The Four Freshmen and Me

Four Freshmen and Me

I stumbled the other day onto a Youtube site about the singing group, the Four Freshmen.  Back in 1948 the original group was four actual freshmen at Butler University, discovered by band leader Stan Kenton who led them to a recording contract with Capitol.  By the late 1950s their jazz oriented, closely layered harmonies on many standards from the American Song Book enraptured me. I went to see and hear them when ever they performed at the Prom Ballroom in Saint Paul, across the river from my home in north Minneapolis. The original members were Bob Flanigan, Ross Barbour, Don Barbour, and Ken Albers.  They were instrumentalists as well as vocalists. The high tenor lead singing of Bob Flanigan helped create a unique sound, one that Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys later said he tried to emulate.  He said he wanted to sing that high lead like Flanigan and you can hear Wilson clearly doing so on the Beach Boys’ recording of “Surfer Girl” among other of their recordings.

In the mid 50s I was in a vocal trio, something my friends and I started as a quartet in high school and continued as a trio after graduation. Our trio consisted of me, Ed Knutson, and Jerry Longie. Unlike the Four Freshmen none of us were instrumentalists so we sang acapella, doing some gigs in small downtown Minneapolis clubs, making very little money but enjoying the performing.  We tried to create our own sound with tight harmonies, sometimes not too unlike the Four Freshmen.

Back then Jerry Longie had a part time job at a downtown parking lot just across 6th Street from a club called Murray’s, a popular restaurant and lounge that’s still there serving seafood and big steaks.  Jerry discovered the Four Freshmen were going to be booked into Murray’s for a night or two.  He was determined to get Bob Flanigan to listen to us and on a bitterly cold winter night, the three of us squeezed into the small parking lot attendant’s tiny booth with Flanigan who was on a break between sets of that evening’s performance at Murray’s. For Flanigan we sang “Autumn Leaves,” an arrangement we more or less styled after the sound of the Freshmen, with me on the high tenor lead.  As I recall, Flanigan was tall, dark haired and wore a dark blue overcoat, collar turned up high, standing jammed into that booth with we three young wannabees. I don’t remember much more of that night other than the Minnesota cold, our breathing frosting over the glass of the attendant’s booth, and at the end of our song Flanigan giving us a generous compliment, wishing us luck and saying, “I’ll see you on the road.”

I was going to the University of Minnesota then. I was married and had one child with another on the way.  There would be two more before I finished at the University. Ed and Jerry wanted our trio to go on the road, determined to become successful in the difficult world of show business. But I was committed to finishing my pursuit of a degree from the University so I declined and wished them luck.  I don’t think I was yet totally focused on a career in photography although I know I had ambitions to be a writer. A college education wasn’t really pushed in my family; getting a job, preferably one with security such as a job with the city was favored. However, I was determined to go beyond that, although I wasn’t at all sure just how.

As things worked out Ed and Jerry found a replacement for me in the trio and took to the road as a folk singing group, not exactly in the Four Freshmen’s style but folk music was then very much in vogue. They made a couple of recordings which I thought were good but after just a couple of years they came off the road and followed other careers and day jobs for the rest of their lives.

When I hear the voices of the original Four Freshmen group on Youtube or put on one of my Freshmen LPs, it always brings me great pleasure.  To hear “It’s a Blue World” with those extraordinarily smooth vocal moves is to experience something quite special. Their sound was so intricate and elegant. There have been about 22 different groups of Four Freshmen over the more than 60 years since the original members.  The group I’ve been listening to lately on Youtube is from about six or seven years ago and they were phenomenal, so close to the original Four Freshmen sound although I don’t believe they are still together.  Through the years the groups have varied with one or two members now and then being replaced with passing time.  Many days away on the road has always been a reason for such a group not being able to sustain consistency in membership.  Touring constantly leaves little time for family life if one has a family.

Bob Flanigan was the last member of the original Four Freshman to leave the group, finally stepping aside in about 1992 and passing away in 2011 at the age of 84.  There has been for some time a Four Freshmen Society whose members meet annually to confer, discuss and trade their collection of Freshmen LPs and their best meeting the Four Freshmen in person memories.  I believe they usually manage to have the current Four Freshmen group perform at the convention. When I see some of those Four Freshmen Society gatherings on Youtube I wonder out loud that, whoa….those folks look awfully old.  Then I think that turning 80 at the end of this September probably makes me easily eligible for being in such a society of Four Freshmen appreciators.  I certainly would qualify considering the love we all share for that unique sound.  It’s a sound that resonates every bit as good to me today as it did on those nights in the 1950s at the Prom Ballroom in Saint Paul when I was standing up close to the stage listening to “I Remember You.” Hearing those voices blending so perfectly resonated in my heart and mind the way music can when it’s truly wonderful.  Those were cherished nights and moments back then; nights when the world and I were so much younger and life so promising.


