The Four Freshmen

Before We Was Fab: The Four Freshmen, “It’s a Blue World”

Before We Was Fab

If there was ever any doubt that the Four Freshmen had a profound impact on American music, look no further for proof than the fantastic Beach Boys two-disc retrospective Hawthorne, CA.: Birthplace of a Musical Legacy. The third track is a primitive-sounding but surprisingly complex arrangement of “Happy Birthday” sung by a teen-aged Brian Wilson and dedicated to the Four Freshmen. This is Wilson, who went on to write some of the greatest music of the 1960s, showing how much his craft was influenced by the Freshmen style.

That style was adapted by Wilson and the Beach Boys to great effect, and it’s how I came to know and love the Four Freshmen. And so this week I want to examine my favorite song of theirs. But first a little history.

The Four Freshmen began in 1948 as a barbershop quartet called Hal’s Harmonizers. The group’s members were brothers Ross and Don Barbour, as well as Marvin Pruitt and Hal Kratzsch. By the end of the year they had moved to a more jazz-influenced style and re-christened themselves as the Four Freshmen (they also replaced Pruitt with Bob Flanigan). Thanks to bandleader Stan Kenton the quartet landed a record deal at Capitol and released their first single, the januty R&B tune “Mr. B’s Blues,” in November 1950. The group released just one more single through the end of 1951, mostly spending time touring and working with Kenton’s orchestra.

The Four Freshmen, "It's a Blue World"The group didn’t start releasing singles with regularity until July 1952, when they issued “It’s a Blue World” (b/w “Tuxedo Junction”). Unlike the group’s previous sides, “It’s a Blue World” is a decidedly melancholy affair. Over a lush but subtle orchestral backing, the Four Freshmen’s exquisite close harmonizing is on full display. An otherwise pretty but fairly inconsequential tune is lifted by some fairly advanced vocal arranging and performing.

“It’s a Blue World” was the original quartet’s commercial breakthrough. Owing partly to its success in the American Midwest (Detroit in particular), the single debuted on Billboard’s Top-Selling Pop Singles chart — the Top 100 didn’t start until 1955 — at #30 on August 23, 1952.

The Freshmen maintained their mainstream popularity through the early ’60s, and continued to release new music fairly regularly through the end of the decade. The legacy of the Four Freshmen is heard not only in the music of the Beach Boys and other followers, but through the many incarnations of the quartet. A dedicated cult following has allowed the group to perform continuously for more than six decades. The current incarnation of the Four Freshmen — Brian Eichenberger, Curtis Calderon, Vince Johnson, and Bob Ferreira — is the 22nd in their history and has been together since 2001.

As for the four men who recorded “It’s a Blue World” — Kratzsch was replaced in 1953 by Ken Errair, who himself was replaced in 1956. Ross Barbour retired from the band in 1977 and died of cancer in August 2011, while his brother Don died in 1961 in a car accident at the age of 44. Bob Flanigan, the last remaining member of the original quartet, stayed with the Four Freshmen through 1992 (with a brief break in 1990), and continued his involvement with them for several more years. He died in May 2011 at age 84.

Devotees of the group formed a fan club, now known as the Four Freshmen Society, in 1987. They hold yearly conventions complete with performances from the current group. Here, to end this piece, is the current group performing “It’s a Blue World.”

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  • Mark

    Just beautiful. But this brings up an issue that I’ve been thinking about as a Beach Boys fan, which seems to apply to the Freshmen and maybe other groups. Despite the recent reunion tour and album, there have been 3 versions of the Beach Boys touring for years now. We fans debate not only the legitimacy of each group. Personally, as much as I appreciate the music being kept alive, I hate the idea of a band becoming a “brand.” When there are no original members of the band, then it’s a different group. And to be a real band and not just a tribute group, a band needs to record its own material. Nobody would stand for anybody but John, Paul George & Ringo as the Beatles, so why do we accept stand-ins for any other great group? Some argue that the music is most important and since nobody really knows who the Freshmen or the Beach Boys were, what’s the difference who sings the songs. I think that is disrespectful to the artists who created this music. We should keep their art alive, just as we keep classical artists like Mozart alive through concerts. But Mozart died in 1791, and nobody needs to pretend to be him in order to play the music. So let’s acknowledge our mortality and that of groups, and let them go. That’s the way to allow the music to go on for future generations.

  • Chris Holmes

    An excellent point you raise there. Honestly I can’t say what separates the Freshmen from other groups, and why they can “get away” with continuing long after the last originals have gone. But it does seem that a lot of groups from that era get a free pass in the department. Think of all the groups like the Temptations, or all those doo-wop acts, and how they still tour with one or no original members.

    Perhaps one thing that separates those groups from the Beach Boys or Beatles is that they didn’t write their own material for the most part. And they were loved as groups rather than as a collection of personalities. I can’t say for sure why fans of some bands seem willing to overlook a revolving door membership policy, while fans of other acts lose their minds when a seldom-used keyboard player is fired.

    I like this point enough that I want to see what the rest of the staff thinks. Perhaps it will be good fodder for a future roundtable discussion or a podcast. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • DwDunphy

    I think you’re right on this. The other aspect that makes it easier for older vocal groups to do this is that they tended to have anonymity among the individuals. It was The Four Freshmen or The Brothers Four or any number of folk/vocal/jazz/etc. configurations identified by the overall group moniker. By the time we get to The Beach Boys and The Beatles we were learning the individuals’ names. It was no longer a unit of voices but these four people’s voices that comprised the unit.

    So, that does not mean disrespect toward any single representation of The Four Freshmen. Only that because they took on the trappings of the college vocal group (in name and format) it works with the concept that when the “graduating class” left, the “incoming class” would assume the name. You can, after all, only be a real freshman once.

  • linkst3r

    Out of all your before-we-was-fab articles, this was the biggest revelation for me. I love these harmonies. I will be adding this one to my collection. :)