Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, July 20, 2001


From left are Brian Eichenberger, Bob Ferreira,
Vince Johnson and Greg Stegeman.

Still in tune

Four Freshmen's tight harmony
has endured for nearly 55 years

By Tim Ryan

In 1947 four young Hoosiers organized a quartet at Butler University in Indianapolis with the plan to take a year off from college to go on the road to sing and have a good time. Then they would go back to graduate and become music teachers.

"The Four Freshmen never became sophomores," said Bob Flanigan, a founding member of the group which outlasted the folk-singer craze, Elvis period, Beatlemania, even rock 'n' roll itself.

Sales of Four Freshmen albums, even with numerous lineup changes, have reached the 2 million mark; the group has won every major music poll and been honored by Downbeat, Playboy and Billboard magazines as the nation's "Best Vocal Group." Along the way, the ground-breaking group influenced the Hi-Lo's, Beach Boys, Manhattan Transfer and countless other close-harmony outfits.

"We've been on the road for 53 years," said Flanigan, who retired from singing with the group a decade ago because of hearing problems.

The latest, younger incarnation of the Four Freshmen will perform tomorrow night at the Blaisdell Concert Hall as part of the Hawaii International Jazz Festival. The "Salute to Stan Kenton -- Part II" features the Four Freshman, Bud Shank, Gabe Baltazar, Marvin Stamm Duo, and the San Diego State University Big Band from 7 to 10 p.m.

The original Freshmen -- Flanigan, his cousins Ross and Don Barbour, and Hal Kratzsch -- were influenced by Mel Torme's Mel-Tones but took their sound in a completely new direction. Singing groups in the '40s and '50s had the lead voice in the middle of the chord.

"We were the first male group to put the lead voice at the top of the chord," Flanigan said. 'It made our arrangements as distinctive as fingerprints. We were instantly recognizable."

The Freshmen called their style "open" harmony because they spread their four voices over the area that a five-part group would cover.

Then there was their musicianship. Most singing groups just sing; the Freshmen provide their own accompaniment playing a dozen instruments.

"During our first four years we managed somehow to keep from setting the world on fire," said Flanigan, now 75. "We made a lot of music and very little money."

In 1950, Stan Kenton saw the quartet in concert in Ohio and arranged an audition for Capitol Records, which signed the group almost immediately.

The Freshmen's first hit single was 1952's "It's A Blue World," which reached No. 30 on pop charts. By 1955, the group had logged two more Top 40 hits, "It Happened Once Before" and "Mood Indigo." "Graduation Day" hit No. 17 in 1956 and later was recorded by the Beach Boys. The group had seven album hits, including the Top 10 "Four Freshmen and 5 Trombones" in 1956, and "4 Freshmen and 5 Trumpets" the following year.

Personnel changes occurred every few years as members grew weary of the constant travel. Last year, the Four Freshmen were on the road some 130 days, performing at jazz festivals and with symphonies and big bands.

Current members are:

>> Brian Eichenberger, 24, from Apple Valley, Minn., who joined the group in 1996, singing the top part in the harmonies while playing bass, guitar and piano. He got the call to join the Freshmen while studying jazz arrangement and performance at the School for Music Vocations in Iowa;

>> Vince Johnson, singer, bass player, guitarist and trombonist, who received his undergraduate Bachelor of Music degree in 1994 from Cal State Long Beach, and his Masters in Jazz Studies from the University of Southern California in 1996.

>> Greg Stegeman, in his 11th year with the Freshmen, sings the third position in the group and also has composed many arrangements for the group. After graduating from California State University with an undergraduate degree in music performance he made several appearances on "The Merv Griffin Show" with the show's band "Sounds of Joy." He plays trumpet, flugelhorn and keyboards.

>> Bob Ferreira began singing the fourth part in the group's harmonies and playing drums for the Freshmen in 1992. Originally from Seattle, Wash., his introduction to Freshmen began when he studied with former group member Kirk Marcy at Edmond Community College.

Flanigan, who is attending the Hawaii performances, believes a major reason for the group's continued popularity largely is due to hooking college audiences in the '50s and '60s when they performed more than 3,000 college and university concerts.

"We caught their attention as young adults; they liked what they heard, and still do I guess," Flanigan said. "The hit records kept our name out there."

That same audience has formed several fan clubs and the Four Freshmen Society which holds an annual a convention honoring the group.

"The Four Freshmen has been a part of my life in so many ways," Flanigan said. "I always said if I couldn't maintain the sound I was out of there. The group is more important than any one guy."

'Salute to Stan Kenton -- Part II'

What: Featuring the Four Freshman, Bud Shank, Gabe Baltazar, Marvin Stamm Duo, and the San Diego State University Big Band
When: 7 to 10 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets: $20, $35 & $40; student tickets $5 with I.D.; also special discounts available to seniors, military, students, and Foodland Maika'i Card members; available at Ticket Plus outlets including Foodland and Sack 'n' Save stores, and the Blaisdell box office; or order by phone at 526-4400
Call: 941-9974

8th Annual Hawaii
International Jazz Festival

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall and McKinley High Auditorium
When: 7 p.m. today through Saturday at the Blaisdell and 4 p.m. Sunday at McKinley
Tickets: $20, $35 and $40 per night (a multiple-day pass is available as well as special senior and military discounts, and student tickets are $5, with proof of ID required). Available at the Blaisdell Box Office and Ticket Plus outlets or charge by phone at 526-4400.

Today and tomorrow

Tribute to Stan Kenton: With Carmen Bradford and the USC Big Band and Nestor Torres (Friday) and The Four Freshmen, Bud Shank, the Marvin Stamm Duo and the San Diego State Big Band (Saturday). Other Kenton alumni on both nights include Gabe Baltazar, Bill Mays, Buddy Childers, Eddie Bert and Dick "Slyde" Hyde.


Parade of Big Bands: Featuring the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Gabe Baltazar and student scholarship winners, as well as the big bands from UH, USC and San Diego State, and the Oahu Junior Jazz Ensemble.

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