton band). But this album remains one that fans come back to over and over. Even the weakest track is good, and the best are sublime. Good enough for a father’s send-off of his only daughter, even.

Further reading:

U Discover Music published a piece on this album here

For a more detailed discussion on why the Freshmen sound was special and how they made it that way, read here .

COAL update: We cross the halfway mark in this series with one of my most fun cars ever. Looks can be deceiving.

16 thoughts on “Four Freshmen + Five Trombones = One Fabulous Album (And A Father-Daughter Dance)

  1. Great entry and a lot more than I ever knew about them! You can certainly go down the rabbit hole researching jazz style singing groups, and in my youth, it was Manhattan Transfer, before I got more interested and started looking backward the group singing earlier manifestations. Gotta say, I love the trombone, tho, and scout the YouTube’s for modern players like the Maniacal 4: they’re Witchita Lineman worth a listen…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rabbit holes are my thing, for good or ill. I was a big Manhattan Transfer fan back in the late 70s/early 80s. They could go a lot of directions in the kind of material they recorded and did some great stuff. I will have to look for some of those newer groups.

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  2. Wow I totally heard Surfer Girl in that, I could picture the lyrics
    Little surfer little one
    Made my heart come all undone
    Do you love me, do you surfer girl
    Popping up at any second. I guess nothing is ever completely new, just a previous idea tweaked or improved somehow.

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  3. I took a deep dive into The Beach Boys about a decade ago in my early twenties. Part of the designated listening was the Four Freshman. For as much as Brian Wilson’s musical genius is considered today, there was no greater influence on the vocal harmonies he welded and produced, though Gershwin’s arrangements were important to most of their avant-garde material too. Wilson was able to extrapolate the combined sounds of the Freshmen’s vocal harmonies into a variety of incongruent instruments in a “wall of sound” format that created all kinds of astonishing pieces. All within the format of pop! Or baroque pop. But I’m no Robert Christgau.

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    • I have been a casual fan of the Beach Boys from the time I was a kid, but realize that my experience has been pretty shallow. It shall joint the list of groups/genres that are waiting in their own rabbit holes.

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  4. From the opening notes of “Angel Eyes” and the remaining choices you made, all I heard were The Beach Boys. The harmonies are remarkably similar, as is the use of brief solos.

    Good for you in choosing your father-daughter dance song, J P, especially you as a music aficionado. My daughter chose our song for her wedding (Heartland’s “I Loved Her First” because we are a country music household), but I probably would’ve chosen differently if given the chance.

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    • Choosing the dance song was a job assigned to me by the bride. But I am sure I would have been fine with one that she would have picked out too. There are a lot of good ones that specifically fit the occasion, but most of them are more modern.

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  5. Interesting about the Freshman’s connection to the Beach Boys and their influence on the latter’s great harmonies. While I don’t know anything about jazz (except what I’ve gleaned from your posts since following you), I do know the Beach Boys, having seen them every Summer during college when my friends and I had series lawn seats at Pine Knob. And I saw them twice the Summer of ’76 when I saw them at the Toronto Exhibition. To think they developed their smooth harmonies from a jazz group is incredible to me. How nice your daughter asked you to pick out the music for the father-daughter dance at her wedding … that is nice.

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    • It would have been cool to see the Beach Boys live. I enjoyed their songs on the radio when I was a kid but should probably take a deeper dive into them at some point. And yes, I was happy that she wanted me to pick the music.

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      • They did a fun concert JP and I always saw them at outside venues. They put on quite a show and from the beginning of the concert, everyone was up and on their feet singing along as everyone knew the words and the Beach Boys loved the audience participation. I would like to go to a Jimmy Buffett concert sometime. His loyal base of Parrot Heads scoop up tickets as soon as they go on sale and he only appears one day only, and one concert only, at an outdoor venue here in Detroit. Some day hopefully.

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  6. You said you are at the halfway mark for posts (or cars) – so of all the cars you’ve collected in the years you have driven, you will have an equally larger amount of cars to follow – that sure is impressive. Well you were lucky you only came away from the accident with the jitters. I was with my parents when we were T-boned in the Mercury when the woman ran a stop sign. My father was a tool and diemaker at the Oakville (Ontario) Ford Plant and I remember him saying he had given cartons of cigarettes and other “rewards” to line workers for an extra coat of paint or other added amenities that I no longer recall. The damage was to the front end and the grille could not be matched to the old grille (maybe as it was built in Canada) and it had stalling issues after that. My father sold it eventually and got the 1972 Impala which was a Sunday car so he bought a VW Fastback. I would not go out for my learner’s permit in the Fastback as it had a clutch, so had to go with a friend of the family to practice.

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    • You were around the age when people first started deciding that they were not interested in learning how to shift gears. Earlier generations had not gotten a choice on that. My grandma used to tell a story that the first time she drove was to bring a car in from one of the farm fields when a storm was coming and my grandfather had to take the tractor back. He got it into first gear for her, and she stayed in first gear all the way back to the house. That would have been a slow trip! 🙂

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      • Yes, that’s true JP and we lost the millage at our high school and had to pay for driver’s training on our own. We never learned how to parallel park, let alone drive a car with gears. My VW Super Beetle had no clutch, but it had two speeds. I think you shifted into 2nd gear at 55 mph if I remember correctly.

        Well, I’ll bet your grandma was jittery taking that trip back to the house, which probably felt like a 100 miles and was one of those “are we there yet” moments for sure.

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