The Four Freshmen: A Vocal Quartet with Quarter Tones [From The Archives]

 © –  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I received so many requests to bring this feature up again, so here goes.

What’s especially fun about this essay is that it “unlocks” the secret of how The Four Freshmen created their unique sound.

In retrospect, it’s amazing to consider having ever taken The Four Freshmen for granted.

Yet for many years, that’s exactly what I did.

I mean, as a Jazz vocal group, they were still right up there with The Pied Pipers, The Hi-Lo’s, and Mel Torme’s Mel-tones, but I was spoiled back in the days when The Four Freshman made their first, recorded appearances in the early 1950s.

Good vocal Jazz was everywhere, so one had a tendency in those days to expect marvelous music from a newly arrived group on the scene.

But somehow, The Four Freshmen demanded a closer listening and I kept going back and back and doing just that – listening more closely to the point when it finally dawned on me that something very special was going on in their music.

But what?

Why were The Four Freshmen above-the-line; why did I eventually come to view them as virtually being in a class by themselves?

The reasons for their uniqueness is in The Four Freshmen’s use of quarter tones and the manner in which they “voice” their chords as explained in the following excerpt from the insert notes to The Complete Capitol Four Freshmen Fifties Session, a nine-disc set issued by Michael Cuscuna and his team at Mosaic Records [MD9-203].

At least I had enough of a discriminating sense to jump on a copy of this set when it first appeared. It was issued in a limited edition of 3,500 and my copy is numbered “0079.”

The Mosaic set notes were prepared by Ross Barbour, one of the Freshmen’s founding members. In them, Ross not only describes what gave the group its distinctive sound, but also how the group got its start with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, an association that would continue for almost three decades, and ultimately came to be recorded by Capitol Records.

Ross’s annotations and remembrances are followed with an article by William H. Smith that also touches on the roots of the group and the reasons why The Four Freshmen successfully carry on to this day.

© –  Ross Barbour/Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Bob Flanigan and Don and Ross Barbour are cousins. Our mothers were sisters. My brother Don and I are from ColumbusIndiana. Bob Flanigan is from GreencastleIndiana.

When we were just grade-schoolers, we would go to our mothers’ family reunions and at  the Fodreas would all stand and sing the Doxology before we ate. (Praise God from whom all blessings flow, etc.) In mother’s family, there were 10 girls and two boys. They all sang in quartets, choirs and choruses. They sang harmony so right it made the rafters ring. It took our breath away.

The way they sang those notes made a different sound from playing those notes on a keyboard. I never understood why they were so different until I read an article in an old Barbershopper’s newsletter. The harmonizer of September 1954, Paul Vandervoort of Hey wood, Illinois, wrote the article, and he got his information from The Outline of Knowledge Encyclopedia, and an article entitled “Sound Physics.”

It seems that in about 1700, the musical scale was quite complicated. An octave had 20 or more notes in it. Between F and G, for instance, there was F sharp, G double flat and G flat. That was called the “perfect diatonic scale.”

Johann Sebastian Bach came along and changed all this. He formed what is known as the “tempered scale” by choos­ing 12 of the 20-plus notes, and having his piano tuned that way. It was a lot simpler, but the beautiful quarter tones were left out. People’s ears could still hear them and harmony singers knew how to use them to make what are called over­tones, but they were just not on a keyboard anymore.

Bob, Don and I were hearing those overtones or harmonics as kids, and we became addicted to them. We couldn’t get enough. I sang in quartets in high school and in college, and I sang with the Four Freshmen for 29 years. I never got enough. I have been a Freshmen fan since I retired undefeated in 1977, and I still need to hear overtones.

In our early Four Freshmen days, we rehearsed without instruments. If a chord we sang couldn’t stand up and say its name (I’m a D-ninth or I’m an F-seventh), we would change it until it did.

We used bass and guitar for our background, but they never played the exact notes we were singing. Our harmony could happen almost unfettered by the demand of a key­board — demand that would channel us back into Bach’s 12 half-steps per octave.

If my note was a major seventh, I could sing it on top of the note — sing it sharp, you might say, so it and the tonic note became a little less than a half-step apart. That’s what makes it buzz in your ear.

