Founded in 1948 by four students at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., the Four Freshmen were a vocal group whose harmonies embraced the Barbershop Quartet tradition and took it a step further, adding Jazz influences and ultimately exerting an influence on Rock and Roll.
The Freshmen started as a barbershop quartet called Hal’s Harmonizers, founded by brothers Ross and Don Barbour, who were enrolled in the university’s Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music. After morphing into the Four Freshman, the members – all of whom doubled as instrumentalists, some playing several instruments — began performing in venues around the midwest, honing a sound that incorporated improvisation and Jazz-flavored harmony voicings. Several prominent jazz musicians became fans, and it was band leader Stan Kenton who helped the Freshmen get an audition that led to a contract with Capitol Records. They released their first record in 1952, and a string of hit records followed, mostly standards given new life by the Freshmen’s arranging skills. By the 1960s, with Rock and Roll culture taking hold, their days as hit makers was over.
The Four Freshmen’s connection to Rock and Roll comes via Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson who as a teenager was obsessed with the group. Wilson would spend hours hunched over his family’s piano dissecting the notes of the Four Freshman’s complex harmonies, which became a key influence on the Beach Boys’ sound. Wilsons’ own vocal arrangements would go on to inspire countless artists, extending the Freshmen’s influence even further.
With many lineup changes, the Four Freshmen’s career continued well into the Rock era, thanks in part to their appeal to the Easy Listening market. The last original member died in 1993, although a version of the band continues to this day.