Capitol president Glenn Wallichs liked what he heard and gave Kenton the green light to invite the band to Los Angeles. Kenton arranged for a one week engagement at Jerry Wald’s on Sunset Boulevard. When public demand stretched one week into eight, Capitol knew they were onto something and offered them a recording contract. On October 13, 1950, they recorded their first single “Mr. B’s Blues” (b/w “Then I’ll Be Happy,” Capitol 1293) released that November.
The Four Freshmen were Don Barbour, second tenor and guitar, his younger brother, Ross, baritone, trumpet, piano, and drums, Bob Flanigan, their cousin, lead tenor and trombone, and their friend Hal Kratsch who sang and played bass, trumpet, and mellophone. They met during their first year at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music at Butler University in Indianapolis. Although they were all freshmen at Butler, they were not all the same age because a few of them had already served in the military.
“We all grew up singing harmony parts with our families,” recalled Flanigan. “Don and Ross were singing barbershop. I wasn’t involved in that. When they decided they wanted to do something else, I went in with the group. I had a high tenor voice,” recalled Flanigan. “With the Freshmen, the Barbour brothers set the unison sound in the group because they both had the same timbre in their voices,” Flanigan explained. “I had a similar timbre, but not quite the same. I never had a vibrato, so that’s why we never used it.”
“We were in college together, studying to be music teachers, and that’s where we started singing together. We envisioned ourselves just singing in college, having a good time doing it, and then we decided we had something worthwhile and decided to go on the road.” They first called themselves Hal’s Harmonizers and later the Toppers. Flanigan continued, “We started off singing a cappella, but all of us also played instruments, so on the road we started playing as well as singing. We copied things Mel Torme did with his Mel-Tones, and Artie Shaw, and Stan Kenton. We were only going to go on the road for a year, and then go back to school, but we started doing some business and said, ‘Okay, one more year.’” In Chicago, they signed with agent Bill Shelton who renamed them the Freshmen Four. They soon reversed it to the decidedly more melodic Four Freshmen and continued to play nightclubs.
“Then we met Stan Kenton and he became very interested in the potential of the group,” recalled Flanigan. “That triggered it and we kept doing it. We never went back to college. We were in our freshman year when we quit.” The November 18, 195O, Billboard reviewed “Mr. B’s Blues” and noted, “A spirited new group makes a promising disk debut with a sock reading of this blues written by Billy Eckstine.” Their sophomore effort was “Now You Know” (b/w “Pick up Your Tears and Go Home,” Capitol 1377). The February 3, 1951 Billboard said: “A promising instrumental-vocal quartet turns in a tasty slicing of a pleasant ballad.” Despite the critical success, neither single charted. “Then we had a thing called “It’s a Blue World.” We were going to Detroit for an engagement and we had a friend who was a dee jay there. He said ‘Give me something I can play.’ So we gave him ‘Blue World.’ It got 40 plays in one day. That record launched our career.”
In July 1952, the Four Freshmen released “It’s a Blue World” (b/w “Tuxedo Junction,” Capitol 2152). The song charted August 23 and reached #30. “At the time, vocal groups were starting to decline in popularity,” recalled Ross Barbour. “The Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers were still going strong, but many of the orchestras were getting away from using vocal groups. ‘It’s a Blue World’ proved to Capitol that this kind of sound would still sell to people. We were distinctive. People heard something in us that they had not heard from other vocal groups. We let the bass note of the chord, the tonic note, be played by the bass instrument and that freed us up to sing five-part harmony with four voices. And one of those four voices would sing a ‘color note’—an unexpected note, a note that wasn’t logical, a note that would surprise the listener and make the song sound more interesting. We were interested in doing music, not just having hits.”
“‘It’s a Blue World’ made me cry,” Brian revealed in a 2006 interview. “I learned to make four-part harmonies from the Four Freshmen. I had to work at it and I finally got it. The Four Freshmen, the Four Preps, the Hi-Los, groups that made pretty harmonies. I analyzed their sound and learned how to make my own harmonies.”
Although forever associated with the Kingston Trio, Al was also a big fan of the Freshmen sound. “The Four Freshmen did everything,” recalled Al. “They played their own instruments. They sang. And they were wholesome. And boy could they sing harmonies. Bob Flanigan, his soprano was incredible.”
The Hi-Lo’s, another popular vocal group in the 1950s, did not have quite the same impact on Al as the Freshmen. “The Hi-Lo’s are something I never really got into,” recalled Al. “I never got into their sound at all. The Hi-Lo’s are a little bit too high. When we started out, Brian and I listened to the Four Freshmen. The Hi-Lo’s were a bit too far out for us.”