If we wanted a dominant seventh to ring, we’d sing it on the bottom of the pitch — especially if the voice leading was going down through that dominant seventh.

A major third should be sung brightly on top of the pitch, and a minor third should hang on the bottom.

We were singing those notes not because they were writ­ten and the piano said the pitch was “there.” We sang them because they harmonized. They made overtones in our ears.

And we didn’t discover some great breakthrough in har­mony. Good barbershop singers do it all the time; in fact singers have been doing it since at least the year 1700.

It may be that we were the first modern vocal group the world noticed who put the emphasis on harmony and over­tones, but we won’t be the last. Other groups are bound to succeed in doing it because there is something in people’s ears that needs harmony. That thing can make your hair stand up when a chord rings. It can make you shout right out loud!

That article about “Sound Physics” goes on to say that Handel, the great composer, “could not stand to hear music played in the tempered scale.” He had an organ built that would play all the notes in the perfect diatonic scale. Boy! That would be a bear to play!

In 1947, Hal Kratzsch was 22, Bob 21, Don 20 and I was 18. We were all freshmen at Arthur Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis. We’d all sung in vocal groups before and singing harmony parts came naturally to us.

Bob had been a member of a Greencastle vocal group that had a radio show in Indianapolis for a while. He went into the service out of high school, and played trombone through his army time in Germany, except when the dance band needed a bass player. He learned to play bass on the job. After the service he enrolled in A.J.C. in 1947.

Don played guitar through high school and a couple of years in Arabia with the Air Force. I had graduated from high school in the spring of 1947. Don and I came to college together that fall.

Hal, who was from WarsawIndiana, played trumpet in high school and in the Navy in the South Pacific. He came from the service to Indiana University for a year before trans­ferring to A.J.C.

Hal and I met in theory class. He had the idea of putting together a quartet. At that time, we thought a modern vocal group needed a girl to sing lead, so Hal, Don and I rehearsed with a girl named Marilyn for almost a month, before we found out that Marilyn’s mom wouldn’t let her go sing with three guys in late-night places.

When we got Bob in the group, our sound really started to take shape. Bob’s lead voice has influenced generations… strong and clear.

Hal knew from instinct how to sing the bottom part, and he did it his way. He seldom sang the tonic, and often sang the ninth or passing tones through the chords. His pitch was so secure, we could stand our chords up on his note.

Don had such a wide range. We needed his upper regis­ter in his second part, and he came through with it so well and so strong. I was a natural baritone or third voice. It was more natural for me to sing harmonies than to sing melodies. It was up to us to fill in — to color — that large area between Bob and Hal.

With voices like these we could make rainbows of color chords, so we did. In the beginning we chose our own notes — made up our own individual parts, but we didn’t do it straight through a song. On Poinciana, we would agree to sing “oh” in unison. Then “poin” was a chord to solve. After we had that one, then we went for “ci” and the notes had to flow from “poin” to “ci”, then on to “ana.” Okay, let’s try it from the top. Are there any chords we can make stronger? Let’s try making two chords out of “ci” — when I do this, you do that. Maybe a whole hour goes by and you haven’t tried all the ideas. But you should keep trying because the next idea may just make all of you jump and shout.

We were trying to sound like Stan Kenton’s vocal group, The Pastels. There were five of them and four of us, but that didn’t stop us. Mel Torme had a five-part group with Artie Shaw’s band called The Mel Tones. We tried to copy them, too. The way it turned out, we invented a sound by trying to get a five-part sound with four voices. (Other elements to our sound came about serendipitously. At a show in El Paso on December 8, 1951, Don broke a high E string on his guitar, and he didn’t have a spare. Well, the show had go on, so Don replaced it with a third string and tuned it an octave lower. From that day on, Don’s guitar didn’t sound like other guitars. It was great for our sound. The lower string added a density to the range where we sang.)

We went on the road Sept. 20, 1948, working lounges (most of them dingy dives) around the Midwest for a year and a half, honing our music and our stage presentation.

