Gary James' Interview With Bob Flick of
The Brothers Four
Before America was taken by storm by The Beatles and the British Invasion, there was already another popular style of music in place. It was Folk music. The Brothers Four were and remain one of the best ambassadors for Folk music.
Forty years and fifty plus albums later, they still sell out concerts all over the world. Japan loves these guys so much they tour there every year. Brothers Four member Bob Flick (acoustic bass) talked with us about the history of his group.
Q - Bob, do you think the kids of today even know what Folk music is?
A - Well, you know Folk music by any other name really is music of the people, stories, legends, love songs, kids songs, game songs, mostly a way of passing information along; in the early styles mostly through acoustic music and one on one kind of performing. So, to that extent, if they don't know the label Folk music, they certainly know the fact there are singer / songwriters around in every era, especially now. Especially this era of the young woman singer / songwriters, the people who are doing such a great job. Sheryl Crow, Jewel. It's just great. They may not know the term Folk music as we've grown up with it, but they certainly know there is this history of story telling and troubadouring in music.
Q - When you started out singing at fraternities and sororities, did you ever envision making a career out of music or even think it might be possible?
A - (laughs) Not a career, no. The original four guys, Dick Foley, Mike Kirkland, John Paine and myself, we were college students. That's where we met, University Of Washington in Seattle. So, we were all studying different things and music was kind of a common denominator and it was fun. It was just party time. And, it was a real innocent time in America. It was a time when music was pretty straight forward. Kind of maybe a few years before Happy Days, that sort of era on television. It was pretty innocent. Lots of music. We would get together 'cause we all shared a common interest in these songs, in this music. Kind of Calypso music or Folk songs. The songs of The Weavers or Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie. That's the lineage from which our music and our group derives. If it weren't for those people, there would be no Brothers Four or Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary. We're just all part of this march of music. At the time, we were young enough to want to learn something. The songs were easy to learn. We all picked up the instruments and learned how to play them. The other guys, the banjo, the guitars. I just went out and found a bass and learned how to play that 'cause it seemed right that there should be a bass in the group too. So, that's how it all started. We had no idea or dream of being professional musicians at that time. It was all music on campus.
Q - So, all you guys are self-taught musicians then?
A - I think Dick and myself had parents who had "persuaded" us , if I may use that term in quotes, to have piano lessons when you're a kid. So we had a little of that. We had a little training. In high school we were involved in the choir, the choral singing, the music department...things like that. But no, not any one on one lessons for instruments we ended up playing.
Q - Let's see if the details surrounding your career have been reported accurately. Your career really took off when some of your fraternity pals invited Mort Lewis down to The Hungry i in San Francisco to see you. Is that correct?
A - Well, yeah. Remember, we were in Seattle. That's where we went to school, The University of Washington. Directly south through Oregon, California, in San Francisco was at that time, this mecca of Jazz and comedy which went hand-in-hand, and then also a bit of Folk music and it was called The Hungry i. Through a common acquaintance, a friend of ours here in Seattle who was in the music business, he got us an introduction and connection to the guy who ran The Hungry i. We drove down there on a spring vacation in my folks car, a station wagon. They waved good-bye as we piled everything in the car, the bass, the guitars and a couple of bags and drove to San Francisco and went to The Hungry i. Then, we had our fraternity brothers there in Berkeley to fill the place up. We got a spot of the bill. They filled it up with this appreciative audience. One of the ladies knew Mort Lewis who was in the Bay area because one of his acts, his main act at that, was Dave Brubeck and The Dave Brubeck Quartet and they were based in Oakland. So, yeah, your absolutely right. He was brought down to the club. He sat in the middle of this audience. Of course they were all our fraternity brothers, but we didn't necessarily announce that at the time. It was a great night. People were singing along. We were having a great time. That was just at the time when this Folk / Pop music was making a little bit of entry into Pop music. He said later after the show, he introduced himself, "This sounds terrific. I think Columbia Records should hear you guys." Columbia by the way was the label Brubeck was on. So, he said "I'm going to encourage you guys to go back to Seattle and record some kind of demonstration tape and get it to me and I'll take it back there to Mitch Miller and Irving Townsend and all those guys...if something happens I can even be your manager." We said "Gee, that would be great. Let's do it." And that's how it started.
