Ross Barbour, last original singer of the ionic jazz vocal ensemble, Four Freshmen, died last Saturday at 82, at his home in Simi Valley. Mr. Barbour, who arranged and sang with the group, described his long, lush voicings as “purple chords.”
By Bill Eaton
I will raise a glass tonight for Ross Barbour. His passing is a heart-wrench. The one time I was in his presence, I was 25 and too addled to speak. The Freshmen meant more to me than any individual or entity in my swim upstream into jazz waters. I loved the Modernaires, admired the Hi-los and have been dazzled by Take 6. But I wanted to be IN the Freshmen, to sing just like that, to sound just like that, and to be a part of creating that feeling.
I never came close to that feeling with any other vocal group. Their magic came from the fact that they sounded like guys; guys laced with vulnerability and yearning. That was the secret of the Four Freshmen’s appeal: the Y chromosome festooned with tendrils of vulnerability; a yearning from a place so deep as to make tears the price of admission. A thing so true, so filled with the moist breath of real life, that Barbour never used nor needed embellishments to pull you in. You wanted in.
There is no more mysterious, fascinating and appealing vulnerability than that of the male animal. Females carry theirs in a clutch purse. It must always be available for their offspring, and embracing it makes them more powerful than their mates can ever be. Before men can dig theirs out the chasm in which it’s stored, they have to acknowledge its existence, and that acknowledgement always comes with a pain for which there is no epidural. Ferreting it out and embracing it is a lifelong rite of passage. Men who create great art are awash with it, but it remains a stone in the shoe.
100 years from now there may still be an edition of the Four Freshmen, still singing Ross Barbour’s arrangements of those wonderful songs, still sounding like guys with their hearts on their sleeves. Never the most brilliant, but always, the most irresistible.
Bill Eaton is a respected New York arranger-conductor, composer of the jingle “Charlie,” and well known for his work with Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Ralph MacDonald and many others.