Bob Flanigan, a founding member and original lead singer of the innovative vocal group the Four Freshmen, whose elegantly intricate jazz-rooted singing was a profound influence on Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson as well as the Lettermen, the Manhattan Transfer and numerous other vocal acts, died Sunday at his home in Las Vegas of congestive heart failure. He was 84.
Flanigan, who retired from performing with the group in 1992 but continued as its manager until his death, was surrounded by friends and family and had been serenaded by an ad hoc group of eight trombone players a few hours before he died, a spokeswoman for the current edition of the Grammy-winning group said Monday. The original lineup charted a handful of hits in the '50s, including "Graduation Day," '"It's a Blue World" and their arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo."
"Bob Flanigan and the Four Freshmen were my harmonic education," Wilson said Monday through his manager. "I saw them at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood in 1958. My dad and I went backstage and met the Freshmen. I was nervous because they were my idols. They were so nice to me. I was just 15 years old. I'll forever miss his friendship."
Wilson has long cited the Freshmen as one of the two most important influences on the Beach Boys' sound, the other being the exuberant guitar-driven rock of Chuck Berry.
Tony Butala, founding member of the Lettermen vocal trio, was similarly affected by the music of the group that was formed in 1948 at Butler University in Indiana by Flanigan, his cousins Don and Ross Barbour and their friend Hal Kratzch. "The Freshmen were my heroes when I was in high school," Butala said. "We became friends, and he didn't so much take me under his wing, but he was very much helpful. We always argued, jokingly, that [the Lettermen were] the Four Freshmen without doing all the modern harmony."
Ross Barbour, 82 and now the group's last surviving original member, said in a statement: "Flanigan's voice was indestructible. He could drive all day and all night without stopping between gigs, and when our voices were on the edge, Bob was still in full form."
Flanigan, who also was a trombonist, often credited big band leader Stan Kenton as being the key influence on what the Freshmen wanted to achieve, a sound built on more sophisticated harmonies than typical of the male vocal quartets that preceded them.
"I always thought of singing as if I were playing trombone with Stan," Flanigan told The Times in 1991. "We think like horn players. The way we blend is due to our approach as instrumentalists. Also, we use no vibrato, because Kenton's trombones didn't."
All members of the Four Freshmen also played instruments, which made them unique among close-harmony vocal groups of the era. In addition, Flanigan's exceptional vocal range allowed him to take the melody above the other three voices, which also opened new vistas in male quartet singing. The Freshmen were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001.
Robert Lee Flanigan was born Aug. 22, 1926, in Greencastle, Ind., to Minter and Nellie Flanigan. From an early age he was enthralled with the sound of jazz, especially big-band singer and trombonist Jack Teagarden and bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker.
Upon completing a stint in the military during World War II, where he served in Germany, Flanigan enrolled at Butler, where Hal Kratzsch and brothers Don and Ross Barbour had formed a barbershop quartet with high harmony singer Marvin Pruitt.
When Pruitt developed stage fright and decided to quit, it opened the door for the Barbours to reach out to their cousin Flanigan. After he came aboard, the quartet changed its name from the Toppers to the Four Freshmen.
A friend of Kenton's urged him to see the group because it had developed a reputation of having a vocal sound like that of his band. He promptly connected the Freshmen with officials at his record label, Capitol, which signed the group and soon released its first hit, "It's a Blue World," in 1952.
"I don't know if they were necessarily really looking to push the envelope as far as the sound goes, they just knew what sounded good to them," said Bob Ferreira, who joined the Freshmen shortly after Flanigan retired in 1992 and has worked closely with him for nearly 19 years.
Flanigan is survived by his wife, Mary; his sister Maxine Thomas; children Scott, Jill, and Stephen Flanigan, Julie Maple, Jennifer Turner and Debbie Muria, and 15 grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service are pending.