In February 1950, we were working the Pla Bowl Lounge in Calumet CityIllinois. We’d work until  or  and then we would go to jam sessions. The 19th was a Sunday night — the end of our week. Mondays were off. We went to the High Note in Chicago for a session that began about  Monday. The place was full of the right people — Marian McPartland, Roy Kral and Jackie Cain, Jeri Southern, and one of our favorites, Mary Ann McCall. She was on stage singing with the Max Miller Trio. It was a song we knew so we got up there, too, and sang “dooooo” with her. It must have sounded pretty good because at the end of the song, Mary Ann said on the microphone, “Hey, Woody, we’re ready to go.” A guy at the bar stood up and said something back to her. We caught our breath. It was Woody Herman!

In the next few minutes, he and Mary Ann explained how Woody was going to put together a new band in a few months; he would call it “The Band That Plays the Music You Want to Dance To,” or some such title. He wanted us four to play in the band, and sing as a quartet a half dozen tunes a night.

We loved the Herman Herds and the way Mary Ann sang. Oh! It seemed that life couldn’t get any better. Just one month later, Stan Kenton had us reaching for the moon (our own record contract) and believing it was possible.

Stan heard us in the Esquire Lounge in DaytonOhio, on Tuesday, March 21. He was on tour with the Innovations Orchestra and some disc jockey friends brought Stan to hear us after his show. He must have understood that we didn’t usually tremble and sound short of breath when we sang. He knew we were overwhelmed by his presence. It could be that our worshipping his every move triggered some of his devotion to our quartet.

He could tell we didn’t know what we were doing. I heard him say in an interview one time that we were doing things by ear that were way beyond our musical education, but we were making sounds he liked to hear.

That night he planned for us to go to New York and meet him and Pete Rugolo. He would see that we made some good audition tapes for Capitol’s executives to hear. He would talk those executives into signing us to our own contract, and we would begin making records. Stan made it happen just that way.

He’d later say, “You guys have gotta succeed, you can’t fail. You’re part of my ego!” Let me pause here in the story to explain that Stan had his managers handle our career. They found us work, and helped us choose uniforms. We received mail at Stan’s 941 N. LaCienega address for two or three years, and we couldn’t get him to take a penny for it. He didn’t even want us to give him Christmas presents. The prestige he added to this quartet by just saying, “Stan Kenton likes the Four Freshmen,” was priceless. The help­ful care he gave us year after year kept good things coming our way. I have said it before and it always sounds like I am bragging, but Stan treated us like we were his own kids. We were part of his ego.

On April 10, we left Green Bay on the  train to Chicago. We caught the  train to New York and tried to sleep that night, but we were too keyed up. None of us slept. Our dreams were coming true before our very eyes.

My diary says: “Tried to sing in the dining caboose, almost got thrown in the caboose, Yippee Ky-0-Ky-A.”

We arrived in New York at  on April 11, full of youthful steam. We slept for an hour and a half at the Dixie Hotel before we went to Pete Rugolo’s dressing room at the Paramount Theater. He was conducting the orchestra for Billy Eckstine.

We waited in the dressing room while Pete did the show. We could hear the show from there. Does life get better than this? When Pete came back, we sang a couple of tunes for him. Pete was pleased but surprised we sang for him since that’s what we were to do the next day in the studio. Later that night, we went to Bop City to hear Lionel Hampton and the George Shearing group with Denzil Best.

The next evening (Wednesday April 12), we ate at the Automat and went to Pete’s dressing room again, where we met up with Stan Kenton and his manager, Bob Allison, who gave us $65. This was travel money and we thought, at the time, it was from Capitol records. Now we know that Capitol didn’t pay groups to go to New York to record audition tapes. That money must have come from Stan himself, just to make sure that the cost of the trip didn’t leave us broke.

We were in good hands, and we were on our way!”



© –  William H. Smith/The Wall Street Journal, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Four Freshman: A Vocal Group at the Top of Its Class

By WILLIAM H. SMITHAugust 20, 2008

The Wall Street Journal

“Widely known for basketball, the Indy 500, and a plethora of covered bridges, Indiana also proudly claims The Four Freshmen as its own. The legendary vocal/instrumental group will celebrate its 60th anniversary at a reunion, sponsored by The Four Freshmen Society, of band members past and present — there have been 23 lineups to date — at the Sheraton Indianapolis City Centre, Aug. 21 to 23. Commemorative concerts continue to air across the country during PBS fund-raising drives, and a highlight of 2008 will be the Freshmen’s Oct. 25 performance before Russian fans at the prestigious Great Hall of the Moscow Performing Arts Center.

