In September, 2011 I attended the 24th annual convention of the Four Freshmen Society. I tried to be an objective reporter, but I had a good time and met many lovely Freshmen Society members. I hope this piece reflects both of those things.
It isn’t a pretty morning in Toledo. A sky like an unbroken slate hangs over the glass city, and across the Maumee River a factory belches a long plume of smoke endlessly up into the gray ceiling. Though it’s a warm afternoon in early fall the modest downtown feels deserted and it seems like every block has at least one building with boards across its windows or chains blocking its doors. It’s almost as if Toledo itself was wishing to return to the shinier, more prosperous days of its industrial past.
But a more cheerful scene can be found inside the grand ballroom of the Park Inn hotel on Summit street. A gathering of about 50 people, overwhelmingly seniors, has assembled in small groups around white-clothed tables. Onstage at the front of the room a makeshift combo is carefully making its way through a rendition of the jazz standard “Fools Rush In.” The congregation, eyes glued to shared fake books, is quietly singing along with the music. But instead of carrying a single melody line the group is attempting to harmonize along with the score’s sophisticated vocal arrangement. And they’re not doing a half bad job of it.
I’ve come to Toledo to attend the twenty-fourth annual convention of the Four Freshmen Society, an organization devoted to supporting “the greatest vocal group in history.” Despite this appellation, if you’re not a fan of vocal jazz you may not know who the Four Freshmen are. Here’s the relatively short version of a long story: The Four Freshmen is a four piece jazz group that got its start at Indiana’s Butler University in 1948, when Pee Wee Hunt’s “Twelfth Street Rag” was top of the pops and Alger Hiss was busy defending himself to HUAC. The Freshmen distinguished themselves from other acts of the era by singing lush close harmony vocals (similar to a barbershop quartet) while playing their own instruments. In 1950 big band leader Stan Kenton got a tip about the young combo, whose vocal style was said to emulate his own trombone section, and went to see them play in Dayton, Ohio. Kenton was so impressed that he began lobbying his label, Capitol Records, to sign them. The Freshmen eventually cut three singles for Capitol, but after the first two received lukewarm receptions the label was considering dropping the band from its roster. But in 1952 the band managed to put copies of their final single into the hands of a few Detroit disc jockeys to promote a local gig at a bowling alley. That single, “It’s a Blue World,” soon became their first hit.
A string of record releases, television appearances, and tour dates followed throughout the 1950’s and early ‘60s. The group’s hits included signature renditions of “Mood Indigo,” “Day by Day,” “How Can I Tell Her?” and “Graduation Day.” During this time the Four Freshmen were nominated for a handful of Grammy Awards and garnered best vocal group honors five times in DownBeat magazine’s yearly reader’s poll.
But the group’s star began to shine less brightly during the 1960s. Bass player Hal Kratzsch grew weary of life on the road and was the first of the foursome to leave in 1953. Guitarist Don Barbour followed suit in 1960 and died in a tragic car accident the very next year. By the 70s and 80s the group had fallen out of musical fashion and onto hard times. Don’s brother Ross finally called it quits in 1977 leaving only Bob Flanigan, trombonist and lead voice of the group, as the sole remaining original member.
Big and brash, Bob Flanigan proved to be a rock of stability and the band continued to record and tour in various manifestations for another decade and a half. Flanigan finally retired in 1992 in his mid-60s, but continued to play active roles in managing the group and keeping its flame alive.
But this is not the end of the Four Freshmen story. Amazingly, unlike the many other bygone acts of their heyday, the Freshmen are still performing today. Now in its 22nd incarnation, the ever youthful group currently features Brian Eichenberger (guitar), Curtis Calderon (trumpet), Vince Johnson (bass), and Bob Ferreira (drums). They play a host of dates in the U.S. and internationally every year and have a devoted fan club that organizes this annual conference in support of the group and its music.
When it comes to the Four Freshmen Sophie Tucker, “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” might have said it best: “The secret to longevity is to keep breathing.”
I’m Beginning To See The Light
Despite the recycled air and lack of recreational drugs, the Summit’s convention center is brimming with affable attendees and good vibrations. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and they all seem to understand and deeply appreciate music. Throw a rock at a buffet here and you’re likely to hit a musician.
But even though they aren’t screaming Bieber believers, these grandparents are still groupies. And as groupies they have a reason to smile: they are in the presence of their idols. Deadheads and Juggalos can only dream they had as much access to the objects of their affection as the Four Freshmen Society does. The current Freshmen, and often an alum or two, are active participants of the convention and can be seen chatting, posing for pictures or milling about at various venues. (It was Vince Johnson, the current band’s bass player, who voice lead the first afternoon’s “Wannabes” sing along.) Over the years, many Society members have grown to consider themselves good friends with one or more of the myriad past and present Freshmen. “The Freshmen came from another era when entertainers truly appreciated their fans and their music,” says Paul Halac, a retired teacher from the Chicago area. “When fans attended a Four Freshmen concert, the Freshmen were always available after the performance to meet and greet those who went backstage. I spent many hours over the years chatting with Ross, Bob, and especially Bill Comstock. They were most gracious and accommodating even when they weren’t ‘on the clock.’”
