Most fans of Four Freshmen recordings know Bob Flanigan as one of the group's founding members. Formed at Butler University in Indianapolis in early 1948, the singing quartet began as Hal's Harmonizers and was initially comprised of Hal Kratzsch, Marvin Pruitt and brothers Don and Ross Barbour. When Pruitt left, the Barbour brothers' cousin Bob Flanigan replaced him, and the group adapted a jazzier vocal harmony style. They changed their name to the Four Freshmen and began touring, catching the ear of Stan Kenton in 1950.
But Flanigan wasn't just a singer. He also was a proficient bassist and a farily strong trombonist. One of Flanigan's rare trombone-only albums (no vocals) was Togetherness, which paired him with obscure guitarist John Gray. Recorded in 1959 for Capitol, Flanigan and Gray were joined by bassist Don Bagley and drummer Bob Neel.
Guitarist Gray was born in Oklahoma, played in Ray McKinley's band and was based in Chicago for much of the 1950s, recording with James Moody. He moved to Hollywood in the late 1950s, where he was part of Bobby Troup's combo. Flanigan heard Gray and called Capitol producer Bill Miller on his behalf. The result was Togetherness. As Miller notes in the album's liner notes: "Gray gets an extroverted good feeling in his sound that lights up the whole album and makes it a swinging joy to hear." Gray went on to record with George Shearing, Nancy Wilson, Herb Ellis, Mel Torme, Julie London, Louie Armstrong and Gerry Mulligan among others.
Interestingly, the trombone-guitar sound works well on Togetherness, largely because Flanigan doesn't overplay and Gray steps up to meet the round sound of Flanigan's horn. The song choices are solid: Baubles Bangles and Beads, If I Were a Bell, Work Song, Your Theme, Putt-It, A Lot of Livin' to Do, Coral Reef, Moanin', It's a Wonderful World, Togetherness, Walkin' and J&B Walk.
The more you listen to Flanigan on trombone, the more you realize where his sense of vocal harmony and swing came from. His trombone is so lyrical he's almost singing through the mouthpiece. And John Gray is a powerful discovery.
Flanigan retired in the 1990s and lives in Las Vegas. John Gray's discography ends in 1968 and there's precious little about him or what became of him after 1968. Perhaps readers will have more information. [Pictured: The Four Freshmen at Capitol's studios in the 1950s, with Bob Flanigan second from right]
JazzWax clip: Bob Flanigan and John Gray's Togetherness never made it to CD. But it looks like you can sample and download it here. John Gray's finest and only leadership outing was The New Wave (Capitol) in 1962 with guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Don Bagley and drummer Bob Neel. This is a superb, swinging jazz guitar album with an emphasis on harmony and technique.
Like Togetherness, The New Wave wasn't issued on CD. Perhaps it's time for EMI to release the pair together. Or perhaps Fresh Sound will.
A special JazzWax thanks to reader Kurt Kolstad.
JazzWax clips: Here's a clip of the Four Freshmen in 1964 appearing on Japanese TV, with Bob Flanigan on trombone (and singing) Easy Street as well as other hits from the group's themed albums with trombones, guitars, trumpets and saxes...
Here's Flanigan playing bass in 1952...