The group performed at the 1961 Academy Awards show, entertained at the White House and worked as the opening act for The Beatles in 1963.
The Brothers Four are still together after more than 60 years in the music business and are set to take the stage at the Verona Area Performing Arts Series 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15.
It has been playing vintage American folk music since 1957 and continues to draw from the “great American folk songbook,” said original member Bob Flick in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
The quartet scored big hits in the early 1960s with such songs as “Greenfields,” which sold more than 1 million copies and reached No. 2 on the pop music charts in 1960, and “The Green Leaves of Summer,” a song the group performed at the 1961 Academy Awards show. Other popular tunes they like to perform include “Yellow Bird,” “Try to Remember” and “500 Miles.”
“The majority of what we do are the songs that people expect to hear from those days,” Flick said. “We have to keep in mind that for a lot of folks, this may be the first time they’ve come to one of our live shows. So it’s cool and okay for us to perform those songs.”
He added the group never tires of playing their hits and folk standards, and having audiences join in singing them.
“We are honored to be able to sing them,” Flick said. “That’s why we’re still around after 60 years.”
The Brothers Four formed in 1957 when its original members — Flick, John Paine, Mike Kirkland, and Dick Foley — were fraternity brothers and students at the University of Washington. They each played guitar and sang, with Flick on bass guitar, and became a performing group in ’58 after being tricked by a rival fraternity into going to an audition at a popular music club in Seattle.
The club manager wasn’t expecting the audition but decided to let the young men play a few songs anyway. After the four finished, the manager hired them.
Flick explained that for about the first five years, the group played songs that were popularized by others such as “Good Night Irene,” from the Weavers, and Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” When a folksinger by the name of Bob Dylan emerged in Greenwich Village and began playing and singing his own original songs, other folk groups followed suit, including The Brothers Four.
Flick credited music curator Alan Lomax with collecting and recording folks songs from around the country — blues songs, work songs and prison songs — that “became the library from which we all found our material.”
“We were adapting those songs and creating our own versions,” he explained. “But when Bob Dylan came along, he became the writer of his own songs in the folk song format. He really started the singer-songwriter movement, and we began writing songs too.”
The group’s original material isn’t as well known as the standards, Flick added, and today their concerts consist mostly of songs in the American folk cannon.
“Those are the kind of songs that we sing,” he said, “and maybe a couple others that we created, and maybe a couple more that people wouldn’t expect us to do.”
He noted the quartet recorded an album of Beatles’ songs in 1966 and may perform something written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Home and abroad
Between 1960 and 1970, The Brothers Four released 19 albums.
One reached the Top 10 and another made the Top 20 on pop music charts. But with changing tastes in music, the group’s popularity began to fade and after ’70 it didn’t release another album for 26 years.
Instead, they made a living touring and performing live. They were popular fixtures on what became known as the “college circuit” in the early ‘60s, Flick said.
“We got into the college circuit at the very beginning of it happening,” he recalled. “We were doing probably a couple hundred of those college concerts per year.”
Also early in their career, the quartet appeared a few times on the Ed Sullivan Show, the country’s most popular television variety show. Their connection to Sullivan led the famous MC to invite The Brothers Four to perform before The Beatles at a 1963 concert.
“We opened for the Beatles on the last show of their first American tour,” Flick said, remembering one the group’s most cherished moments. “We would see Ed Sullivan on the streets of New York when we were based in New York in the ‘60s. He had asked the Beatles to do a charity show at the Paramount Theater in New York, and he invited us to be the opening act for The Beatles. All we could says was, ‘Why not?’”
The Brothers Four’s first performance outside the United States came in ’65 and was an unusual destination for the time — Vietnam.
Pres. Lyndon Johnson had asked the group to go during a visit to the White House, Flick recalled.
He and his fellow bandmates had mixed emotions about making the trip during the controversial war.
“We were the first entertainers to go there, before even Bob Hope and those people,” he remembered. “President Johnson said, ‘I’m sure you boys would like to go to Vietnam.’ And how can you say no? So we said yes sir, we believe we would like to go.”
He said the performances went off without a hitch and the group returned the following year.
“I still get personal emails from people saying, ‘That song got me through the night when I was pinned down in the delta,’ and that type of thing,” Flick recalled. “Music can be such a strong connector for people. You can close your eyes and it all kind of comes back.”
One of the four’s favorite places to visit is Japan, where the group has toured “at least 50 times” and remained consistently popular for six decades, Flick said.
“We go there every couple of years and have done so since we began,” he said. “We first went in 1961 or ’62, and we were the first to bring this sort of acoustic, self-contained Americana music to Japan. And we’ve been rewarded because we’ve had a very loyal following.”