On June 13, 1955, a week before Brian turned thirteen, the Four Freshmen released their twelfth single, “Day By Day” (b/w “How Can I Tell Her,” Capitol 3154). “My Mom turned me on to them. She turned the radio on and goes, ‘Hear that song? This is called “Day By Day” by the Four Freshmen.’ And I listened and I went, ‘Oh, I love it, Mommy! I love it!’” “She took me to Lishon’s Records. We went in and she said you can take records into these little booths and play them to see if you wanted to buy them. So I took a Four Freshmen album in and I absolutely—something magical happened to my head. I instantly transcended. Whew! It gave me so much spiritual strength. It came out of me. You know how you sit in a sauna bath and your pores open and the sweat will come out? That’s what that whole experience in that room started to be. I purged all kinds of bullshit and picked up the Freshmen. It was magic. Total magic.” “I listened to the whole album in the booth. I walked out and went, ‘Oh please, can I please have it, Mommy? Please buy it.’ So she bought it for me.”
Brian recalled, “They had the most unique harmony, the best arrangements and a fantastic blend of voices. But they didn’t reach the teenagers. They played and sang at the adult market.”
Brian spent hours at the piano playing his favorite Four Freshmen songs by ear. But Brian didn’t listen to records like most kids. He studied them. He analyzed how the component parts comprised the overall sound. He cut his musical teeth de-constructing the complex jazz harmonies of the Four Freshmen. He spent years—from age thirteen to eighteen—in disciplined self-study with just a stack of records and a piano. It was a rigorous musical education that paralleled, and eventually surpassed, his formal education at Hawthorne High. He got music. He understood it. He saw how the instruments played off one another, how they meshed with the voices, how harmonies were structured and layered. He was fascinated by how a beautiful melody stirred deep emotions in a listener. How did notes and chords conjure the feeling of being in love? Music was pure and non-judgmental. It assuaged whatever teenage problems, fears, or insecurities he felt. Unlike inter-personal relationships which could be difficult to navigate, music never disappointed him. It eventually brought him admiration and love. It made him feel good about himself. It was a gift he would learn to channel to make other people feel good about themselves.
Ross Barbour reflected on why he thought Brian was so captivated by the Four Freshmen. “Although I have never had this confirmed, I feel certain that what intrigued Brian about our sound, in addition to the long tones and sustained harmonics, was that we were singing overtones. An overtone is when a note is sung true by one singer and a little bit different, just a little flat or a little sharp, by another singer. The resulting overlap, or overtone, creates an interesting sound that tricks the listener’s ear into hearing a note that is not actually in the chord. Pop vocal groups had not done that before. Don, Bob and I came from a very musical family. My mother’s father, Elias Fodrea, and my grandmother had twelve children—ten girls and two boys. When the family got together, we’d all sing church and folk songs. We’d be scattered throughout three rooms in this brick house, all of us singing the same song. When you heard those overtones, it became habitual, you just wanted to keep hearing them and be surrounded by them. You wanted every chord to have them.” Ross also credited the Freshmen sound to “opening up the chord.” That’s when one of the middle notes of a chord is sung a full octave lower. That stretches the chord and makes it sound fuller and richer.
A pivotal event in Brian’s life occurred when Murry took him to see the Four Freshmen in concert on Sunday, May 18, 1958, at the Crescendo night club in Los Angeles. Audree Wilson recalled, “In fact, when Brian was fourteen the Four Freshmen were playing someplace in Hollywood, I can’t think of the club. And Murry took him. We couldn’t afford to take Murry, Brian, and me. We really didn’t have very much money. So Murry took Brian this one particular, I think it was a Sunday night, just in the hopes that he could meet them because he was so thrilled with their music. And he was already writing vocal arrangements even though he hadn’t had any musical training. And he did get to meet them. And then, years later when they were the Beach Boys, they remembered having met Murry and Brian about five years previous to that.”
In The Beach Boys and the California Myth, David Leaf let Audree Wilson tell the story. “Brian was fourteen years old and the Four Freshmen were at the Crescendo. Murry found out they were there and he knew Brian loved them so much. We couldn’t afford, actually, for more than two of us to go at that time, so Murry took Brian and it was really a thrill.”
Other writers, however, varied on where and when this concert took place. Brian and Gold mentioned the concert and meeting, but made no mention of the venue or date. Badman placed the event at the Coconut (sic) Grove in The Ambassador Hotel in 1954, when Brian was twelve years old. White stated the venue was the Crescendo Ballroom, but did not mention a date. Preiss, Gaines, and Carlin were silent on the subject.
The Crescendo was owned by former disc jockey Gene Norman and located at 8572 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Norman presented new and established talent, and recorded many live albums at the Crescendo for his GNP record label which he formed in 1954. The label was also known as Gene Norman Presents or GNP Crescendo.
