This influential vocal band first started out as a barbershop quartet known as Hal's Harmonizers in 1947, which included brothers Don and Ross Barbour along with Hal Kratzsch and Marvin Pruitt. Pruitt was soon replaced by Bob Flanigan, cousin of the Barbours, and in 1948 they adopted the "Four Freshmen" name. Their influences included Glenn Miller's Modernaires and Mel Tormé's Mel-Tones; from there, they would develop their own improvised vocal harmony style, singing five-notes chords with four voices in open harmony.
Their big break came in 1950 when band leader Stan Kenton heard the group perform at the Esquire Lounge in Dayton, Ohio. Impressed by the "quartet that sounded like his 43-piece ensemble", he arranged for an audition with his label, Capitol, which signed them later in the year. A couple of singles would follow, along with an appearance in the film Rich, Young and Pretty.
Both singles flopped, so when the Freshmen proposed "It's a Blue World" as their next single in late 1951, Capitol rejected it and dropped the group. A furious Kenton acquired demo copies of the song so the band could promote it themselves. Their efforts paid off: the song became their first charted hit and Capitol re-signed them in July 1952. Several successful singles and albums would follow.
Alongside label mate Frank Sinatra, they were one of the pioneers of the Concept Album. Several of their albums were centered around a musical concept, such as the top-10 Four Freshmen and Five Trombones, or a lyrical theme, like Voices in Latin or Voices in Love.
Hal Kratzsch got tired of touring by 1953 and was replaced by Ken Errair, who was himself replaced by Ken Albers when he left the group to get married in April 1956. The Freshmen became one of the first groups to perform at college auditoriums and field houses. That new younger audience helped them score the biggest hit of their career, "Graduation Day", in 1957.
Don Barbour left in 1960, to be replaced by Bill Comstock — the Flanigan-Comstock-Barbour-Albers lineup ended up being the longest-lived, lasting 13 years until Comstock himself left in 1973. By then, the group had pretty much faded into irrelevance; their contract with Capitol ended in 1964 and a single on Decca in 1966, followed by four albums on Liberty in 1968-69, would be their last major-label releases. While they managed to remain competitive in the mid-1960's thanks to Brian Wilson giving them free publicity via his public admiration of the quartet, they were effectively relegated to "easy listening" stations by the 1970's.
With Ross Barbour leaving in 1977 and Ken Albers following in 1982, Bob Flanigan remained as the sole original member until his retirement in 1993. He continued to manage the Four Freshmen until his death in 2011. The lineup since about the 1980's has been very fluctuating: as of 2016, there has been 24 distinct lineups among 25 different members.
The Four Freshmen were an important influence for future vocal groups, including The Beach Boys, The Manhattan Transfer, The Lettermen, The Four Preps and many others. By way of the Beach Boys, they were also an indirect influence to many, many more artists.
- Don Barbour (1947-1960, died 1961): Second tenor vocals, guitar
- Ross Barbour (1947-1977, died 2011): Baritone vocals, drums, trumpet
- Hal Kratzsch (1947-1953, died 1970): Bass vocals, bass, mellophone, trumpet
- Marvin Pruitt (1947-1948): First tenor vocals
- Nancy Sue Carson (1948): Vocals
- Bob Flanigan (1948-1990, 1990-1992): First tenor vocals, bass, trombone
- Ken Errair (1953-1956, died 1968): Bass vocals, trumpet
- Ken Albers (1956-1982, died 2007): Bass vocals, bass, mellophone, trumpet
- Bill Comstock (1960-1973): Second tenor vocals, guitar
- Ray Brown (1973-1977): Second tenor vocals, piano, trumpet
- Autie Goodman (1977-1992): Second tenor vocals
- Dennis Grillo (1977-1982, died 2011): Baritone vocals (1977-1982), bass vocal (1982)
- Mike Beisner (1982-1989, 1990, 1991-1994, died 2008): Baritone vocals (1982-1989, 1990), bass vocal (1991-1992), second tenor vocal (1992-1994)
- Rod Henley (1982-1986, 1987): Bass vocals
- Dave Jennings (1986-1987): Bass vocals
- Newton Graber (1987, died 1995): Bass vocals
- Kirk Marcy (1987-1988): Bass vocals
- Gary Lee Rosenberg (1988-1991): Bass vocals
- Greg Stegman (1989-2001): Baritone vocals (1989-1990, 1990-1992), first tenor vocals (1990, 1992-1999), second tenor vocals (1999-2001)
- Bob Ferreira (1992-present): Bass vocals, drums
- Kevin Stout (1992-1999): Baritone vocals
- Alan MacIntosh (1994-1996): Second tenor vocals
- Brian Eichenberger (1996-2014): Second tenor vocals (1996-1999), first tenor vocals (1999-2014), keyboards, guitar
- Vince Johnson (1999-2013): Baritone vocals, bass, guitar, keyboards, trombone
- Curtis Caledron (2001-present): Second tenor vocals (2001-2013), baritone vocals (2013-present), flugelhorn, keyboards, trumpet
- Stein Malvey (2013-present): Second tenor vocals, guitar
- Tommy Boynton (2015-present): First tenor vocals, bass
- 1954 - Voices in Modern note
- 1956 - Four Freshmen and Five Trombones
- 1956 - Freshmen Favorites note
- 1957 - Four Freshmen and Five Trumpets
- 1957 - Four Freshmen and Five Saxes
- 1958 - Voices in Latin
- 1958 - Voices in Love
- 1959 - Freshmen Favorites Volume 2 note
- 1959 - Love Lost
- 1959 - The Four Freshmen and Five Guitars
- 1960 - Voices and Brass
- 1960 - First Affair
- 1961 - The Freshman Year
- 1961 - Voices in Fun
- 1962 - Stars in Our Eyes
- 1962 - The Swingers
- 1963 - Got That Feelin'
- 1964 - Funny How Time Slips Away
- 1964 - More Four Freshmen and Five Trombones
- 1968 - A Today Kind of Thing
- 1968 - Today Is Tomorrow
- 1968 - In a Class by Themselves
- 1969 - Different Strokes
- 1971 - Return to Romance
- 1977 - Mt. Freshmore
- 1982 - Alive and Well in Nashville note
- 1986 - Fresh!
