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 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.”