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June 21, 2008

Q&A with Ross Barbour and Bob Flanigan

indy.com (OH)

What's a college degree worth? Ask these surviving "four freshmen" and you'll get a very politically incorrect answer. Ross Barbour, 79, and Bob Flanigan, 81, are two native Hoosiers who attended Butler University after World War II and decided not to stick around after their freshman year.

Instead, they, along with Don Barbour and Hal Kratzsch, formed a pop vocal group in 1948 called the Four Freshmen that pioneered a fresh, jazzy sound, often singing a cappella. They'd practice in a car, or sometimes a men's room on Butler's campus -- they liked the reverb.

Flanigan stayed with the group the longest -- he stopped performing in 1992. But he was smart enough to get a lawyer and register "The Four Freshmen" name and sound. There have been at least 23 personnel changes in the group over the years, and an authorized group still tours under the name the Four Freshmen.

Flanigan helped manage the group for a while after he left the stage and Barbour worked in real estate, among other pursuits, after he stopped performing. Both are retired. Flanigan lives in Las Vegas. Barbour lives in Simi Valley, Calif.

Oh -- about being college dropouts. Barbour and Flanigan were in town recently to receive honorary degrees from their alma mater, 60 years after they left campus.

Where did you perform during your Butler days?

Ross Barbour: We would sing in restaurants. There was an ice cream store at 21st and Delaware that we'd go to at night and sing in there. ..... A bartender from the LVL Club heard us and said, "What we ought to do is get you to come out and sing at the LVL Club." That was out on Highway 37 (on the Southside) and it was an illegal place to go. They had gambling. It was open after midnight on Saturday night. We worked there three nights a week, and we swung a big contract -- we each were paid $5 a night. ..... We would go from table to table and ask, "Would you like to hear a song?" And they'd say, "Yes, sing 'Nature Boy' or sing 'White Christmas,'." and we'd try to do it.

Did your families object when you left school to go on the road?

Barbour: The folks said, "Oh, no. That's no career. Get a job in the bank or something." We didn't really listen. After we had been on the road for a few months, it was not easy. There were times when we should have quit, but then we would have had to go home and face the family.

Bob Flanigan: My dad always told me, "I want you to get a steady job." He'd always say that every time he saw me. But, no, it wasn't anything for me. I had been in the Army and I loved music.

How do you feel about getting honorary degrees?

Flanigan: I was telling Ross this morning (that) it takes a lot to excite me, because we've done about everything you can think of. But ..... (it) is the most exciting thing ..... in 20 years.

What happened 20 years ago?

Flanigan: Well, I forget her name.

What were the early years like?

Barbour: When we started the group, Hal Kratzsch had a Packard. He was the leader of the group because he had a car.

As we came on the road, the first few jobs were in Camden, Ark., and Savannah, Ga., and Sheboygan, Wis. Then my brother Don and I bought a Ford, a '36 Ford with a '41 engine in it and it didn't have a heater. It didn't have a windshield washer, either. And then one after the other, more cars were added to the group, and pretty soon there were four cars and four wives and five or six kids. There were seven or eight years when one of the wives was expecting at all times. The wives were traveling with us the first seven or eight years.

You were one of the early groups to perform mostly on college campuses. What was that like?

Flanigan: Sometimes we performed in a gym after a basketball game. A lot of the gyms that weren't finished had birds chirping. At one gym, people sat cross-legged on the gym floor and had to leave their shoes on the side. Halfway through the concert they got up to stretch. There were no seats. In North Carolina, we faced a hillside with people sitting on it. At the University of Texas, they had a huge bonfire.

Where's the worst place you performed?

Flanigan: When we played in Atlantic City, we were in the lounge and we had to do a noon show, a free show for people. We were where the buses came in. They'd give people $10 to gamble, buy 'em lunch, and they'd come down and lose their $10, have their lunch, and come back to the bus to sleep. It was right behind us.

Other groups from the '50s were more successful than you. The Four Aces, the Kingston Trio and so on... does that bother you?

Flanigan: We weren't thinking about being terribly successful. We were just thinking about what we liked. The first six or seven years, we made very little money, but that wasn't the point.

How did you get interested in music?

Flanigan: When I was a kid, I used to hitchhike up here when they had the big bands at the Circle Theatre. ..... One time I was up here for the Tommy Dorsey band. Tommy had an awful temper. That's common knowledge. Anyway, it was a tune called "Mairzy Doats," which was the worst piece of music you ever heard. Well, some guy kept bugging Tommy, "Hey, Tommy, play Mairzy Doats," and he'd say we don't do that. Well, this guy kept doing it, so Tommy took his mouthpiece out and threw it at the guy. I was hoping it would get close to me so I could say I had a Tommy Dorsey mouthpiece.

What do you think of the more recent iteration of the Four Freshmen?

Ross Barbour: I was never content with the group when I was in it, and I haven't been content with any group since then. ..... But the Freshmen have a quality that the other groups haven't even tried to do. They play and sing at the same time, complicated stuff.

Posted by acapnews at June 21, 2008 12:46 AM


Ross,remember, I washed your hair and got rid of your dandruff at Piqua,Ohio in 1951. you and Ken Errair stayed at my Dads home. We, Mom and I met you all at Dayton. I still have your picture hanging on my wall. My phone number is 719-263-4588. I live in Fowler, Co. alone. Mom And Dad are gone. My 5 Kids are grown and away. I'm 74 now, divorced 21 years.

Posted by: Janet Ross Mays at March 18, 2009 11:26 AM

Ross...very good to see your picture, as well as Bob's. I've thought about you often over the years.

You may remember your performance at the revolving restaurant atop the Holiday Inn in downtown Des Moines. We reministed about my seeing you first in 1956, during my high school senior prom night, at the old Crescendo on the Sunset Strip. I was working for the Iowa Development Commission, as well as flying for the Air Guard.

