It may come as a surprise that a group that was a fixture of the 1950s music scene remains alive and well and performing around the world. What may be an equally well-kept secret is that this popular and influential male vocal group had its origins in Indiana. Forming in Indianapolis in the late 1940s, the quartet that went on to become the Four Freshmen looked to barbershop singing and Mel Torme’s Mel Tones to develop a sound that would prove to resonate through the decades. Pop and jazz acts from The Lettermen and the Beach Boys to the Manhattan Transfer have acknowledged The Four Freshmen as direct musical forerunners.
The original members of the group came together in 1947 on the campus of the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music, now known as Butler University ‘s Jordan College of Fine Arts. Brothers Ross and Don Barbour grew up in a musical family in Columbus, Indiana. They had sung as kids with their cousin Bob Flanigan, who grew up in Greencastle and joined the group in its fledgling state when an early member dropped out. After having done the state fair and malt shop circuit as Hal’s Harmonizers, the quartet, also featuring Hal Kratzsch of Warsaw, Indiana transformed itself into the Toppers, and finally, the Freshmen Four, a name that was soon inverted. The Four Freshmen–who, for the record, never became sophomores–were known for their close vocal harmonies and use of overtones, along with their innovative transpositions of chords. It is said that they worked out their harmonies by ear, singing in a car with the windows closed. The members of the quartet were also distinctive in their versatility; not only could they sing, the Freshmen accompanied themselves on piano, guitar, bass, drums, and brass instruments.
The group debuted as the Four Freshmen in 1948 at Fort Wayne ‘s 113 Club, and got their lucky break two years later when bandleader Stan Kenton caught their act at a lounge in Dayton, Ohio. Signed soon after to Capitol Records, the Freshmen’s first hit single “It’s a Blue World” charted at number 30 in 1952. Subsequent hits, “Mood Indigo,””Day by Day” and “Graduation Day,” kept the group in the limelight through the 50’s and 60’s. After numerous personnel changes, the quartet continues as a group of considerable artistic validity, having been named Downbeat Magazine’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in the year 2000.
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