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The Four Freshmen: Tradition and Innovation in a New Century

The Four  Freshmen: Tradition and Innovation in a New Century

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We do stuff that's timeless... if it's good music, we'll interpret it in a way that we feel good about.
—Bob Ferreira
The year was 1963. The President of the United States was John F Kennedy. It was late Summer. I was riding back from the Jersey shore, returning from vacation. I was twelve years old.

My Dad always had music on, always and everywhere, but especially, in the car, a two-tone 1955 Buick Special. I'm pretty sure the tuner had push buttons. I was, as usual, in the back seat.

One reason the scene from fifty years ago returns so clearly is, of course, the music Dad had on fixed the scene in both my aural and visual memories. The lyrics especially interested me, although at twelve, I really had no idea what they meant.

"Up at dawn and sleepy and yawning
Still the taste of wine.
Then I remember you're mine and
I've got a world that's fine.
What's before me? Routines that bore me.
Punch the clock at 8. But what a lucky guy I'm
I've got a world that's great.
Atom bombs,Cape Canaveral and false alarms
Half the universe is up in arms
So I flip a little too, until I'm holding you.
What's the hassle, I'll buy the castle
We can live like kings
If we're together forever
I've got a world that
You've got a world that
We've got a world that swings"

A period piece, right? "We've Got a World That Swings." Especially the atom bombs part, which was, folks of a certain age may recall, more than a remote possibility then. What really got me was the melody, and above all, although I could not have told you what they were doing, the harmonies. Here was a bunch of guys singing in the upper register, accompanied by, I think, a rhythm section and trombones. They were tight. And they were swinging. I had been raised on swing, so it all worked. But who, I wondered, were The Four Freshmen? I doubt I could have defined "freshman" either. No matter. I was hooked.

Now, fast forward a half century or so.

Through a variety of indirect connections and musician friends in San Antonio, Texas, I occasionally crossed paths with a trumpet player named Curtis Calderon. Someone told me that Calderon, who is a fine player, is on the road with... The Four Freshmen. Those Four Freshmen, as in the group I had dug so many years earlier? Yeah, those Four Freshmen. I hadn't heard the group in a while, so, through the magic of You Tube, I searched for them. First thing I found was a "then and now" recording of the classic standard, "Poinciana."

My Heaven, they sounded nearly the same as they did when I first heard them. But just as obviously, these are not the Four Freshmen of fifty years ago. Same group, different personnel, remarkably similar signature sound. So, with so much water under the bridge in the pop world, I wonder, how do they pull it off—a unique sound, but one they manage to keep fresh after half a century.

So I decided to ask.

Naturally, I went to Curtis Calderon, who agreed to discuss the group if he could be joined by the group's de facto "historian," Bob Ferreira. So, here, in a nutshell, is a reintroduction to The Four Freshmen.

Their current incarnation includes Brian Eichenberger (melody voice, acoustic bass,chief vocal arranger and musical director) Stein Malvey (second voice and guitar), Curtis Calderon (third voice and trumpet/flugelhorn), and Bob Ferreira (bass voice and drums), and at twenty two years, the member of longest standing. Ferreira is a link to the original group via Bob Flanigan, a founding member of The Four Freshmen, who retired in 1993 and passed away in 2011.

By most counts, this is the group's 23d edition, and 24 musicians have passed through in more or less 60 years of existence. Since the Freshmen were singing well before the Beatles made their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show fifty years ago (1964), small wonder that the continuity in sound strikes so many listeners, who still turn out to hear them in large numbers.

Part of the group's continuity comes from long-term stability, even as individual players come and go. The three longest-tenured current members have been in place for an average of fourteen years, which is just about the last time there was a change of personnel. "It's a level of commitment," says Bob Ferreira. "To learn and to be able to perform this style of music well is not easy stuff....We're backing ourselves up instrumentally....We're singing these real intricate harmonies...We're trying to entertain at the same time....It's a [high]level of commitment." Calderon puts it slightly differently. "It's very challenging...[because] all four of us are the bandleader, the MC, the backup band—we're all the lead singer. To execute it flawlessly is the big goal for all of us."

The Freshmen aren't a repertory band. "We try to stay true to the vocal arrangements," Ferreira says, but the music and the instrumentation inevitably evolves. There are charts for recordings, and, on occasion, the group goes back to "original, original" versions to get some idea of what an earlier version of the band of the time was trying to do. But there always has to be some balance between novelty and tradition because changing up and getting things right at the same time is not easy, especially touring 6 to 7 months and doing up to 90 shows a year. So the band still sings "It's a Blue World," "Day by Day," "Route 66" "Angel Eyes" and other staples of the Four Freshmen from another time.

"Our lives are based around multitasking," Ferreira jokes, but to introduce new material, get it right, and maintain a high level of performance puts a premium on the group's continuity. Since the Freshmen's history is tied in many ways to Stan Kenton—who had the early 1950s band sign with Capitol records—I wondered if the Freshmen continue to think of themselves as a jazz group, whatever that might mean. "We always kind of fall between the cracks," says Ferreira. "Basically we are just an entertainment act that plays great music." Calderon adds, "We've got the same question ourselves. It sounds like The Beach Boys singing jazz. That's kind of as close as you can get."

It's an astute characterization. It has been repeatedly documented how strong an influence on Brian Wilson The Freshmen's harmonies were. As Wilson put it, "I got so into the Four Freshman...I worked for a year on the Four Freshmen with my high-fi set. I eventually learned every song they did." By the same token, the sound of the Beach Boys, the music of the Golden State at its peak, is something the Baby Boomers grew up on, even if they never really focused on standards, much less jazz. That demographic—the Boomers— is now a prime target for the Freshmen. They can focus on their sound and its traditional close harmonies without being wedded to a particular genre or to an audience that has now largely disappeared. As if to close the circle, Wilson still drops by Freshmen appearances when they are in Southern California. The Freshmen return the favor by adding their cover of "Little Surfer Girl." It's an ingenious way of summarizing a half century of the group's history.

Looking toward the future, what do members of one of America's foundational vocal groups see? A new member, Stein Malvey, has joined to replace the recently departed Vince Johnson, who had been with the group for thirteen years. A recently released CD, "The Four Freshmen Live at the Franklin Theatre" is now available at the group's website as is its current touring schedule extending into 2015. Social media are important to the Freshmen in the 21st century as well, with a Facebook page approaching 5,000 likes. In addition, the Freshman stay in touch with much of their fan base through the Four Freshmen Society.

Musically, let Bob and Curtis have the last words.

Bob: "There are four individuals in the Four Freshmen....Each person who comes into the group adds something special that really helps redefine the group in that time...We do stuff that's timeless... if it's good music, we'll interpret it in a way that we feel good about." In other words, if it's jazz, great, but as long as we like it, that's more important.

Curtis: "It's cool to simply play great music and attract fans that aren't [accustomed to] the style of music you play. It's a high compliment to me." Or, simply, the Four Freshmen of the 1950s and 1960s did the music of their day. The fact that they did it well, and in their style, was what ultimately made the music "classic." That's what the Four Freshmen of the Twentieth First century are most intent on doing and their longevity and continuing appeal suggest that they continue to do it very well.

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