Yes, friends, there really was a time when folk singing was the hottest thing on college campuses from coast to coast. Take the case of four guys at the University of Washington in Seattle, circa 1957. Bob Flick, Dick Foley, Mike Kirkland and John Paine were members of Phi Gamma Delta (the infamous Fiji fraternity!) and began singing together because practically everyone was doing between studying and partying, that is. Mostly partying; the impromptu singalong get-togethers weren't the least bit structured, as you'd usually find one or two dozen students butchering "This Land is Your Land" and having a howling good time of it.

The four began working out arrangements, which would indicate a desire to go professional, though at first that wasn't the case. Foley and Paine played guitar, Flick plucked bass and Kirkland joined in with his banjo, occasionally switching to guitar. They became very good very quickly and word got around the campus. A rival fraternity decided to pull a prank and knock them off their newfound perch; one guy convinced his girlfriend to pose as an employee of the Colony Club in downtown Seattle; with one phone call she convinced the guys they were looking for acts. Showing up to audition, they found that the club wasn't hiring and no one had authorized the call. Since the quartet was already there, they played a couple of songs and suddenly the Colony Club was hiring. Most weekends in 1958 you could find them there, singing for five dollars a night (which they usually spent at the same club for dinner, a break-even deal). Being fraternity brothers, they called themselves The Brothers Four.

Record labels (of the not-so-big local variety) began to show up offering them contracts. They held off while sending audition tapes to some of the bigger companies. During this time, The Kingston Trio took the nation by storm with "Tom Dooley" and the "folk boom" began. The Brothers Four hadn't yet considered singing full time, but their ambition suddenly kicked in. A friend suggested they go down to San Francisco and check out the Hungry i nightclub, where the Trio had already been packing them in. Bob talked his dad into loaning him the family station wagon and off the four friends went, their instruments loaded and hopes high. Timing was good; the Hungry i needed a fill-in act for a few days and they got the job, striking a chord with the cleintele and ending up staying longer. Dave Brubeck's manager, Mort Lewis, stopped in one night and offered to represent them (having previously passed up opportunities to manage Johnny Mathis and the Kingston Trio, he wasn't about to let these latest potential stars slip through his fingers). They accepted, cut a new demo tape and heard from Columbia Records soon afterward. Head man Mitch Miller was impressed by their vocals and the engaging aura that naturally emanated from the fun-loving college quartet. They signed with Columbia in July 1959.

The next few months were spent recording a debut album in New York. They appeared on TV for the first time August 11 as guests on NBC's The Jimmie Rodgers Show and played a number of concerts that summer in much larger venues than the clubs they were used to. "Chicka Mucka Hi Di," written by Ed Warren and George Goehring, was released in the fall as the group's first single but did nothing to increase didn't even make the album's final cut. The second single, "Greenfields," was the one that did the trick. Written by Terry Gilkyson, Rich Dehr and Frank Miller of The Easy Riders (main claim to fame: the 1957 hit "Marianne"), it debuted on that group's Columbia album Blue Mountain in '58. The Brothers Four slowed the tempo a bit, achieving a close-miked, intimate effect. The song debuted on the charts in February 1960 and was one of the year's biggest hits, spending four weeks at number two in April and May (held from number one by Elvis Presley's just-back-from-the-Army blockbuster "Stuck on You"). The smash single put the group at the forefront of folk acts, rivaling (but never topping) the Kingston Trio. Debut album The Brothers Four, already out for half a year, began selling in huge numbers on the strength of the hit song.

After that their singles were mostly mid-chart items; "My Tani" came next, a breezy island song in an Aussie setting ('...child of the Coral Sea'). "The Green Leaves of Summer" followed, an expressive performance of a Dimitri Tiomkin-Paul Francis Webster composition from one of 1960's crowd-pleasing movies, The Alamo, directed by and starring John Wayne. 1961 was an exciting year for Bob, Dick, Mike and John; first off, they performed at John F. Kennedy's inauguration ceremony January 20, a celebration nearly canceled due to heavy snow and sub-freezing temperatures brought by the nor'easter, which had passed through the upper Atlantic region the day before. Grammy contenders for 1960 were announced in early '61 and the group received three nominations, in the categories of Best Performance by a Vocal Group, Best Folk Performance (both for "Greenfields") and Best New Artist. Second album BMOC (Best Music On/Off Campus) outperformed the debut album, going top ten in March.

Then "The Green Leaves of Summer" received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song and the Brothers Four experienced the thrill of performing live on the Oscar broadcast, April 17, 1961. A humorous take on "Frogg" (a 16th-century folk tune best known as "Frog Went A-Courtin'") returned them to the top 40 in April and "Blue Water Line," written by Dora Graf and Marty Seligson, floated around on the charts for two months in early 1962. Television exposure kept them fresh in the minds of the American majority who didn't live in dormitories; appearing on Miller's NBC series Sing Along With Mitch was a no-brainer. Hootenanny, highlighting folk's hottest stars, hit the air in 1963 on ABC; they appeared on the show and also recorded its theme, "Hootenanny Saturday Night."

The popularity of the Brothers Four, and many other folk singers, ebbed mid-decade with the new folk-rock inclination typified by the direction Bob Dylan's music was taking in 1965. "Try to Remember" (from the musical The Fantasticks) landed them briefly on the charts near the end of that year, after which concert appearances, often at colleges and universities and always injected with a good deal of personality and humor, became their stock in trade. Mike Kirkland departed in 1969 and was replaced by Mark Pearson (an old Fiji fraternity mate), who performed with the group for many years, as did Bob Haworth, who spent most of the 1970s and '80s with them. Dick Foley left in the early '90s. The band's longevity is something rare in the music business; other than occasional brief hiatuses, Bob Flick and John Paine have stayed with The Brothers Four throughout. The quartet continues to work its onstage magic after more than half a century.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Greenfields Frogg