Over the years the relationship between the Four Freshmen Society and the band became increasingly tight, and at the convention the lines that separate the Society from the band are sometimes blurry. For instance, at the general meeting, Society President Mel Meyers mentions the recent gift of a valve trombone to Curtis Calderon, the band’s trumpet player. Mel says he hopes the instrument will inspire Curtis to learn to play it and to eventually recreate some of Flanigan’s parts on stage – a suggestion some professional musicians might take offense to. The Society even acts to some degree as the band’s record label, and is fronting the lion’s share of the recording costs for the group’s forthcoming CD “Love Songs,” a collection of standards with the backing of a string orchestra from the Czech Republic.
Like any diehard fans, some Society members feel a deep, personal connection to “our boys” and are willing to go to great lengths to support them. In 1998, indefatigable fan Don Boland made it his mission to win “Best Vocal Group” for the Freshmen in DownBeat’s annual reader’s poll, an honor that had last been bestowed on them some 40 years prior. Boland knew the Society’s 3,000 or so members could stuff the ballot box, all but ensuring a Freshmen victory. The problem? That year, “there happened to be NO vocal category in DownBeat’s annual poll,” Boland says. Seeking an explanation, he contacted the magazine and was told that the category had been eliminated due to a dearth of jazz vocal groups. “Well,” Boland responded, “I vote for a president every four years and there are generally only two viable candidates on that ballot.”
Undeterred, Boland, a former U.S. Navy Reserve Hospital Corpsman, began a campaign of correspondence to get the DownBeat’s publisher, Frank Alkyer, to re-instate the category. A couple of years and many letters later Alkyer surrendered, and the Four Freshmen took home “Best Vocal Group” laurels in 2000 and 2001. Since then Boland has worked off and on to get the Freshmen into DownBeat’s Hall of Fame, but has lately retreated on his efforts. “We have 3,000 members, but few participate despite my urging,” he says. “I am sure I am considered a P.I.A. by many.”
For its part, the band shows its love for the Society early and often, peppering its sets with personal references and shout outs to individual society members. And the crowd responds warmly, thankful that a handful of talented young musicians have agreed to continue playing the music they love. In the end it’s like everyone has drunk the Kool-Aid, but somehow this time its turned out to be a kind of win-win situation.
Seems Like Old Times
So what is it that drives this far-flung assemblage of people to make an annual migration to B-side cities across the U.S. to attend the Four Freshmen Convention? The easiest answer is of course the music itself, and when it comes to this subject Society members are fanatical. “When I heard that Freshmen sound, I was blown away. The harmony was so much more than anything I had been exposed to,” says Paul Halac. “I was hooked on vocal jazz and the Freshmen. I happily missed the whole rock and roll era. Even the Beatles era was a joke to me because all they did was throw in a few major 7th chords and everyone thought this was revolutionary.” Halac has attended almost every reunion since the first in Las Vegas in 1988.
But Freshmen fans share more than just a predilection for the songs of a bygone era – they share a common history. Sure, they’ve come to Toledo to hear their favorite band play. But have they also come to revisit, by association, their own past – to bask in the golden light of nostalgia?
Nostalgia is having something of a moment right now. It arrived right on time for its 20-year reunion with the 1990s, and is now in full swing. Cultural critics haven’t failed to take note of the most recent crop of reissues and regurgitations, which include Hollywood remakes of “The Bodyguard” and “Total Recall,” the exhuming of MTV’s “Beavis and Butthead,” and reunion tours by bands such as Gin Blossoms, Counting Crows and The Cranberries to name a few.
But a fair amount of hand wringing has also accompanied the latest wave of cultural leftovers. In an article in The New York Times, Carl Wilson traces the source of this new discomfort back to that most angst-ridden of cohorts, Generation X. Most X-ers grew up with a suspicion of their parents’ music and wariness for anything that smelled even remotely like the appropriation of their culture. Now approaching middle age, Gen X has awoken to find its own youth up on the chopping block, and it’s neither ready nor willing to go quietly into that “As Seen On TV” good night.
A more focused indictment of nostalgia can be found in Simon Reynolds’ latest book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. The argument at the heart of Retromania is that our fascination with the past has begun to suffocate the artistic present. As evidence Reynolds’ points to the first decade of this century, which was essentially “dominated by the ‘re-’ prefix: revivals, reissues, remakes, reenactments.” And the digital revolution has only made the condition worse. Now possessing virtual access to a significant chunk of the history of recorded sound, listeners and young musicians are getting trapped inside “a meticulously organized constellation of reference points and allusions.” Instead of inspiring new sonic experiments, boundless access has created a labyrinth of imitation and pastiche. The ‘Net result is that the digital revolution arguably still has “not spawned a single new form of music.”
