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The Four Freshmen: Tradition and Innovation in a New Century

The Four  Freshmen: Tradition and Innovation in a New Century
Richard  J Salvucci By

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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."

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