Fans unite to bring The Four Freshmen to Annapolis

Vocal quartet's latest lineup wows the crowd at annual convention

August 29, 2010|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis was dubbed "the center of the jazz world" by local jazz impresario Elana Byrd last weekend for hosting the three-day Four Freshmen Society convention at the Doubletree Hotel on Riva Road. The society is an international fan club whose members gather once a year for a convention celebrating the group.

The longest continually performing vocal group, the original Four Freshmen started singing together in 1948, and had their first hit single, "It's a Blue World," four years later. They inspired 1960s groups from The Lettermen to The Beach Boys to The Mamas and the Papas, as well as '70s group Manhattan Transfer. Although the Freshmen have undergone 22 lineups over the past 62 years, their innovative sound, blending open harmony jazz arrangements with big-band vocal group sounds (Pied Pipers, Mel-Tones), remains freshly intact.

Three years in the planning by Edgewater residents and Freshmen fans Biscuit (Bosquet) Wev and his wife, Petey, the event sold out soon after it was advertised in January. Wev, a 1952 Naval Academy graduate, said he also received help from his daughters and convention co-chair Byrd, who engaged top local musicians and served as moderator.

The 23rd annual convention attracted European, Japanese, Canadian and American members who shared their admiration for the current quartet — considered the best by many, including Bob Flanigan, who was in the original lineup. The former lead singer and trombonist retired from the road in 1992 and, at 84, remains active in keeping the group's sound distinctively fresh and its style "open harmony."

Another original Freshman heard from was drummer and baritone Ross Barbour, 82, who greeted the audience by video a week after having been released from the hospital following lung cancer surgery.

The three nights of nostalgic music included a fan-jam Thursday, a Freshmen concert backed by the Brooks Tegler Big Band on Friday, and the Four Freshmen playing their own instruments Saturday. Raves were reported for all three concerts, although it's hard to imagine anything better than the Four Freshmen and Five Trombones concert Friday.

On Friday, dinner music was provided by Brooks Tegler's jazz ensemble until 8 p.m., when the group enlarged to form Tegler's 16-piece band, performing a swinging concert of jazz standards by Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw. Reformulated to include five trombones along with piano, bass and drums, Tegler's band lent superb accompaniment to the Four Freshmen in the concert that followed.

The current Freshmen consist of bass singer and drummer Bob Ferreira, who served as spokesman; Brian Eichenberger, lead vocalist, arranger and guitarist, and one of only three lead singers in Freshmen history; baritone Vince Johnson, who plays bass; and trumpeter Curtis Calderon, who sings second voice and is the newest Freshmen, having joined the group in 2001.

Their harmony extended to their lively banter with each other and with their delighted audience.

Together they brought fine musicianship and excellent voices to every number, while the trombone backup supplemented the sound.

Their open harmony requires four voices to sing five-note chords and change the third and fifth notes of a chord an octave higher or lower. This innovative and imitated harmony is only part of what creates their unique sound, where voices are used more like instruments to become a kind of vocal orchestra. Heavy on nostalgia and strong on sentiment, all four singers lent heartfelt emotions to the timeless lyrics of their classic repertoire.

Selections ranged from an upbeat "Candy" to the intriguing tango rhythms of the 1947 bittersweet classic "Mam'selle" to the 1943 Kurt Weill tune "Speak Low." This current Freshmen iteration invests every song with a rich authenticity that preserves the purity of the original sound.

At the concert's conclusion, the audience roared approval, aware that they had enjoyed a rare musical evening.

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