They are Brian Wilson's favorite live act and there wouldn't have been a Beach Boys without them.
Longtime “CBS Sunday Morning” anchor Charles Osgood once declared that they've “endured for the simple reason that they are tops in their class.”
And Downbeat Magazine has honored them with its prestigious Best Vocal Group award seven times since 1953. Jazz Times bestowed the same title upon them in 2003 and 2005.
On Tuesday at Oklahoma City Community College, the 22nd version of the Four Freshmen will demonstrate the handsome four-part harmonies that have earned them all of these honors and adulation throughout 65 years of continuous performing.
“Well, I've never seen the Beach Boys except for when Brian Wilson has come to see our show,” said senior Freshmen member Bob Ferreira in a recent phone interview from his Las Vegas home.
“Yeah, there's no denying the Beach Boys' sound is just great,” he said. “We all love the Beach Boys, and the fact of what they have done to inspire generations of musicians with their style of music. It's great to know that what we do actually inspired them.”
Of course, the Four Freshmen don't sing about surfboards, T-Birds or good vibrations. They're all about jazz and pop standards dating from the recent past back to the pre-rock 'n' roll days.
Brothers Ross and Don Barbour were attending Butler University's Arthur Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis in early 1948 when they formed a barbershop quartet called Hal's Harmonizers with Hal Kratzsch and the Barbour's cousin, Bob Flanigan.
The quartet soon adopted a more jazz-oriented style, at first influenced by Glenn Miller's Modernaires and Mel Torme's Mel-Tones, but gradually developed their own style of improvised vocal harmony.
“Actually, the funny thing is that when they first came up with the sound, they would all sit around a guitar and they would go through, chord by chord, and just kind of develop this sound,” Ferreira said. “They didn't have any written arrangements, they didn't have arrangers who wrote for them. With songs like ‘Poinciana' they created it chord by chord. Which explains why you actually have a lot of these hits songs like ‘It's a Blue World' and ‘Poinciana' with all these long, sustained harmonies, these sustained chords that just hold on for a couple of bars, mainly because they didn't want to disrupt the flow. They'd rather have the chord ring, and in developing that sound it was sort of a simplistic idea, but a very complex sound came out of it.”
The quartet went on the road as the Four Freshmen in September 1948, and in 1950 their big break came when band leader Stan Kenton heard the quartet and set up an audition with Capitol Records, which signed the group.
The Freshmen had their first hit single in 1952 with “It's a Blue World,” followed by other hits such as “Poinciana” (1953), “Mood Indigo” (1954), “Day by Day” (1955) and “Graduation Day” (1956).
With the advent of rock 'n' roll and the onslaught of the British Invasion, the quartet's string of hits eventually played out, but they've continued to record and tour ever since, the lineup changing and rearranging many times along the way.
But their sound remains the same, now with the current lineup of Ferreira on vocals and drums (20 years); Brian Eichenberger, lead singer, guitarist and chief arranger (16 years); Curtis Calderon, second tenor singer, trumpet, flugelhorn (new guy, 11 years); and Vince Johnson, baritone singer, bassist, whistler (12 years).
Founding member Flanagan himself was quoted as saying of this configuration: “This is the best Four Freshmen of all time.”
Flanagan and cousin Ross Barbour, the last two original members, both long retired from the group, died within two months of each other last year. The name Four Freshmen is now owned by Flanagan's widow, Mary, and the current members.
In celebration of its approaching 65th anniversary, the band has released a new album, “Love Songs,” and is on the extensive tour that will bring it here at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“We incorporate education into our shows or around our shows,” Ferreira said. “At Oklahoma City Community College we're actually having a master class that afternoon before the show, from 3 to 4 o'clock. And it's open to the public and everybody can come and we'll basically answer questions about the group or about musical questions, all kinds of stuff having to deal with life on the road or the musical aspects.”
One could even hope that Brian Wilson might show up, but that chance is pretty slim.
Still, Ferreira says, “Brian Wilson always mentions the Four Freshmen whenever he does an interview, whenever he does anything about how heavily influenced he was by this sound and how passionate he is about the sound. He'll come to see us at a show, or beforehand he'll come back to the dressing room and he'll sit and he'll say, ‘Can you sing the beginning of “Little Girl Blue?”' I love that. Or he'll say, ‘Can I sing it with you guys? Can I sing the bass part?' And we're like, ‘Sure, have at it,' you know?”
The Four Freshmen
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Oklahoma City Community College Theatre, 7777 S May Ave.
Information: 682-7579; occc.edu/cas/