When Marlene Lobsiger and Dave Blackwell step inside the Grand Wayne Convention Center on Sept. 5, they will begin a celebration of continuous musical performance that began on that very site 65 years ago when The Four Freshmen debuted on Sept. 20, 1948, at Fort Wayne's 113 Club, 113 W. Washington Blvd.
Lobsiger and Blackwell, co-chairs of the Four Freshmen Society's (FFS) 26th annual convention, will welcome the current incarnation of The Four Freshmen and hundreds of FFS members Sept. 5-7 for three days of concerts, sing-alongs, and sharing of memories and memorabilia surrounding the legendary vocal jazz group.
“Two years ago, the (FFS) site committee asked if we would be interested in hosting the FFS convention in Fort Wayne in 2013,” Lobsiger recalls.
After exploring the possibilities and preparing a proposal, the announcement was made on the last day of the 2011 FFS convention in Toledo: “The 2013 convention would be in Fort Wayne, celebrating the 65th anniversary of The Four Freshmen and their first professional appearance there.”
Bored with barbershop
The founding members of The Four Freshmen met at Butler University in Indianapolis in the late 1940s, says Blackwell. “They formed a singing group that started out with the traditional barbershop style.”
Bored with the predictable chords of barbershop and positioning of the lead vocal in the second voice, they began experimenting with what they called “open” harmony and other adjustments.
“They incorporated jazz harmony and a swing style common to the big bands of the time,” Blackwell continues. “What made it unique was that it had never been done before. They were the model for many groups to come (most notably, the Beach Boys and Manhattan Transfer). It's also amazing that it was done all by ear — not written down — one chord at a time.”
On the road
Intrigued by the possibility of going pro, the four decided to drop out of school, find an agent, go on the road for a year and then return to college. After their first professional performance in Fort Wayne, they toured the Midwest in a 1939 Packard.
College took a back seat, however, when in March 1950, jazz great Stan Kenton attended a performance in Dayton, Ohio. Impressed by their innovative harmonies, he arranged for a demo with Capital Records where The Four Freshmen signed a recording contract.
Appearances on Sunset Boulevard, the “Steve Allen Show,” and a movie followed, launching a career that has spanned 65 years and produced recordings of more than 1,600 songs, including “Graduation Day,” “Moments to Remember” and “Fools Rush In.”
“They sing the Great American Songbook music,” says Blackwell, citing jazz renditions of music by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Julie Styne and others among the group's repertoire. “(Their) most recent release is titled 'Love Songs' and includes 'Stardust,' written by Indiana composer Hoagy Carmichael.”
There have been 23 singers in The Four Freshmen since 1948. Though individuals departed and were replaced over the years, the group's unique sound has been preserved. The current combination, known as No. 22, formed in 2001 and consists of Vince Johnson, string bass; Brian Eichenberger, guitar; Curtis Calderon, trumpet and flugelhorn; and Bob Ferreira, drums.
'Celebrate, promote, perpetuate'
In 1987, Edd Townsend formed the Four Freshman Appreciation Society “in order to celebrate, promote, and perpetuate the unique Freshmen sound created by the Four Freshmen in 1948,” according to www.eddtownsend.com.
Lobsiger and Blackwell connected with the group after attending a Marshall, Mich., jazz festival in 2007. When learning The Four Freshmen were scheduled to perform, Lobsiger says, “We thought — are they still around? They must be old!”
“A white van drove up near the stage, and four handsome young men emerged from the van with their instruments,” she continues. “We said, 'Are these The Four Freshmen?' They sang the first tune, and we said, 'We're not leaving!'”
“Marlene and I joined the society in May 2008, and attended the convention in Indianapolis that year,” adds Blackwell. “What a joy to find nearly 600 people who enjoyed the Freshmen sound. The group had an impeccably professional style ... high quality and thrilling to listen to.”
Fort Wayne gathering
Attendance at September's three-day convention activities and concerts is limited to members, cautions Lobsiger. Membership is $10 and must be completed before the July 31 convention registration deadline.
Convention participants also have opportunities to make their own sweet music.
“Thursday night, we have a jam session with members of the FFS performing,” says Lobsiger. Local jazz musicians will accompany any vocalist or instrumentalist who wishes to perform. Afternoons are reserved for “Wannabe” sessions — an opportunity for participants to sing Four Freshmen harmonies directed by a former Freshmen member.
“Friday night, the local New Millennium Jazz Orchestra will open for The Four Freshmen with a Tribute to Stan Kenton,” says Blackwell. On Saturday evening, 20 string musicians from the Fort Wayne Philharmonic will provide accompaniment.