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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.