Q - How much did it cost you to make that demo tape?
A - (laughs) It didn't cost anything because at that time I was studying radio and television broadcasting in school and I was a production manager at our radio station on campus. So, I had the key to the building. Late at night when they were off the air, we would go in and fire up the tape machine and the mic. I'd push the button, hit record and run out into the studio and we'd sing a song.
Q - From that tape, you landed a record deal with Columbia?
A - Yes. The timing couldn't have been better. Throughout all these years of music and friendship and camaraderie and adventure, we have been the recipients of very good luck and timing. This was another case of that. Columbia was looking for... at the time this was just when The Kingston trio on Capitol were beginning to have success with their first release and their first song, which was "Tom Dooley". It began to break ironically in Seattle and Salt Lake City. Those were the two markets it sort of broke out of. So, our timing couldn't have been better. Columbia said "there's only four guys. We don't have to do charts. We don't have to hire musicians." They were taking a chance, but they were taking a chance with us, so that was great.
Q - Was it your idea to take San Francisco and The Hungry i by storm?
A - No. We headed down just as an adventure. What a great thrill it would be to appear at that place, that famous place for a night or two. You know, that's as far as we thought we'd get. It was just a chance to do that and say that you'd done that.
Q - You've probably seen all the musical trends come and go in your time. So, I'd like to ask you about some of them, OK?
A - Yeah, sure.
Q - Give me your honest opinion. Don't hold back.
A - Anything we talk about is my honest opinion.
Q - When you first saw The Beatles, with their long hair, collarless jackets and cuban high-heel boots, what did you think?
A - Well of course the image of The Beatles was unique to everybody in America. We thought, wow, so these are the four kids that are pushing all of us out of the record business. It was an interesting thing to see them for the first time. I think we sort of heard 'em before we saw 'em. It was very different.
Q - Did you see them as the future of Pop music?
A - As far as predicting or sitting down and saying, well, this looks like the next trend, that's hard to say. I'd love to say we all sat there and predicted that. If we'd known that we would've gone back to England quicker and brought The Dave Clark Five over quicker than they were, if we knew how powerful that would be. I don't think anybody knew that. Everybody rode the wave. Pretty soon we were back in New York after they did that. We went out and saw their Shea Stadium show. It was just an exciting phenomena. I don't think at the time we said this is good or bad. We were just curious about this huge leap from the standards kind of clean cut young people that we saw on television to this, not that they looked scruffy or unkempt. But, it was just, hey, they were English, they were different. That as much as anything got everybody's attention.
Q - So, let's advance a few years.
A - Before we finish The Beatles story, at the same time they were in and out of America, we ended up, courtesy of Ed Sullivan, performing with The Beatles on their final show in America at The Paramount in New York. It was a fundraiser. It was a thrill to be on that show.
Q - Did you get to meet The Beatles?
A - Oh, sure. That's when Brian Epstein was there with them. You know, riding up and down the elevators, backstage. We didn't hang out with them, but we met them.
Q - What did you think of Brian Epstein?
A - Well, he was kind of a cool, calm guy. Very business-like. The context in which we saw him he was all business. Sort of shepherding and herding these four young men in and out of rehearsals and in and out of the building. And being very careful and cautious with his investment I would say.
Q - How did you get on that bill? Did you go through The Beatles' booking agency G.A.C. (General Artists Corporation)?
A - No. We actually ran into Ed Sullivan on the streets in New York. We used to live in New York. We were based there. We had done the Sullivan show quite a few times. We'd see Ed walking around the streets and he was a nice man. He took a liking to us. He saw us and said I'm doing a benefit and want to have you guys come on and be with The Beatles. How can you resist that? So, it was by invitation from Mr. Sullivan.
