L to R: Mark Pearson, Mike McCoy, Bob Flick and Karl Olsen
The Brothers Four: On the Move in a New Millenium (Part 4)
By Doug Bright (March 2019)
Summary of Parts 1-3
It all started in late 1956 in Seattle at the University of Washington, where Mike Kirkland, Dick Foley, John Paine, and Bob Flick met as Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers. "We used to sit around and sing folk songs at this fraternity house," Flick elaborated in this publication in 2003.
"We worked up a few songs for Rush Week parties," Mike Kirkland explained to a Columbia Records interviewer in 1960, "and had such a good time we did more and got to sing at other parties around campus. Before we knew it, we were performing someplace or other every weekend."
One day in 1958 Mike Kirkland got a call from a young woman who identified herself as secretary to the manager of Seattle's Colony Club and invited the group down to the famed nightspot the following Saturday for an audition. When the four collegiate musicians arrived at the appointed place and time with instruments in hand, they found a surprised manager who had no knowledge of them or their audition and, in fact, didn't even have a secretary. Obviously, they concluded, the call had been a prank played on them by a rival fraternity. Nevertheless, they won the day. "Well, while you're here," club manager Jack Beard suggested, "do a couple of songs."
As a result, they were booked at the Colony Club for 26 weekends. The gig didn't pay well, but the performing experience it delivered was invaluable. By the spring of 1959, the Brothers Four had honed their show into a tight, entertaining mix of rich vocal harmony, solid accompaniment, and hilarious comedic patter. Brimming with well-earned confidence, they took advantage of the University's spring break to try their luck in San Francisco.
Their effort won them an engagement at the prestigious Hungry i, where the Kingston Trio had just recorded a top-selling concert album. Thanks to some fraternity pals who lived in the Bay Area, they were seen and heard by Mort Lewis, who was managing jazz legend Dave Brubeck's career at the time. Keenly aware of the Brothers Four's market potential in the newly created folk boom, he urged them to send him a demo tape for submission to Brubeck's label, Columbia Records.
Columbia reacted to the demo with all the enthusiasm Mort Lewis expected, inviting the group to come to New York for a second round of auditions that resulted in their debut album and their first and biggest hit, "Greenfields". By the end of 1960 they had released one more album and scored another hit with "The Green Leaves of Summer".
Thanks to these successes, the Brothers Four found themselves in high demand through the next four years for appearances on TV variety shows and concert stages throughout America and beyond. Nevertheless, due to the impact of the Beatles on one hand and the emergence of folk-rock on the other, the year 1965 found folk groups in a challenging situation. The Brothers Four, for their part, met it with admirable creativity on their album THE HONEY WIND BLOWS.
Their rendition of the title song capitalized on Glenn Yarbrough's recent hit, and their version of "House of The Rising Sun", though quite different, took similar advantage of the previous year's smash by another group of British invaders, The Animals. For the first time in the Brothers Four's recorded history, a tasteful string section was used to grace a beautifully harmonized treatment of "Somewhere" from WEST SIDE STORY. "Our boundaries are growing bigger," John Paine remarked in the album's liner notes.
If the folk purists in the Brothers Four's fan base were beginning to worry that their heroes had "sold out," the group's next album, BEATLES' SONGBOOK, confirmed their worst fears. Tasteful as Peter Matz's orchestral arrangements were, this release virtually re-branded the group, at least on record, as an easy-listening quartet. "We kept recording," Bob Flick recalled, "but it was harder and harder for folk music or acoustic music to find a place on the air. I don't believe we ever performed any of those songs in a show: that was strictly a recording project. Fortunately for us, our in-person shows kept us going."
The 1967 album NEW WORLD'S RECORD was another shrewd attempt to reconcile their folk roots with the demands of the marketplace, but it proved to be the last album to be recorded by the original Brothers Four. In 1969, following the tragic death of his young son, Mike Kirkland left the group. "Things just took a different focus for Mike and his wife," Bob Flick explained, "and he decided to spend his time healing the family. Mark Pearson came in with us when Mike left."
Pearson's entrance was hailed with the 1969 album LET'S GET TOGETHER: The Brothers Four Sing The Great Songs of Today. It was certainly an auspicious title, but behind it were bland cover versions of a hit parade that ranged from The Beatles' "Revolution" to Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", a Bee Gees medley, and Dion's "Abraham, Martin and John". Although the line-up had changed, the group's recording strategy clearly had not. As for the strategy's success, all that needs to be said is that this album turned out to be the Brothers Four's final Columbia release.
By 1971 Mark Pearson had left the group to pursue a solo career, and he was replaced by guitarist/banjoist Bob Haworth. In 1972 Bob Flick, who had long played bass with the group, left to go solo as Mark Pearson had done. His replacement was electric bassist Tom Coe.
