Dec 1, 2021–I’ve mentioned before my obsession with 1940s radio entertainment. Every night I fall to sleep listening to Edgar Bergen, Burns & Allen, Jack Benny, and The Big Show (Tallulah Bankhead was waaaaaay ahead of her time). Every program featured a musical break with a big band or vocal group.
One of the great singers (and drummers and arrangers) of the era was Mel Tormé. “The Velvet Fog” performed well into the 1990s, appearing on Night Court and Seinfeld in his later years. I have read his autobiography It Wasn’t All Velvet twice.
One of his early gigs was singing with and arranging for the Mel-Tones, one of three popular vocal quartets of the late 1940s. The others were the Modernaires and the Four Freshmen. Those original Four Freshmen will perform this Friday at the Cailloux Theater.
Okay, so it’s not the original members. But neither is it a tribute group. The current lineup can trace its roots all the way back to the Big Band era.
I happened to mention to my Friday morning Table of Knowledge breakfast buddies that I was going to interview a member of the Four Freshmen. One of them dropped his fork, and said, those guys are great. He proceeded to describe their sound and history, and how they endured through all the subsequent changes in popular music tastes. I was stunned he had heard of them.
I mentioned this in my interview. The enduring popularity of the Four Freshmen amazes even Bob Ferreira, the current longest-performing member of this vocal quartet.
“I never know who I will come across that actually knows more about the group than I do,” said Ferreira, now starting his 29th year as a Freshman. “It’s amazing who all has been inspired or influenced by the group, including the Beach Boys, Kenny Rogers, and Stan Kenton. People still call it one of the most influential vocal groups of all time.”
That musical inspiration began, believe it or not, in 1948. While the members have changed, the group performing at the Cailloux Theater is the original Four Freshmen, not a tribute show.
“Obviously we are not the same people, but we equate it to a sports team,” Ferreira said. “Whenever a player would leave, the team grabbed another player. This has been going on for 73 years. I joined in 1992 when the last original member Bob Flanagan retired after 44 years. So that was the first time the group had not had an original member. But it’s the same lineage and it just keeps going.”
Even after all these years, the Four Freshmen continue to make new recordings. They also like to adjust their repertoire to keep up with the changing musical tastes of their multi-generational audiences.
“We’re still doing songs from the Great American Songbook, but we have added selections that the Freshmen have never done before. We love to pay homage to the original guys, but we also like to move ahead and do recordings that define the current group.”
As tastes changed, the Four Freshmen modified their sound. In the late 1950s they embraced the folk harmonies that also featured the Lettermen, for example. But they always kept their jazz vocal roots, which is what audiences today still recognize and relate to.
After more than a year of limited engagements, the current group is back on the road and reconnecting with audiences of all ages. Ferriera believes today’s Four Freshmen sound better than ever.
“They’re all very talented and passionate musicians, and they love the sound. The vocal sound that we get is one of the best that I have been a part of in the 30 years I’ve been with the group. I’m excited for what’s starting to build and it’s wonderful to be able to get back on stage.”
The Mel Tormé connection even found its way into this conversation. Turns out Ferriara’s publicist is the daughter of the agent who managed Tormé for 22 years, and she now represents the late singer’s intellectual property.
For now, the Four Freshmen is as close as I will ever get to Mel Tormé.
The Four Freshmen perform on Friday, December 3, 2021, 7:30 p.m., at the Cailloux Theater, 910 Main, Kerrville. wwwcaillouxperformingarts.com