Q - What simple times they were when you contrast it with today.
A - I know. Think about that.
Q - Let's advance a few years, as I started to say, and go to groups like The Doors, The Grateful Dead and people like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. What did you think of that music and those artists?
A - Well, that was getting further away from what we did. The Beatles and the whole English evolution and all those songs were based on Muddy Waters, The Everly Brothers and sort of the structure we had done. So, it wasn't that far stretched to see what they did with that sort of formulative music. But, when it got to the Psychedelic stuff, especially on the West Coast, the performance and the treatment and the sound and the environment became as much a part of the performance as the material itself, then it got further away from what we were trying to emulate. I don't think any of us became fans of that music. It was cool to see the Monterey Festival. We were on Columbia Records at the time and would meet up with lots of these artists at the conventions and at the places where the artists would gather, on an annual basis. Jimi Hendrix of course is a proud Seattle alumnus.
Q - And so is Kurt Cobain.
A - Absolutely.
Q - Kurt Cobain and Nirvana may have been the last original style in Pop music history.
A - In a way it got back to story telling again. Very much a singer / songwriter fashion. The stuff they did "unplugged" is still one of the more astounding performances. It's real music. It holds together.
Q - Let's advance to the 70s, where we had performers like David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple. What did you think of those people?
A - That became rather corporate in its image, certainly in my opinion. You mention David Bowie along with all those others; I just respect him greatly, 'cause he's been around not only as long as we have, but a survivor and adaptable. A source of great creativity. Not that the others you mentioned were not, but that was kind of the time when marketing, Boards of Directors, Sponsorship Underwriting and corporate monolith sort of came into music. It wasn't all that expressive a time, but none the less they found success. They moved product and that's what it was all about in those times.
Q - The Brothers Four have a huge following in Japan?
A - Well, we do. Once again, we were lucky to be the first people to introduce Japan and actually most all of Asia, China, Korea, Thailand, The Philippines to this kind of American Folk / Pop, thanks to the first couple of records we had. Our first major song that was an international success was called "Greenfields". "Greenfields" was a ballad in a minor key. A love song. Simple words. The English was easy to understand. So, it became not necessarily for those reasons I mentioned, but along with those, it found success internationally. So, we were invited early, early on, 1961 because of the record's success in those foreign markets, to do tours. We found success. They liked the music. And, they've been very loyal since those days. We have returned to the Japan market every year or year and a half since 1961. So, it's just been a great adventure.
Q - So, you guys continue to perform all over the world to this day?
A - Oh, yeah. The Brothers Four have not stopped performing since the inception. We've had a couple of personnel changes, but the sound and the spirit have been continually performing since we started. The only part of the world we haven't performed would be the Middle East and South America.
Q - What type of venues are you performing in?
A - Well, I'll give you an example; the last season or two, we've done lots of community concert series, which means that it'll be in a venue maybe a couple of thousand, twenty-five hundred people. A nice concert hall. We've found that the audiences kind of like it. They like the choice of having something like we do as wholesome family choice. We've also been on the road up 'til last year with a troupe that was inspired by that P.B.S. show This Land Is Your Land. There was The Kingston Trio, ourselves and Glen Yarborough doing the 'live' show. So, that was real successful. We were in about thirty states.
Q - How about recording, do you put out new material?
A - We do. The newest product however, has been for release in Asia. I think there are a couple of companies in the U.S. that are putting together a couple of retrospectives. Some three disc sets. Things like that. So that'll probably be the new thing that comes out here. As far as the newest recording, a CD will be on our website soon for sale and it will be on Amazon.com and those normal places. It's called "This Land Is Your Land". It's our own 'live' concert with our current membership. It's a good show and a good disc. It's a terrific 'live' concert.