If it hadn’t been for romance, a constant theme in their music, the Four Freshmen might not have outlasted their debut performance.
“The first place we ever played as the Freshmen was a place called the 113 Club in Fort Wayne, Ind.,” founding member Bob Flanigan recalled in a phone conversation earlier this week from his home in Las Vegas. “The most predominant thing we could see from the stage was the pay phone across the dance floor. Since there was nobody there (in the club), we had a clear view of that pay phone.”
“We no sooner get into the second tune than we see the owner of the place go over to the phone and start shouting, ‘Get these guys out of here, they’re terrible.’ But the owner’s daughter happened to be sweet on (group member) Hal Kratzch, and she convinced her father to keep us for the full two weeks.”
The date of that first performance, Sept. 20, 1948, will be honored this weekend at the Cafe Lido when the latest edition of the Freshmen will host Flanigan and other former members, including Ross Barbour, to celebrate the vocal-instrumental quartet’s 45th anniversary.
Before they re-christened themselves the Four Freshmen, Flanigan and company had been known as the Toppers.
“We were all in college together at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music back in Indiana, and we had done a few gigs together and thought, ‘Let’s get an agent and go out on the road for a year and then go back to college and get a degree,’ ” he said.
“We realized right away there were several groups called the Toppers, so our agency said, ‘You all look like college guys’ and came up with the name ‘the Freshmen Four.’ But that sounded too much like a barbershop quartet, so we switched it around.”
The 45 years that followed were a whirlwind of tours and recordings that brought the well-harmonized group a following that has stuck with it through the reigns of Elvis Presley, the Beatles and disco as well as the various permutations jazz has experienced during that time.
“We began touring Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin in a 1939 Packard, the four of us squeezing inside with the bass. But after '(It’s a) Blue World’ hit it big, I think we left the Packard out in the desert somewhere,” Flanigan said with a laugh.
“It’s a Blue World,” the first of three Top 30 hits the group charted, rocketed the Freshmen to national prominence in 1952. Flanigan credits a Detroit disc jockey for breaking the tune.
“We were playing over in Windsor, Canada, and this deejay, Bruce Murphy, came over to hear us, and liked it so much he arranged for us to play over in Detroit the next time we came through. And he said, ‘Do you have anything I can play to stir up some excitement?’ So we gave him the recording of ‘Blue World’ we had done. And the thing just exploded. We haven’t bombed in Detroit since.”
Flanigan feels that the Freshmen’s initial break came when they met Stan Kenton in 1950.
“We were working the Esquire Lounge in Dayton, Ohio, when Stan came through with the Innovations Orchestra and a friend of ours brought him to hear us after his concert. We were still in our infancy at the time, just 2 years old and still scuffling to get the sound we wanted,” he said.
“But Stan liked the potential of the Freshmen, what he thought we would turn into. And he came up to us after the show and said, ‘You guys should record, I’ll handle it, you’ll hear from me in the middle of May.’ And with that he had a drink and left.”
Sure enough, on May 15, Flanigan received a letter from Kenton directing him to New York to record under the direction of longtime Capitol arranger Pete Rugolo. Kenton then called for the band to come to California, where it played Hollywood’s Studio Club.
The Four Freshmen were on their way.
Flanigan attributes much of the group’s longevity to the fans it earned in its first several years. “We played over 3,000 colleges in the ‘50s and ‘60s, sometimes two in a day, with people like Dave Brubeck and Maynard Ferguson and Stan (Kenton) and June Christy.
“We made our fans in their college days, when people are trying to make up their minds what they want to do for a living, the kind of gal or guy they want to marry, where they want to live. I’ve never played any place on earth where somebody hasn’t come up to me and said, ‘I saw you back when, at the University of Mississippi or Ohio University’ or wherever. We played the soundtrack to their lives.”
The vocal and multi-instrumental talents of the group’s various members over the years have given it a unique niche in pop music.
“When we first started,” Flanigan recalls, “we were just singers. But we realized we’d never get work because we’d have to hire a rhythm section. I played bass and trombone, the other guys could play, so we decided to back ourselves. It took a lot of rehearsal time before we could sing and play at the same time. But thank God we did. It’s one of the things that’s kept the group going. Find us a single 110 outlet and we can play anywhere.”
Flanigan, who supplied the high-end to the Freshmen’s four-part harmonies, retired in November, but the group lives on. The current members--Mike Beisner, Greg Stegeman, Kevin Stout and Bob Ferreira--are bringing back tunes that haven’t been heard from the Freshmen for years as well as preparing a new album that will focus on the music of Frank Sinatra.
“The new group is frightening,” says Flanigan, who will make a guest appearance this weekend singing “Day by Day.”
“They were rehearsing at my house, and I was in the den listening, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, they’re raising the pitch on those things. I never sang that high.’ Then I realized I did sing that high. I must have been crazy.”
Flanigan says he’s never regretted leaving college to tour as the Four Freshmen.
“We were studying to be music teachers in college, and it’s fortunate that we didn’t stay in school. Not to put teaching down, but we’ve been able to reach so many people through records and performing,” he said.
“It’s really exciting to go into, say, Czechoslovakia when the revolution was starting, and have a guy come up and hug you and say, ‘Thank you very much for making it possible for me to be a musician-singer all these years and making a living playing Four Freshmen arrangements.’ Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would hear that back in Indiana.”
* The Four Freshmen sing tonight at 8:30 and Sunday at 4:30 and 8 p.m. at Cafe Lido, 501 30th St., Newport Beach. $20 (tonight), $17.50 (Sunday). (714) 675-2968.