a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed January 31, 1997
There are many Halls of Fame in this area -- the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Cleveland’s Lakefront, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and the Inventors’ Hall of Fame in Akron. There is talk of establishing a Jazz Hall of Fame in Pittsburgh. But now, there is a new hall of fame in nearby Sharon, Pennsylvania, just across the state line from Youngstown and about an hour’s drive from Cleveland.
The new hall of fame in Sharon is the Vocal Groups Hall of Fame and the first induction ceremony will take place next July 19th.
The first group to be inducted in the Vocal Groups Hall of Fame will be the Four Freshmen, the group that dominated the jazz vocal group polls during the 1950s and ‘60s. The Four Freshmen are still going strong despite a number of personnel changes since the group was formed almost half a century ago.
The original Four Freshmen -- Bob Flanigan, his cousins Ross and Don Barbour, and Hal Kratzsch -- were students at Butler University’s Arthur Jordon Conservatory of Music when they began listening to various vocal groups including Stan Kenton’s Pastels. That Kenton group included a singer named Howard Hoffman, who later became an announcer and weather forecaster at Cleveland’s channel 8.
By October of 1949, the Freshmen were performing at the Esquire Lounge in Dayton. One night five months later, when they were performing, Kenton stopped in at the Esquire Lounge to hear the young group. Kenton told the Four Freshmen that he would try to persuade the executives of Capitol Records to sign the Freshmen to a recording contract. In October of 1950, they made their first record for Capitol, "Mr. B’s Blues."
With only two 78 records to their credit, the Four Freshmen in December of 1951 appeared as the opening act for singer Johnny Ray at Moe’s Main Street on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. In January of 1952, the Freshmen played at the Old Mill in Akron and at the Akron Armory.
In July of 1952, Ross Barbour, in his book Now You Know, recalled he and the other Freshmen were in a coffee shop in Akron when they first heard a record they had made for Capitol 14 months earlier. "It’s a Blue World" became a big hit record among both jazz and pop fans and opened the door to concerts around the country, including the Ohio State Student Union in December of 1952.
After that concert and a week at the Palm Garden in Columbus, the Freshmen drove to Cleveland for another engagement at Moe’s Main Street and to promote their records. Barbour wrote, "In those days, Cleveland was the place where the big hits were made. If you wanted your record to go to the top, you would put it into the hands of Cleveland disc jockeys."
While they were here, the Freshmen were asked to judge a talent contest at a Cleveland TV station. Ross Barbour recalls one of the contestants was an accordionist who played "Lady of Spain" and had forgotten to zip his fly.
By the beginning of 1953, the Freshmen had two records on the hit charts -- "Blue World" and "The Day Isn’t Long Enough."
When they were appearing with singer June Christy at the Yankee Inn in Akron, the Four Freshmen were made honorary members of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at the University of Akron. Later in 1953, after Ken Errair replaced Hal Kratzch, they sang and played at the Blue Crystal in Girard, the Spa Athletic Club in Erie, in Columbus for a week, at Ohio Wesleyan, at Bexley High School and Capital University in Columbus, and Dennison University before returning to the Esquire Lounge in Dayton.
The Four Freshmen’s first album, Voices in Modern, was released in August of 1954. It demonstrated not only the solo voice of Don Barbour, but the fact that in addition to being a very popular jazz vocal group, the Freshmen were also very talented jazz instrumentalists.
In May of 1955, when I spent some time with the Four Freshmen, we used to go out almost every night to local jazz clubs. The members of the most popular vocal group in the country sat in -- instrumentally -- with local jazz groups and more than held their own. It was interesting that most of the customers in the jazz clubs in Easton, Pennsylvania, where I was going to Lafayette College and working in a local radio station, had no idea these guest artists, sitting in with their local favorites, were members of the then-famous Four Freshmen. But, the word got around to the jazz players in the area and there were wild jam sessions almost every night.
During those days in Easton, the Freshmen were rehearsing for their Four Freshmen and Five Trombones album.
By the time the Four Freshmen began their extended "Road Show" with Stan Kenton in 1959, Ken Albers had replaced Ken Errair. They played for five thousand at Ohio State in 1963 and in June of 1964, appeared every day for a week on the Mike Douglas Show at Channel 3 in Cleveland. In 1967, they performed for six thousand at Kent State University and returned to Cleveland in the summer of 1968.
Over the years, there have actually been 22 Four Freshmen. Bob Flanigan continued to sing with the group for 44 years -- until 1992, three years after he suffered a heart attack at Chautauqua in nearby New York State. He now lives in Las Vegas and is the group’s manager. Ross Barber retired after 29 years -- in 1977, and now lives in Simi Valley, California. His brother, Don Barbour, was killed in an auto accident in 1961. Ken Errair was killed in a plane crash in California in 1969. Hal Kratzch died of cancer in 1970. But, other talented young singers and instrumentalists are continuing the Four Freshmen tradition. They appeared with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra in the springs of 1994 and 1995 and plan to perform with the CJO when the Freshmen will be the first group to be inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon, Pennsylvania next July.
When that induction ceremony concert takes place at the Sharon Radisson Hotel, Ted Driscol of Elyria, the national president of the Four Freshmen Society, says the two surviving original Four Freshmen, Bob Flanigan and Ross Barbour, will be there, along with several other succeeding members of the group.
What was perhaps the best vocal jazz group in history continues to have strong ties to Cleveland and northeast Ohio.
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Copyright 1997 Joe Mosbrook
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).