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I returned one week ago today from spending a week in Baden, Austria, with photographic book publishers Lois and Silvia Lammerhuber and the working staff at Edition Lammerhuber, building my book of Paris pictures. The title:  WILLIAM ALBERT ALLARD: PARIS  The Eye of the Flaneur will be released in late spring.  It is a 31-year retrospective of photographs I have made during various trips to Paris, some on assignment for National Geographic magazine and many I made on visits of my own.  As have so many citizens of the world, I fell in love with the City of Light on my first visit in 1986 when I convinced National Geographic’s Traveler magazine to let me do an essay entitled “The Sidewalks of Paris.”  That was the beginning of a long love affair that I know will continue through the years I have remaining.

I flew to Vienna with some trepidation, thinking, how can we possibly do all the thinking, the editing, sequencing, layout, etc…in the space of one week which was the time Lois Lammerhuber allotted?  Before arriving I offered to stay longer if necessary but he assured me that we would be able to build our book in that amount of time.  And we did.  Working intensely but elbow to elbow in a joint effort.  To me making our color proofs on an Epson printer was a wonderful experience.  Many had to be done multiple times to get them where I wanted them to be. All of my previous six books were a bit of a crap game, so to speak, regarding how the final reproduction would be.  In terms of color reproduction I believe this book will be the best that I’ve been able to have in representing my vision.

Lois Lammerhuber is an accomplished photographer himself and has devoted his publishing company to producing the finest photography books he can. He wants the books to reflect what the photographer wants and is a sensitive and cooperative partner in this pursuit.  My colleagues Pascal Maitre and Gerd Ludwig have both published their fine work with Edition Lammerhuber. Gerd has done two books with Lammerhuber as has Pascal.

I consider Paris to be the finest walking around city I’ve been privileged to know.  And I realized some time ago that the way I’ve almost always worked has been in the manner of a flaneur. In the words of Edmund Morris, author of “The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris,” I have been an“aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes where ever caprice or curiosity directs his or her footsteps.” I write at greater length about this in my 7,000 words introduction to the book which will appear in three separate sections: French, English, and German.  Between the different language text sections there will be sets of pictures I write about, how they occurred and sometimes why.  There are only two, I believe, out of I think 123 images, that did not occur more or less serendipitously, but were made because I wanted to photograph a certain person and asked to meet them somewhere to do so.

This will not be the typical book about Paris with all the iconic landmarks, sites and views, but simply a book of images I have made when in Paris and there is a difference.  Although I know fairly well certain streets, some neighborhoods, I do wish I knew Paris even more intimately. I always leave Paris thinking, I should have gone there…I should have gone here…I should have seen more or seen it better.  I’m sure that feeling will never leave me.  In the manner of a true flaneur, I have always relished in the joy of simply wandering the streets, the cafes and bistros, experiencing the pleasure of strolling through an endless series of one-act plays amidst beautiful sets and an ever-changing cast of characters.  Just allowing myself to be receptive to what ever my walks might offer.  I go looking for nothing in specific but everything in general.  I do wish I could speak and understand French fluently; I sometime think my pictures would be perhaps better if I did.

Now I wait for spring to come and bring to me my book.  I have always thought of a book as being the still photographer’s finest outlet.  A fine exhibit in a respected gallery or museum is wonderful; to see one’s vision brought to life in fine prints is truly special.  But most exhibits come down in thirty days.  A book is forever.  Of course, as a friend of mine says, “The best thing about a book is that it’s going to be around for ever.  And the worst thing about a book is that it’s going to be around for ever.”  As I’ve often told young workshop students who seemed perhaps prematurely primed to do a book of their work, I tell them to remember that a book can break one’s heart.  If that book you so desire doesn’t meet your hopes and expectations, if the reproduction is bad, the paper inferior, what ever flaws it has will haunt you forever. And it is over.  A book is a one-time thing. You want it to be the best it can be because if it isn’t, nobody’s going to come along and do it again for you but do it better.  That doesn’t mean it has to be perfect, that’s hard to get.  I’ve done six previous books and all have their flaws.  None is a perfect book but I’ve been lucky enough to say I’m proud of them all.  And I think this next book done with the Lammerhubers who truly love books, will be my best. Along with warmer weather and the leafing out of the trees, I’ll be looking for my book come spring.

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I’ve found myself reading a lot of M.F.K. Fisher in recent days.  I guess I first read her book “Consider the Oyster” maybe a couple decades ago.  I don’t recall how or why I found that book but I love to cook and I’m sure it was more related to my foodie instincts than to a literary quest.  Fisher wrote that book in 1941 and in a period from 1937 to 1980, produced about sixteen books of beautiful prose relating her life and experiences in the pursuit of excellence in food and friends and the places she lived, abroad as well as in California, the state of her birth.  Her life was not always easy, she had difficult struggles with love and life and wrote sensuously about both.

