Tim Hauser Remembers Ross Barbour and Bob Flanigan
The Manhattan Transfer founder on the last of the Four Freshmen
The passing of Ross Barbour this past August was duly noted and, I must say, it carried a bit of a sting. The end of an era always carries that bite of reality that causes one to pause and reflect. Ross was the last surviving member of the Four Freshmen, and his passing fell so quickly after his partner Bob Flanigan, who passed in May. Bob was the signature voice of the Four Freshmen, and Ross was the group’s founder. My first introduction to one of my favorite vocal groups occurred in 1955, when WNEW played their single “Day by Day.” The musical bar was much higher in those days, so they were not looked upon as a jazz group, but rather a pop group. After all, “Day by Day” was a hit single.
What was it about the Four Freshmen that so captivated me back when I was 13? I didn’t know much about vocal group history, but certainly had enjoyed the big-band groups like the Pied Pipers and the Merry Macs. I also liked the Mills Brothers and the Four Aces. But the Four Freshmen were different. They were, for want of a better term, modern. I can’t find any other way to describe that sound. I purchased “Day by Day” at my local record store and played that 45 over and over. The flip side was “How Can I Tell Her.” It was as beautiful as the A-side, and that cut too got its grooves worn. That sound really got to me—the way those voices moved around inside the harmony was like nothing I had ever heard.
My finances didn’t allow me to buy albums back in those days, so my Four Freshmen inventory was relegated to that one precious 45-rpm single. When I entered Villanova University in 1959, that all changed. During the first week at school, I joined the staff of the radio station, WWVU. I scoured their record library and began listening to all the Four Freshmen albums. There was one recording I would like to talk about. It was on an album called Voices in Latin. The song is “Star Eyes.” To me, it is the quintessential Four Freshmen recording. The song begins with the group singing the refrain a cappella, with those characteristic open voicings and altered chords. When the first verse begins with the rhythm section, the Four Freshmen style is clearly laid out: The first half of the verse is sung in unison, followed by those incredible bursts of harmony. The bridge is all in harmony, with more of those familiar unisons and harmonies. Unisons, harmonies, open voicings, movable inner parts—all so beautiful and so, so modern. And, oh yes, one can’t rule out that signature sound of Bob Flanigan’s voice on top.
The Four Freshmen performed at Villanova in 1962, and it was the group that featured Ross, Bob, Ken Albers and Bill Comstock, who had replaced Ross’ brother Don, who was killed in an automobile accident the previous year. Vince Johnson, who is a current member of the Four Freshmen, calls this period the Ken Albers years, and considers it to be the group’s classic years. The thing that impressed me so with that concert was the fact that they accompanied themselves—something of which I was not aware. If the singing wasn’t great enough, the fact that they were such great players overwhelmed me. I began to understand the deeper levels of what I was to perceive as true jazz talent.
My next encounter with the Freshmen occurred in 1985, when the Manhattan Transfer was in pre-production for our album Vocalese. We were working in Las Vegas one weekend, and driving from the airport I noticed a sign advertising the Four Freshmen appearing at one of the hotels. We were all so excited about this and went to the gig and ended up catching both sets. We hung with the guys afterwards and had a ball. That incarnation included Bob Flanigan, along with Rod Henley, Autie Goodman and Mike Beisner. As a vocal group fan, I can tell you it was a thrill to meet Bob. I remember him always smiling, with a great sense of humor and, of course, he was always an incredible singer and trombonist.
Now, one of the cuts on Vocalese that was suggested by Jon Hendricks was the Thad Jones composition “To You.” It was taken from a recording done by the Duke Ellington and Count Basie Orchestras combined. My Transfer partner Alan Paul suggested that, given these two bands recorded the song together, we should do the tune with another vocal group. So we had just met the Freshmen, and that was that. It was a destined moment, meant to happen. We cut the tune with them, along with Philly Joe Jones, Richard Davis and Tommy Flanagan. Not bad company, indeed. To round it off and make it organic, we hired the Freshmen’s frequent vocal arranger, Dick Reynolds, to do the chart. That was one of the most memorable musical experiences of our career.
To bring things full circle, Vince Johnson, of the current Four Freshmen incarnation, is a friend of mine, and we go to ball games together. Our respective ladies are friends, so we hang quite a bit. The Four Freshmen of today are as good as the band during the Ken Albers days. Yes, it was duly noted that Ross Barbour passed, as the last original member. But the good news is the Four Freshmen are still making great music. Go check them out, say hello to Vince, and give him my regards. They are still quite “modern.”