Flick's return in 1975 was heralded with a surprising 1976 album called THE BROTHERS FOUR NOW. Issued on the Great Northwest label, a subsidiary of Jerry Dennon's First American record group, its content was a virtual Seventies hit parade encompassing Barry Manilow's "Mandy", Roberta Flak's "Killing Me Softly", and Tony Orlando's "Tie A Yellow Ribbon". Yet for whatever reasons, whether budgetary or artistic, there were no drums, brass, or string sections. Consequently, this record had more in common with the Brothers Four's original folk sound than anything they had recorded since 1964, casting its pop content in a new light and restoring the group's vocal vitality.
In 1985, after about a dozen albums and plenty of touring with the Brothers Four, Bob Haworth was asked by Kingston Trio co-founder Bob Shane to fill in for the ailing Roger Gambill. The Brothers Four's loss of Haworth was alleviated by the return of Mark Pearson. In 1990 founding member Dick Foley finally left the group. With guitarist/mandolinist Terry Lauber replacing him, the Brothers Four established a line-up that continued until 2004.
With the departure of Terry Lauber that year, Mark Pearson's longtime friend and Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brother Mike McCoy was invited to fill the vacancy. A Snoqualmie native, McCoy was raised on a variety of popular music. "My love for music was fostered by my parents at an early age by listening to Jerry Vale, Perry Como, Sinatra, and Nat "King" Cole, to mention a few, on the stereo," he elaborates on the group's website, www.brothersfour.com. "On our car trips my dad sang melody, my mom and sister harmonies, so at age 9 or so, I was left to find my spot in the singing pecking order. Hence, my love for harmonies."
In the fall of 1965, at the age of 17, McCoy entered the University of Washington, where he met Pearson in the same fraternity that had fostered the Brothers Four. Together they formed a folk quartet called The Morning Ride with a guitar, a washtub bass, and their four voices. By the fall of 1968 the group was well on its way to making a name for itself, having won a thousand-dollar prize at a college talent contest in Los Angeles and landed a gig at their home state's Alpental ski resort, but it all came to a screeching halt when Pearson was recruited by the Brothers Four.
Nevertheless, the two fraternity brothers remained close friends and occasionally performed together as a duo, cutting two albums of original songs. "Somewhere in this time period I taught myself to play the guitar," McCoy reminisces.
By the time he was invited to join the Brothers Four, he had enjoyed a long and fulfilling career as a first-grade schoolteacher, writing songs that fit the curriculum and performing them with his students at end-of-year concerts to the delight of the parents. "I spoke with my principal and he agreed to let me take unpaid leaves when the group was on tour," he recalls.
"This worked well for four years until the district hired a new superintendent," he continues. "I was given the choice to quit singing and continue teaching, or retire. I retired, and am approaching my 15th year with the Brothers Four. I consider myself fortunate to be traveling around the world singing and sharing a slice of Americana with three incredible people I call friends. Am I glad I retired from teaching? Every standing ovation answers that question."
With the retirement of founding member John Paine in 2008, singer/guitarist Karl Olsen became the newest member of the group. A native Seattlite from a musical family, Olsen began performing publicly at the age of four and gained youthful experience in every genre from European classical to folk to rock to jazz, earning a Master's degree in voice and choral conducting from the University of Denver. He has two solo albums to his credit and has spent nearly thirty years as music minister at the Freeland Lutheran Church on Whidbey Island. "Karl and Mark had been friends for a while, working within some church activities together," Bob Flick adds. "He responded eagerly to our request to bring his musical training and performing skills to the group."
With the new line-up in place, the Brothers Four celebrated fifty years in the business with the 2010 album GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY, recorded in front of enthusiastic audiences in Seattle and Asia with tastefully arranged help on selected local tracks from the Sno-King Community Chorale, a hundred-voice choir drawn from western Washington's King and Snohomish counties.
"The group's brand-new release, THE BROTHERS FOUR RENEWAL, was co-produced by Bob Flick and composer/multi-instrumentalist Robert Holmes, who has written musical scores for many popular adventure video games and worked with a roster of artists that includes Leon Russell, Jim Messina, and The Zombies. He applies his gentle touch to quite a few audience favorites from the group's repertoire, but his subtle creativity is especially striking in his treatment of "Try To Remember". After a leisurely introduction from concert pianist Roger Hooper, the Brothers' familiar folk instrumentation kicks in, graced by a cello, and the Brothers start singing. By the second half of the first verse, a bell-like instrument, probably synthesized but sounding very organic, joins the mix. The string section shows up in the second verse, building to the final verse which is led in by a luxuriant harp track. All in all, Holmes brings to this album a brilliant approach to accompaniment that complements the group's familiar folk sound rather than burying it. For his part, founding member Bob Flick couldn't be happier. "My co-producer, Robert Holmes, has done a terrific job of reinforcing and enhancing these songs," he enthuses. "Still timeless, but a bit of an update. Folks are loving them. A wonderful way to kick off our 60th Anniversary Celebration tour."