Although not the first successful vocal group, The Four Freshmen was, without question, the most innovative. Inspired by Artie Shaw’s Mel-Tones with Mel Torme, as well as by The Pastels, a five-voice group with Stan Kenton, the Freshmen soon developed their own unique style of harmony — singing a five-part sound with four voices and playing instruments as well. Every vocal group that followed — except for those that sang with no or minimal chord structure — was influenced by the Freshmen, including The Lettermen, Manhattan Transfer, Take Six, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. (At The Four Freshmen’s Jan. 14 performance at Palm Desert, Calif.’s McCallum Theatre, I sat in the audience next to the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson — one of the Freshmen’s most enthusiastic fans, who listened to their records as a teenager and wanted to emulate their unique sound in his arrangements.)

The close harmony of this unique quartet had its genesis at Butler University‘s Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis, when Hal Kratzch, along with Don Barbour and his brother Ross, formed “Hal’s Harmonizers.” In an interview at his home in Simi ValleyCalif., Ross Barbour recalled that “we tried a few lead singers, but it was only after our cousin Bob Flanigan, with his strong high voice, joined the group that we started getting that Freshmen sound.” The four went on the road in 1948 as The Toppers, but the name was soon changed to The Four Freshmen. (Both Ross Barbour and Bob Flanigan, the only survivors of that quartet, received honorary doctorates at Butler this May.)

Stan Kenton heard the Freshmen in March 1950 at the Esquire Lounge in DaytonOhio, and gave them their first big break by introducing the group to his own recording label, Capitol Records. The Freshmen had developed their trademark sound by structuring chords much like the trombone section of Kenton’s own band, and Mr. Barbour maintains that the success of one of their biggest-selling albums, “Four Freshmen and Five Trombones,” can in a large way be attributed to Pete Rugolo, the arranger the quartet and Kenton shared.

The Four Freshmen’s signature tune is “It’s a Blue World Without You,” released in 1952, a song that continues to send chills up and down the spines of audiences as soon as the first a capella chords resound. But the Freshmen gained their first national exposure when they appeared on CBS’s “Steve Allen Show” on Christmas Day in 1950, and their popularity lasted not only through the decade that later gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll but into the mid-1960s — the era of Bob Dylan and the Beatles — and beyond. Despite this generational change, the Freshmen continued playing universities around the country and, according to Mr. Barbour, “the multitude of college kids remained loyal fans.”

Over their 60 years of performing throughout the U.S. and abroad, the Freshmen have recorded some 45 albums and 70 singles, and have received numerous honors, including six Grammy Awards. Down Beat magazine awarded the quartet the Best Jazz Vocal group honor in 1953 and again, 57 years later, in 2000, an example of the quartet’s timeless appeal. The present lineup placed No. 1 in this same category in the 2007 JazzTimes Readers Poll.

“The Four Freshmen have endured for the simple reason that they are top in their class,” said Charles Osgood, anchor of “CBS Sunday Morning,” when a profile of the group aired in August 1994. Steven Cornelius of the Toledo Blade put it this way in April 2005: “There is no Dorian Gray youth potion at work, just a healthy retirement system.” When a member leaves, he is replaced with an equally talented musician.

The present lineup of this multifaceted, ultra-talented quartet of vocalists and instrumentalists now comprises Vince Johnson, baritone, playing bass and guitar; Bob Ferreira, bass voice, playing drums; Brian Eichenberger, lead voice, playing guitar and bass; and Curtis Calderon, singing second part, and playing trumpet and flugelhorn. Although the other three Freshmen joke about it, Mr. Johnson accompanies his bass with some of the best whistling since Bing Crosby.

Bob Flanigan — introducing the current quartet on their recent DVD, “The Four Freshmen Live From Las Vegas” — vows that “this group is the best Four Freshmen of all time.” On the DVD, Mr. Flanigan, reflecting on his 44 years with the Freshmen, remembers all the “Bad roads . . . Bad food . . . Good and Bad Hotels . . . and millions of air-miles in DC3s to 747s.”

Long live The Four Freshmen. May they never graduate!

Mr. Smith writes about jazz and the big-band era for the Journal

For tour dates and venues, go to”

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