Few contemporary artists would welcome being labeled a “nostalgia act,” and the current Four Freshmen are no exception. In a 2003 Jazz Times article, Brian Eichenberger, the group’s guitar player, said, “It’s purely a musical experience for us. It’s not nostalgic for us, because we weren’t around then… Just like when the fans heard that wall of sound and harmony for the first time in 1952, it’s just addictive.”
When asked, Society members also put the emphasis on the music, not the memories. A common complaint is that the Freshmen have always gotten short shrift in the musical press, their music pigeon-holed as quaint or old-fashioned when compared to what, say, Miles Davis was up to. But to the converted, the Freshmen sound is as distinctive, avant-garde, and worthy of broader cultural relevance as it ever was. “I’m not sure I would use the word ‘nostalgia’ for the Four Freshmen because, to me, their music is current and has been since 1950,” says Halac. “My fervent wish is that, 100 years from now, folks will still tune in to Freshmen harmonies and realize how truly unique and classic they are.”
Still, history seems to have stopped some time around the British Invasion at the convention, and bygone acts like the Hi-Los, The Modernaires, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross are still all the rage. At the “Club 113 Music Mart” attendees can bid on pieces of the past to take home with them, including vintage records, autographed photos, and a watch given to Ross Barbour by Nat King Cole. The Society even has its own historian, who helps ensure the collective memory is intact and always close at hand.
The two performances by the current Freshmen line-up are the highlights of the weekend. The shows are throwbacks to a more genteel era, when Mad Men took elaborately coiffed women to clubs and sipped cocktails while polished performers entertained them. And they are enjoyable. It’s easy to be seduced by the music’s Brill-Cream-slick siren call, to get lost in wistful memories of a more romantic past – even if one didn’t actually experience that past the first time around.
Perhaps everyone eventually longs to revisit the days of their youth and defaults to a preference for the music they grew up listening to. Regardless, sometimes it does feel nice to check the baggage of the present at the door and revel in a simpler time, cultural consequences be damned.
We’ll Be Together Again
Despite the upbeat mood at the convention, last year was a tough one for the Four Freshmen and the society that bears their name. Bob Flanigan, the boisterous keeper of the band’s flame for the greater part of its existence, passed away last May and Ross Barbour, the final remaining member of the original lineup, joined him at the great gig in the sky in August. How would the Society deal with the fact that all of the people who made the music they listened to when they first kissed their future husbands and wives were now gone, leaving only kids who hadn’t even been born yet to carry the tune?
Saturday’s memorial session honoring the lives of Ross and Bob has the feeling of a last, bittersweet goodbye. A few members give heartfelt speeches and personal photos and archival footage of classic Four Freshmen moments are shown on a large screen. Palle Christensen of Denmark air conducts a rousing version of Vocal Majority’s “Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho.” There’s even a candid video tribute from Brian Wilson, who sings a touching rendition of “Their Hearts Where Full of Spring” along with a few Beach Boy friends. (Wilson has long been a fan of the Freshmen and has acknowledged their influence on his music. “Bob Flanigan and the Four Freshmen were my harmonic education,” he said following Bob’s death last year.)
When the issue of succession comes up later at the general meeting, the party line is that the Society now stands firmly behind the current band. “I want to be clear that these are our boys now,” president Mel Meyers said, driving the point home. However, Meyers goes on to acknowledge that the Society is facing some difficult challenges. Membership has been flat over the past few years, and as it continues to age the Society recognizes it will need to find ways to attract new, younger members into the fold. The future of the Freshmen sound may depend on it.
Still, neither the Four Freshmen Society nor the band itself plans to call it quits anytime soon. “We’re in it for the ‘long haul’ as they say,” says Meyers. “So is the membership and the group 22 guys.” The Four Freshmen maintain a busy touring schedule, and none other than Bob Flanigan himself once endorsed the current group as the best Frosh line-up of all time. “Can I guarantee perpetuity?” Meyers writes. “No, but neither can you.”
“How many people are able to say that their favorite performing musician was also a best friend?” says Paul Halac, remembering Ross Barbour. Despite Ross’s passing, Halac says he will continue to attend the conventions, “to renew friendships each year with a whole group of Fresh fans from all over the world with whom we have become very close… We sing (Freshmen arrangements, of course) and laugh and exchange stories and it seems like only a few weeks go by before we are together again. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
In the end, nostalgia alone may not be enough to keep the Four Freshmen franchise going forever. But with over 60 years of history, a reinvigorated band and a devoted fan base on their side, I wouldn’t bet against them.
See you in Reno in October.