You might not guess it, but the Four Freshmen were one of the most influential vocal groups of the middle of the 20th Century: Their 1955 album Four Freshmen And 5 Trombones was the first record the teenage Brian Wilson bought. Nearly three decades later, The Beach Boys’ star was still enthusing about the LP, saying: “How ’bout that? They had a demonstration booth where you could listen in the store and I found the Freshmen album. My mother said, ‘Do you really want to hear this?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ So I went into the little booth and played it and fell in love with it. I love the sound of the trombones. Wonderful songs like ‘I Remember You’ and ‘Mam’selle’.”
In fact, the trombone sound of the album owed much to the brass section of the Stan Kenton band. The pianist and bandleader had played a major part in the rise of the Freshman. In 1950 he had heard them at the Esquire Lounge, in Dayton, Ohio, and had been impressed by a singing group “that sounded like my 43-piece ensemble.” He arranged for an audition for the quartet at Capitol Records, paid the airfares, and even organized for mail for the youngsters to be sent to his home in La Cienega.
The band was comprised of Don Barbour (guitar, vocals) and his younger brother Ross (trumpet, vocals), who had started a barbershop quartet while they were freshmen at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis, in 1948, where they were joined by Ken Errair and Bob Flanagan.
After a low-key debut album, Voices In Modern, released earlier in 1955, they hit their stride with Four Freshmen And 5 Trombones, which had a sleevenote that read, “Things have come a long way since the boys used to gather in the barbershop, push aside the mustache caps and start their four-part harmonizing on ‘Sweet Adeline.’”
They were helped considerably by the esteemed Pete Rugalo, who served as arranger on the album. The Sicily-born composer and producer – who was responsible for so many great arrangements for Kenton’s band – also worked with Harry Belafonte, Peggy Lee, and Mel Tormé.
Rugalo helped bring out the best from the Freshmen (who became known as “The Frosh”), weaving their sensuous, intricate harmonies with the brass section. The five trombonists, too, were top class: Frank Rosolino, Harry Betts, Tommy Pederson, George Roberts, and Milt Bernhart, the man whose wonderful solo was such a feature of Frank Sinatra’s version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Jazz stars Barney Kessell (guitar) and Shelly Manne (drums) also added their considerable talents to the 34-minute record.
Flanagan said: “I approached singing lead as if I was playing the trombone in Stan Kenton’s band. We also used no vibrato because Kenton’s trombones didn’t.”
The interesting and colorful songs added to the appeal of the album. There were a couple of showtune classics (“The Last Time I Saw Paris” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II; “I Remember You” by Victor Schertzinger and Johnny Mercer), along with “You Stepped Out Of A Dream,” “Angel Eyes,” and “Love Is Just Around The Corner.”
They also covered “Mam’selle,” a melancholy song about European tensions leading to war, which had first been heard in the 1946 Tyrone Powers film The Razor’s Edge.
There were two co-written songs by George Gershwin (“Love Is Here To Stay” and “Somebody Loves Me”), but perhaps the most unwittingly noteworthy choice was “Speak Low,” which had music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by the poet Ogden Nash. Initially, Ira Gershwin had been due to write the lyrics for the 1943 tune which was intended to be sung in a film by Marlene Dietrich. The actress changed her mind, however, and said the lyrics (“The curtain descends, everything ends too soon”) were “too sexy and too profane,” prompting Weill to describe her in a letter as a “conceited, stupid cow.” The Freshmen, probably knowing nothing of the background, turned it into a sweet pop song.
When the Freshmen were starting out, jazz star Kenton joked, “You guys gotta succeed. You can’t fail; you’re part of my ego.” Succeed they did – and never more so than with the delightful Four Freshmen And 5 Trombones, which was in the Billboard charts for eight months, reaching a peak of No.5. It remains the group’s best-selling record.