The Kingston Trio
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The Kingston Trio is an American folk and pop music group that helped launch the folk revival of the late 1950s to late 1960s. The group started as a San Francisco Bay Area nightclub act with an original lineup of Dave Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds. It rose to international popularity, fueled by unprecedented sales of 33⅓ rpm long-playing record albums (LPs), and helped to alter the direction of popular music in the U.S.
The Kingston Trio was one of the most prominent groups of the era's pop-folk boom that started in 1958 with the release of their first album and its hit recording of "Tom Dooley", which sold over three million copies as a single. The Trio released nineteen albums that made Billboard's Top 100, fourteen of which ranked in the top 10, and five of which hit the number 1 spot. Four of the group's LPs charted among the 10 top-selling albums for five weeks in November and December 1959, a record unmatched for more than 50 years, and the group still ranks after half a century in the all-time lists of many of Billboard's cumulative charts, including those for most weeks with a number 1 album, most total weeks charting an album, most number 1 albums, most consecutive number 1 albums, and most top ten albums.
In 1961, the Trio was described as "the most envied, the most imitated, and the most successful singing group, folk or otherwise, in all show business" and "the undisputed kings of the folksinging rage by every yardstick." Music historian Richie Unterberger characterized their impact as "phenomenal popularity", and the Kingston Trio's massive record sales in its early days made acoustic folk music commercially viable, paving the way for singer-songwriter, folk rock, and Americana artists who followed in their wake.
Dave Guard and Bob Shane had been friends since junior high school at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii where both had learned to play ukulele in required music classes. They had developed an interest in and admiration for native Hawaiian slack key guitarists like Gabby Pahinui. While in Punahou's secondary school, Shane taught first himself and then Guard the rudiments of the six-string guitar, and the two began performing at parties and in school shows doing an eclectic mix of Tahitian, Hawaiian, and calypso songs.
After graduating from high school in 1952, Guard enrolled at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, while Shane matriculated at nearby Menlo College. At Menlo, Shane became friends with Nick Reynolds, a native San Diegan with an extensive knowledge of folk and calypso songs—in part from his guitar-playing father, a career officer in the U.S. Navy. Reynolds was also able to create and sing tenor harmonies, a skill derived in part from family singalongs, and could play both guitar and bongo and conga drums. Shane and Reynolds performed at fraternity parties and luaus for a time, and eventually Shane introduced Reynolds to Guard. The three began performing at campus and neighborhood hangouts, sometimes as a trio but with an aggregation of friends that could swell their ranks to as many as six or seven, according to Reynolds. They usually billed themselves under the name of "Dave Guard and the Calypsonians". None of the three at that time had any serious aspirations to enter professional show business, however, and Shane returned to Hawaii following his graduation in late 1956 to work in the family sporting goods business.
Still in the Bay Area, Guard and Reynolds had organized themselves somewhat more formally into an entity named "The Kingston Quartet" with friends bassist Joe Gannon and vocalist Barbara Bogue, though as before they were often joined in their performances by other friends. At one engagement at Redwood City's Cracked Pot beer garden, they met a young San Francisco publicist named Frank Werber, who had heard of them from a local entertainment reporter. Werber liked the group's raw energy but did not consider them refined enough to want to represent them as an agent or manager at that point, though he left his telephone number with Guard. Some weeks later (and following a brief period in which Reynolds was temporarily replaced in the quartet by Don MacArthur), Guard and Reynolds invited Werber to a performance of the group at the Italian Village Restaurant in San Francisco, where Werber was so impressed by the group's progress that he agreed to manage them provided they replace Gannon, in whose professional potential Werber had no faith. Bogue left with Gannon, and Guard, Reynolds, and Werber invited Shane to rejoin the now more formally organized band. Shane, who had been performing part-time as a solo act at night in Honolulu, readily assented and returned to the mainland in early March 1957.
The four drew up a contract as equal partners in Werber's office in San Francisco, deciding first on the name "Kingston Trio" because it evoked, through its association with Kingston, Jamaica, the calypso music popular at the time, and second on the uniform of three-quarter-length sleeved vertically striped shirts that the group hoped would help their target audience of college students to identify with them.