Over the past several decades I’d discoverer one of Fisher’s works I hadn’t read, sometimes because I was drawn to a cuisine subject that I thought perhaps might school me in certain ways, but with time and experience I’ve picked up  Fisher’s books more to enjoy and appreciate truly fine writing.  Fisher writes sentences that make me want to return to them before finishing the paragraph that encapsulates them, wondering, how did she think to phrase it just that way? And almost never does it seem forced, but simply fluid and in a sense, musical.  There is much in the writing of M.F.K. Fisher that is worth rereading.

And that is what brings me to think about writing as it relates to those who wish to be fine documentary photographers, especially those young ones  who perhaps want to be National Geographic photographers.  There are so many young, ambitious and talented photographers out there today, far more, I believe, than when I stumbled into a summer photographic internship at National Geographic on the wings of some talent and a lot of passion, almost 53 years ago.  But I did have a hole card, so to speak: I felt that I could write. I’d wanted to be a writer before wanting to be a photographer and thought, somewhat naively, if I can’t get a job as a magazine photographer (I didn’t want to be a newspaper photographer because I didn’t think they’d give me the time to do the kind of stories I wanted to do and the reproduction quality available in a good magazine) I’d be a writer.  Maybe for a newspaper but I didn’t want to be a newspaper photographer.  It didn’t seem so at the time, but in reality, I was hoping for a lot. I realized later how high I’d set the bar of my expectancies considering I had absolutely no professional photography experience.  Hell, I’d only had about three years of photography study in the J school and Art department at the University of Minnesota.  I studied under Jerome Liebling in the Art Department and  I had a mentor and teacher of the finest kind in R. Smith “Smitty” Schuneman, in photojournalism.  I also took all the writing courses offered in journalism school.

In my junior year Schuneman pushed me to take a trip to New York City to talk to other photographers, show my work, not looking for a job, just to get responses.  And in my senior year I went east again. Upon graduation  I was 26, married with four kids, and I certainly needed a job and I wanted that job to be photographing for a magazine. This time on my trip looking for work I lucked out, getting a summer photographic internship at National Geographic Magazine  in Washington, D.C.  It was rather accidental but it’s too long an explanation for this blog. You can read about it in one of my books.

So there I was, at National Geographic, not thinking about writing anymore, just concentrating on making images in color, something I’d never done before but Geographic was an all-color magazine and I was soon to fall in a life long love affair with the medium.  After becoming a staff photographer for about two years following my summer internship, I left my staff position to enter the freelance world. But I relatively soon found myself writing again as the result of turning in a report regarding the possibility of a story on a religious group in Montana called Hutterites. Over the course of a half century contributing to National Geographic I received a number of assignments that were the result of story proposals I wrote for essay subjects I wanted to do.  That’s how I  enjoyed so much of the 1970s working in Montana, on cowboy outfits, and all that drew me out to the American West. I wrote story proposals so I could get there.  I’ve authored a number of National Geographic essays as well as stories I’d proposed for other magazines.  At one point I had become in effect, a writer/photographer.  But I have never wanted to be a general assignment writer because to me good writing is too hard and the pay has never been that great. I really only want to write what I truly want to write.  I need to feel that I have to do it.

But let’s cut to the chase and say just why  being able to write well is important to all those young, ambitious photographers out there who are just starting, who want the job I used to have. And I preach about this every time I’m asked to speak to young photographers in high school or in journalism schools at colleges and universities.  When talking to such groups I always ask this question, hoping for honesty in their answers:  ”How many of you can write?”  I’m not asking for aspirations of writing the great American novel or a Hollywood screen play.  What I’m asking is for something that runs contrary to what I’ve heard over recent decades: that U.S. public schools are turning out a lot of young people who cannot write simple declarative sentences and put them together into well structured paragraphs.  Why am I asking for this?  Need I explain?

If a young, talented and energetic photographer has an idea for a story for a magazine, say, National Geographic, and this talented photographer has researched to determine that the magazine has not recently done something quite similar, can this photographer write a proposal in a page, page-and-a-half max, that will persuade an editor or whomever might read the proposal, that this idea might be worth pursuing?  It is not enough in these days of such an abundance of photographic talent seeking work in an ever dauntingly competition to simply be able to make great pictures.  I have no idea what the process is currently in terms of getting a story proposal into someone at National Geographic but one needs to be able to communicate with words as well as pictures. Being able to get a start toward doing something special may well start with words on a page about an idea for which one has a passion.  The right words, well spoken, that make pictures of their own. And for those who are fortunate enough to discover through hard, creative work, the joy of bringing their words and their pictures together, it’s kind of like great music, when you hear it all brought together well, it’s kind of magical.

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