As fate would have it, three weeks later, you were performing at the Flamingo Lounge in Las Vegas. I was helping fly an airplane to the storage facilities at Davis-Monthan AFB,AZ...and of course we had to stop in Las Vegas enroute. I caught you coming out the stage door right after your final set. Your response was, "Harley! How are you doing? Want to have a beer?" Over a couple of beers, you were reminded it was your parents fiftieth wedding anniversity that week-end and you pledged to call them. As we wrapped up and started to head for our rooms, you ran into some couples who had been on a Four Freshmen Cruise with you. It was fun hearing them greet their old friend. Proves it's a small world, huh?

Today, I'm still promoting a variety of things in my beloved home state of Iowa. Currently, I serve as the president of the General Charles A. Horner Air Force Association Chapter in central Iowa (Chuck Horner graduated from high school locally.) Tomorrow evening, the Horner Chapter will host the most decorated Air Force officer in history, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and Sioux City native, Colonel Bud Day at a banquet in his honor. He and his wife, Dorie (yes, her given name is Doris) arrive at the Des Moines airport late this evening. My wife, Lin, and I will pick them up and take them to the hotel where Bud will speak tomorrow night. John McCain, who spent most of his 67 months of "Hanoi Hilton" captivity with Bud Day as his room-mate, has said he wouldn't be alive today were it not for Bud Day. He considers him American's greatest living hero. You might enjoy googling "Colonel Bud Day" for the rest of the story (as the late Paul Harvey would say.)

I hope life is treating you well! I'd love to hear from you sometime. Here is my contact info:

Harley Thornton,6647 Holcomb Ave., Des Moines, IA 50322-4920, cell # 515.681.5603.

All the best to you and yours!


Posted by: Harley Thornton at May 6, 2009 2:33 PM

I graduated from High School in Pacific Grove, CA, a preacher's son and church pianist and organist. I went into the Navy in 1959 and the air craft carrier I served on as a Chaplain's assistant and organist, visited Honolulu. The Four Freshman were appearing in town and nothing could stop me from seeing and hearing my musical idols. You were all so gracious to this star struck sailor and invited me back to your small dressing room. I still keep the small autograph photo you gave to me. I must admit that Ross was my favorite and I loved Don's voice. You were all so kind to me and you have a special place in this old 71 year old heart. God bless you all.

Posted by: Donn Murray at May 29, 2009 7:17 PM

I am a 72 yr old female and have loved the Freshmen since I first heard them/you at Indiana Teachers College in Pa. I delivered my first child in 1961 and five days later borrowed a dress that fit so I could attend their performance at the Forest Park Club in Johnstown, Pa. I have attented several more appearances over the years. I have all the cassettes and CD's. I saw you on Public television when you were introducing the "new Four Freshmen"---to me there could never be a replacement. Just wanted you to know that I, along with my younger brother were and are still--great fans!

Posted by: Vivian Benshoff at June 5, 2009 7:24 PM

Hi Ross, Wow!! What a pleasure to see you and Bob beaming out of my computer monitor. Jerry and I have dozens and dozens of photos of you and each of the other members who have been in and out of the group over the years. We have CDs now that we listen to and try to determine for sure if it's the originals or the 'new guys on the block.' Sometimes it's hard to tell and that's good. I like the idea of the younger folks hearing what good harmonies really are and that singing can be done so that the words are understood.
I think one of our favorite photos just may be from the Blue Moon or the Moon or some such name as that in Hazel Park, Michigan where Jery shot a picture of you all for you to send to Mike Douglas. You were all wearing eye-patches. Do you remember that?
Jerry and I live in AZ now, retired now except for volunteer work, and we'll always be attached to our Four Freshmen by our CDs.
Thanks for all the GREAT memories. As for now--well--we'll keep our eyes out for you..
Barbara and Jerry Hostetler

Posted by: Jerry and Barbara Hostetler at October 3, 2009 10:44 AM

I went to UCLA in the 1950's and we had a group called the "Five Corners" (there were five of us)and we did dreadful impressions of the "Freshment" and slow danced with the sorority girls singing "Blue World" in their ears. You created a "monster" without knowing it. Lee van Leeuwen San Luis Obispo, California.

Posted by: Lee Van Leeuwen at December 16, 2009 12:15 PM


Posted by: Marilyn Mardirossian Clarke at January 23, 2010 12:08 AM

Hi dear Freshemen! I was with Manhattan Transfer this weekend at Ronnie Scott's (London, 8/9 May 2010) and the fixer, James Pearson, tells me he very much wants to book the new team of Freshmen for a season. Alan Paul (who sends his love) wasn't sure when I asked where and how Ross is now? I do hope he is well. Ross:remember me? Ten years ago you and Bob ALMOST came to London to sing with my group......It's lucky that you didn't as we hadn't mastered your arrangements back then! But we still listen to - and love - the greatest Four Freshmen team of all!Please be in touch when/if you can. Fondest good wishes: Digby Fairweather.

Posted by: Digby Fairweather at May 10, 2010 2:34 PM

I was wondering....In the Freshmen years at
Capitol, you and your fellow band members
worked with a few different arrangers...
I believe it was said you first worked with Pete Rugolo. After that Dick Reynolds, and then
occasionally Nelson Riddle...maybe a couple of more?
I would like to ask you which arranger you most enjoyed in relationship to your "sound"....
You can email me me if you want to answer..
Just curious.


P.S. I see that Bobby Troup's version of
Hearts Were Full of Spring is on the web.
I'm wondering what it sounds like compared to
the transformation made by the Freshmen. I want to "hear" it.

Posted by: Steve Owen at June 18, 2010 7:02 AM

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