Era of peak success, 1957–61
Werber imposed a stern training regimen on Guard, Shane, and Reynolds, rehearsing them for six to eight hours a day for several months, sending them to prominent San Francisco vocal coach Judy Davis to help them learn to preserve their voices, and working on the group's carefully prepared but apparently spontaneous banter between songs. At the same time, the group was developing a varied and eclectic repertoire of calypso, folk, and foreign language songs, suggested by all three of the musicians though usually arranged by Guard with some harmonies created by Reynolds.
The first major break for The Kingston Trio came in late June 1957 when comedian Phyllis Diller canceled a week-long engagement at The Purple Onion club in San Francisco. When Werber persuaded the club's owner to give the untested Trio a chance, Guard sent out five hundred postcards to everyone that the three musicians knew in the Bay Area and Werber plastered the city with handbills announcing the engagement. When the crowds came, the Trio had been well prepared by months of work, and they achieved such local popularity that the initial week's engagement stretched to six months. Werber built upon this initial success, booking a national club tour in early 1958 for the Trio that included engagements at such prominent night spots as Mister Kelly's in Chicago, the Village Vanguard in New York, Storyville in Boston, and finally a return to San Francisco and its showcase nightclub, the Hungry i, in June of that year.
At the same time, Werber was attempting to leverage the Trio's popularity as a club act into a recording contract. Both Dot Records and Liberty Records expressed some interest, but each proposed to record the Trio on 45 rpm (revolutions per minute) singles only, whereas Werber and the Trio members both felt that 33⅓ rpm albums had more potential for the group's music. Through Jimmy Saphier, agent for Bob Hope who had seen and liked the group at The Purple Onion, Werber contacted Capitol Records, which dispatched prominent producer Voyle Gilmore to San Francisco to evaluate the Trio's commercial potential. On Gilmore's strong recommendation, Capitol signed the Kingston Trio to an exclusive seven-year deal.
The group's first album, Capitol T996 The Kingston Trio, was recorded over a three-day period in February 1958 and released in June that year, just as the Trio was beginning its engagement at the Hungry i. Gilmore had made two important supervisory decisions as producer — first, to add the same kind of "bottom" to the Trio's sound that he had heard in live performance and consequently recruiting Purple Onion house bassist Buzz Wheeler to play on the album, and second to record the group's songs without the secondary orchestral accompaniment that was nearly universal (even for folk-styled records) at the time. The song selections on the first album reflected the repertoire that the musicians had been working on for two years—re-imagined traditional songs inspired by The Weavers like "Santy Anno" and "Bay of Mexico," calypso-flavored tunes reminiscent of the hugely popular Harry Belafonte recordings of the time such as "Banua" and "Sloop John B", and a mix of both foreign language and contemporary songwriter numbers, including Terry Gilkyson's "Fast Freight" and "Scotch and Soda", whose authorship remains unknown as of 2015.
The album sold moderately well—including on-site sales at the Hungry i during the Kingston Trio's engagement there through the summer—but it was DJs Paul Colburn and Bill Terry at station KLUB in Salt Lake City whose enthusiasm for a single cut on the record spurred the next development in the group's history. Colburn began playing "Tom Dooley" extensively on his show, prompting a rush of album sales in the Salt Lake area by fans who wanted to listen to the song, as yet unavailable as a single record. Colburn called other DJs around the country urging them to do the same, and national response to the song was so strong that a reluctant Capitol Records finally released the tune as a 45rpm single on August 8, 1958; it reached the number 1 spot on the Billboard chart by late November, sold a million copies by Christmas, and was awarded a gold record on January 21, 1959. "Tom Dooley" also spurred the debut album to a number 1 position on the charts and helped the band earn a second gold record for the LP, which remained charted on Billboard's weekly reports for 195 weeks.
The success of the album and the single earned the Kingston Trio a Grammy award for Best Country & Western Performance for "Tom Dooley" at the awards' inaugural ceremony in 1959. At the time, no folk music category existed in the Grammy's scheme. The next year, largely as a result of The Kingston Trio and "Tom Dooley", the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences instituted a folk category and the Trio won the first Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording for its second studio album At Large.
