By MARGALIT FOX
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Bob Flanigan, a founding member of the Four Freshmen, the well-scrubbed tight-harmony group begun more than 60 years ago, when all of its members really were undergraduates, died on Sunday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 84.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Dina Roth, a manager of the current Four Freshman. Founded in 1948, the group is widely described as the longest continuously performing vocal quartet of its kind in the United States.
A tenor, Mr. Flanigan was the group’s longest-serving member and its original lead singer. He performed with the Freshmen until 1992 — besides singing, he played trombone and string bass with the group — and afterward was its manager for five years. In retirement, he remained involved as a mentor and musical adviser.
The original Freshmen, whose singers all doubled on at least one instrument, enjoyed immense popularity in the 1950s and early ’60s. Though the group was most often called a jazz ensemble, its musical style transcended category, encompassing elements of barbershop, jazz and pop.
The Freshmen’s characteristic sound — which married harmonies joined as snugly as fine cabinetry with a lush improvisatory style that made the ensemble sound far bigger than it was — was a palpable influence on later groups like the Beach Boys and the Manhattan Transfer.
“We all think in instrumental terms,” Mr. Flanigan told The New York Times in 1982. “I think of singing lead as I would play it on trombone, sitting in the Stan Kenton trombone section. When we started, all four of us were Kenton fans, and everybody who has been in the group since then has been a Kenton fan.”
Over the years, the Four Freshmen recorded more than 50 albums and received six Grammy nominations. Now in its 22nd lineup, the group comprises Brian Eichenberger, Curtis Calderon, Vince Johnson and Bob Ferreira.
Robert Lee Flanigan was born on Aug. 22, 1926, in Greencastle, Ind. After Army service, he enrolled at Butler University in Indianapolis. There he joined a barbershop quartet, originally called Hal’s Harmonizers, that was started by his cousins Ross and Don Barbour.
Before long the group, by then consisting of Mr. Flanigan, the Barbour brothers and a classmate, Hal Kratzsch, had become the Four Freshmen. The quartet performed in malt shops and Midwestern lounges, earning fees on the order of $5 a night.
In the early 1950s, through the influence of a prominent admirer, Mr. Kenton, the Freshmen signed with Capitol Records. Their first hit single, “It’s a Blue World,” was released in 1952, followed by hits including “Mood Indigo” and “Day By Day.”
The group’s early albums include “Voices in Modern,” “Four Freshmen and Five Trombones,” “Voices in Latin” and “Voices in Love.”
Mr. Flanigan’s first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, the former Mary Scott, whom he married in 1963; two children from his first marriage, Stephen Flanigan and Debbie Muria; four children from his second marriage, Scott Flanigan, Julie Maple, Jill Flanigan and Jennifer Turner; a sister, Maxine Thomas; 15 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren
Also surviving is Mr. Flanigan’s cousin Ross Barbour. Don Barbour died in 1961, Mr. Kratzsch in 1970.
In one respect, the original Freshmen were victims of their own success: none graduated from college. To the consternation of their parents, they left Butler to pursue their music. Once the group took off, they never went back, and it seemed they would remain freshmen forever.
The condition was partly rectified in 2008, when Butler awarded Mr. Flanigan and Ross Barbour honorary doctorates.