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The Four Freshmen: Tradition and Innovation in a New Century

Richard J Salvucci By

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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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