- 1992 - Freshmas!
- 1994 - Voices in Standards
- 1999 - Still Fresh!
- 2005 - In Session
- 2007 - Snowfall
- 2012 - Love Songs
- 2015 - Four Freshmen and Friends
- 1958 - Live at Penn State note
- 1958 - The Four Freshmen in Person
- 1960 - Road Show note
- 1963 - The Four Freshmen in Person Volume 2
- 1968 - The Four Freshmen in Tokyo '68 note
- 1972 - Live at Butler University
- 1995 - Angel Eyes note
- 1995 - It's a Blue World note
- 2001 - Live in the New Millennium
- 2004 - Live in Holland
- 2009 - Live from Las Vegas
- 2009 - The Four Freshmen and Live Trombones
- 2013 - Live at the Franklin Theatre
- 1950 - "Mr. B's Blues"/"Then I'll Be Happy" note
- 1951 - "Now You Know" note /"Pick Up Your Tears (and Go Home)"
- 1954 - "The Creep"/"Tenderly" (Stan Kenton and his Orchestra) note
- 1954 - "I'll Be Seeing You"/"Please Remember" note
- 1955 - "It Never Occured to Me" note /"Malaya"
- 1956 - "He Who Loves and Runs Away"/"You're So Far Above Me" note
- 1957 - "Julie Is Her Name"/"Sometimes I'm Happy" note
- 1965 - "When I Stop Lovin' You"/"Nights Are Long"
- 1965 - "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines"/"Old Cape Cod"
- 1966 - "Nowhere to Go"/"Cry"
- 1957 - Solo Session (Ken Errair)
- 1962 - The Solo Voice of Don Barbour note
- 1963 - Togetherness (Bob Flanigan with John Gray)
- 1993 - We Thought About You (Autie Goodman)
- 1993 - Thanks to You (Hal Kratzsch) note
Solo non-album singles:
- 1956 - "I Want to Love While I'm Young/"I Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (Ken Errair)
- 1957 - "How About Me?"/"How's About Tomorrow Night?" (Ken Errair Quartet)
It's a blue world without tropes:
- A Cappella: "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" is performed in this manner.
- Album Filler: "Till", from the Freshmen Favorites Volume 2 singles compilation, was not released on a single beforehand. It may have been an unreleased recording that was brought out in order to bring the track listing up to an even twelve.
- Artifact Title: By the time they became famous, the "freshmen" had long since quit college, if they even went there at all.
- Band of Relatives: The band was ¾ relatives from 1948 to 1960, with brothers Don and Ross Barbour alongside cousin Bob Flanigan.
- Christmas Songs: Surprisingly, they waited until 1992 before recording Freshmas!, their first Christmas album. A second one, Snowfall, would follow in 2007. They did perform "Frosty the Snowman", a song The Beach Boys would later cover, on The Ray Anthony Show in 1956 though.
- Concept Album: Their albums would often revolve around an instrumental concept (five trombones, five trumpets...) or a theme (latin songs, love songs...). Alongside label mate Frank Sinatra, they were one of the pioneers of the concept album.
- Cover Album: As was the standard in the era, they mostly did pop and jazz standards, although the albums often have an original or two.
- Dead Artists Are Better: Capitol might've tried to invoke this with The Solo Voice of Don Barbour, released a year after his death in a car crash.
- Egocentric Team Naming: Before being "The Four Freshmen", they were "Hal's Harmonizers", after founding member Hal Kratzsch.
- Face on the Cover: The quartet is often featured in the cover art of the albums and/or on the back cover.
- Greatest Hits Album: Several of them were released over the years.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: The "concept" albums would often be named "Four Freshmen and Five [instrument]" or "Voices in [theme]".
- Live Album: Several of those too.
- Lyrical Cold Open: Their songs would often begin that way. Examples include "It's a Blue World", "After You" and "Poinciana".
- Music of Note: Their improvised open harmony style were a huge influence for several musicians, most notably Brian Wilson.
- The Notable Numeral: One of their early managers suggested the name "The Freshmen Four". The guys switched the last two words around, and history was made.
- One-Woman Song: Several of them: "Charmaine", "Malaya", "Tangerine", "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)", "Laura", "Julie Is Her Name"...
- Revolving Door Band: As mentioned above, 24 lineups and 25 musicians under the name "Four Freshmen". An interesting oddity among these changes is the group going through seven different bass vocalists from 1982 to 1988.
- Scatting: The occasional number would be performed this way. Examples includes "Tuxedo Junction", "Satin Doll" and "Dynaflow".
- Sequel: The concept of The Four Freshmen and Five Trombones was revisited eight years later with More Four Freshmen and Five Trombones. The album, which brought back arranger Pete Rugolo from the first one, ended up being their last Capitol album.
- Title Track: "First Affair" and "The Freshman Year" on their respective albums. Coincidentally, both are originals.
- Vocal Tag Team: On occasion, one of the Freshmen would do a solo passage or even an entire solo number.