“My voice was shivering as I was talking to them. I was shaking, I was so scared. I was so in awe of them. It was one of the biggest moments in my life. Their performance totally blew my mind away.”
Writing in the May 17, 1958 LA Times, John L. Scott reported, “The Four Freshmen have returned to the Crescendo with vocal and instrumental harmonies. The boys—Don and Ross Barbour, Bob Flanigan, and Ken Albers—sing and play together, offer solos and mix ballads with fast numbers to advantage. “Holiday and “Malaya” are highlight tunes. This group is a heavy favorite with the younger set and it seemed most of them were on hand opening night.”
After the show, Murry bluffed his way backstage and escorted Brian into their dressing room so Brian could meet the group. Meeting his musical idols was inspirational for Brian. It helped make him feel less self-conscious about his high singing voice and more determined than ever to find his way through music. Reportedly, he returned home and sang the entire Freshmen concert repertoire in his parent’s living room.
“Bob and the Freshmen were my harmonic education,” Brian recalled. “My dad took me to see them in 1958. I was blown away by their sound. Seeing that show inspired me to create the music I did with the Beach Boys.”
Bob Flanigan of the Four Freshmen, recalled, “I know Brian very well. I first met him at the Crescendo. His father brought him down to the club. He told me that, once he heard us, he knew that was how he wanted to write music. He’s a very, very talented man. And he alone was the sound of the Beach Boys.”
The concert and that meeting had a profound effect on young Brian. “My voice was shivering as I was talking to them. I was shaking, I was so scared. I was so in awe of them,” he recalled. “It was one of the biggest moments in my life. Their performance totally blew my mind away.”
Brian may have been anxious meeting his idols, but that’s not what Flanigan remembered most. “I’m sure he was a little nervous,” Flanigan recalled. “What teenage kid wouldn’t be? But the thing I remember most was that he looked me straight in the eye when he spoke. You could tell he was sincere about his appreciation for our music and very clear and set on what he wanted to do with music. Even at that young age, an absolute sincerity shone through.”
Ross Barbour recalled, “Honestly, I don’t remember meeting Brian or Murry. I wish I did. I must have been doing something else.” He added, jokingly, “I was probably collecting the money.”
“The Four Freshmen are the best vocal harmony group there ever was,” recalled Mike Love. “When we came along we patterned them. Brian was like a disciple of theirs. He would come home from school and go right to the piano and play these Four Freshmen songs he had learned how to arrange. He would memorize them in his mind which, of course, has an infinite capacity for music, and he would deal out parts to us. It never ceased to amaze me. It would be hard to grasp one part, yet he’d have all four parts in his head. He’d deal them out to us and we’d learn the parts and then sing them together.”
Bill Wagner, the Four Freshmen’s personal manager, recalled Brian visited him in his second-floor office at 6047 Hollywood Boulevard in summer 1958. He had gotten their address from the telephone book and told Wagner’s secretary he wanted to talk to someone about the Freshmen. Wagner recalled, “He told me he was the group’s biggest fan and knew every note of every record, and challenged me to test him. I played him ‘The Day Isn’t Long Enough,’ which the Freshmen had difficulty recording. Brian listened to the song four times and then sang each of the harmony parts perfectly. I told him he should have a group and he replied, ‘Well, that’s why I’m here. You’re going to show me how to start a group.’ He knew exactly why he was there.”
Ross Barbour, personal communication, October 2007.
Jeff Bleiel, Add Some Music, edited by Don Cunningham and Jeff Bleiel, Tiny Ripple Books, 2000, pages 92-93.
Jerry Fink. “Founder Recaps Freshmen Years, Q&A with Bob Flanigan,” Las Vegas Sun, January 3, 2008.
David Leaf, The Beach Boys and the California Myth, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978.
Melody Maker, December 3, 1966.
Ken Sharp, “Alan Jardine, A Beach Boy Still Riding the Waves,” Goldmine, July 28, 2000, page 15
Ken Sharp, “Christmas with Brian Wilson,” Record Collector, January 2006, page 75.
Bill Wagner, interview by author, November 2007.
Paul Williams, “Brian Wilson, Fi 1, no. 2, March 1996, page 27.
“Brian Wilson: I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” DVD, directed by Don Was, Artisan Home Entertainment, 1995.
Thank you for this excellent, well-written article! Please see Brian Wilson’s comment about the Cocoanut Grove at: https://www.laweekly.com/music/brian-and-melinda-wilson-on-unflinching-biopic-love-and-mercy-it-had-to-be-factual-5662997. (Though he puts the date in 1958).
Hi! Does anyone know how to find Bill Wagner? I have a recording he sent to my friend, Lee Hrarley (Rooker) and I’d love to talk to him if he’s still around. Thanks!