The Four Freshmen is a multiple (six) Grammy-nominated American male vocal band quartet that blends open-harmonic jazz arrangements with the big band vocal group sounds of The Modernaires (Glenn Miller), The Pied Pipers (Tommy Dorsey), and The Mel-Tones (Artie Shaw), founded in the barbershop tradition. The Four Freshmen is considered a vocal band because the singers accompany themselves on guitar, horns, bass, and drums, among other instrumental configurations.
The group tours internationally to sold-out audiences and records jazz harmonies since its late ’40s founding in the halls of the Jordan School of Music at Butler University (Indianapolis).
In early 1948, brothers Ross and Don Barbour, then at Butler University’s Arthur Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis, Indiana, formed a barbershop quartet called Hal’s Harmonizers.
The Harmonizers also included Marvin Pruitt — soon replaced by Ross and Don’s cousin Bob Flanigan — and Hal Kratzsch (1925–70), replaced in 1953 by Ken Errair. The quartet soon adopted a more jazz-oriented repertoire and renamed itself the Toppers. At first, they were influenced by Glenn Miller’s The Modernaires and Mel Tormé’s Mel-Tones, but soon developed their own style of improvised vocal harmony. In September 1948, the quartet went on the road as The Four Freshmen, and soon drew the admiration of jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Herman.
In 1950, The Four Freshmen got a break when band leader Stan Kenton heard the quartet in Dayton, Ohio, and arranged for an audition with his label, Capitol Records, which signed The Four later that year. In 1952, they released their first hit single “It’s a Blue World”. Further hits included “Mood Indigo” in 1954, “Day by Day” in 1955, and “Graduation Day” in 1956.
The Four Freshmen won Best Vocal Group of the Year in Down Beat magazine’s Readers’ Polls in 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 2000, and 2001.
The Four Freshmen were nominated in the Grammy Vocal Group Performance category in 1958 for The Four Freshmen in Person (Capitol), 1961 for Voices in Fun (Capitol), 1962 for The Swingers (Capitol), 1964 for More Four Freshmen and Five Trombones (Capitol), and in 1986 for Fresh!
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, The Four Freshmen released a number of recordings, made film and television appearances, and performed in concert. The group eventually lost their mainstream following with the advent of the British pop bands of the 1960s. The group did not disband, however, even after the last original member, Bob Flanigan, retired in 1992. After his retirement Flanigan managed the group and owned the rights to The Four Freshmen name. He died on May 15, 2011 at the age of 84 from congestive heart failure. Ross Barbour died on August 20, 2011 from cancer at the age of 82.
As of 2012, The Four Freshmen features Brian Eichenberger (lead, guitar, keyboards, arranger), Curtis Calderon (second voice, trumpet, flugelhorn), Vince Johnson (third voice, bass, trombone, whistler, scatter, arranger), and Bob Ferreira (fourth voice, drummer, soloist). They perform at upwards of 100 bookings a year. Eichenberger, Calderon, Johnson, and Ferreira have been honored with the following designations: JazzTimes magazine’s Readers Poll Best Vocal Group (multiple wins), Down Beat magazine’s Readers Poll Best Vocal Group (multiple wins), and Down Beat magazine’s Readers Poll Hall of Fame finals (multiple years).