This was the beginning of a remarkable three-year run for the Trio in which their first five studio albums achieved number 1 chart status and were awarded gold records. By 1961, the group had sold more than eight million records, earning in excess of US$25 million for Capitol, roughly US$200 million in 2015 dollars. The Kingston Trio was responsible for 15 percent of Capitol's total sales when Capitol also recorded among many other popular artists Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole, both of whom were also producing high-charting profitable albums. One indication of the Kingston Trio's popularity during this era was that for five consecutive weeks in November and December 1959, four Kingston Trio albums ranked in the top ten of Billboard's Top LPs chart, an accomplishment unmatched by any artist before or since. The Trio also charted several single records during this time, made numerous television appearances, and played upwards of 200 engagements per year.
Change and a second phase, 1961–67
Despite the Kingston Trio's nearly unprecedented success in record sales, by early 1961 a rift developed and deepened between Guard on one side and Shane and Reynolds on the other. Guard had been referred to in the press and on the albums' liner notes as the "acknowledged leader" of the group, a description never wholly endorsed by Shane and Reynolds, who felt themselves equal contributors to the group's repertoire and success. Guard wanted Shane and Reynolds to follow his lead and learn more of the technical aspects of music and to redirect the group's song selections, in part because of the withering criticism that the group had been getting from more traditional folk performers for the Trio's smoother and more commercial versions of folk songs and for the money-making copyrights that the Kingston group had secured for their arrangements of public domain songs. Shane and Reynolds felt that the formula for song selection and performance that they had painstakingly developed and rehearsed still served them well.
Furthermore, over $100,000 appeared to be missing from the Trio's publishing royalties (an accounting error eventually rectified) and that created an additional irritant to both sides: to Guard because he regarded it as inexcusable carelessness and to Shane and Reynolds because it highlighted what they perceived as Guard's propensity to claim individual copyright for some of the group's songs, including "Tom Dooley" (though Guard eventually lost a suit over copyright for that number to Alan Lomax, Frank Warner, and Frank Proffitt) and "Scotch and Soda".
The situation became intolerable for all concerned, and Dave Guard resigned from the Kingston Trio in April 1961, though pledging to fulfill group commitments through November of that year. Shane, Reynolds, and Werber bought out Guard's interest in the partnership for $300,000 to be paid over a number of years and moved to replace him immediately. The remaining Trio partners settled quickly on John Stewart, a 21-year-old member of the Cumberland Three, one of the myriad of groups that sprang up hoping to imitate the Kingston Trio's success. Stewart was already well-acquainted with Reynolds and Shane, having sold two of his early songwriting efforts to the Trio, and he was a proficient guitarist, banjoist, and singer who seemed to the partners to be perfectly positioned to replace Guard. Stewart began rehearsing and recording with the group nearly immediately, commencing public appearances with the Trio in September 1961.
According to Shane, "We did nearly as well with John as we did with Dave." Six of the group's next seven albums between 1961 and 1963 continued to place in Billboard's Top Ten and several of the group's most successful singles, including "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "Greenback Dollar", charted as well.
Beginning in 1964, however, the Kingston Trio's dominance in record sales and in concert bookings began to wane, due partly to the number and popularity of the aforementioned imitators in the pop-folk world but also to the rise of other major commercial folk groups like Peter, Paul and Mary whose music had a decidedly more political bent than the Trio's. In addition, the British Invasion spearheaded by The Beatles, who were signed by EMI/Capitol just as the Trio's seven-year contract was running out, depressed sales of acoustic folk albums significantly, and Capitol did not make a serious effort to re-sign the group. Werber secured a generous signing bonus from Decca Records, and the last four albums of the Kingston Trio's first decade were released by that label. Without the production facilities of Capitol, however, and the expertise of Voyle Gilmore and engineer Pete Abbott, the Decca releases lacked the aural brilliance of the Capitol albums, and none of the four sold especially well.
By 1966, Reynolds had grown weary of touring and Stewart wanted to strike out on his own as a singer-songwriter, so the three musicians and Werber developed an exit strategy of playing as many dates as possible for a year with an endpoint determined to be a final two-week engagement at the Hungry i in June 1967. The group followed this strategy successfully, and on June 17, 1967, the Kingston Trio ceased to be an actively performing band.
Hiatus and the New Kingston Trio, 1967–1976
Following the Hungry i engagement, Reynolds moved to Port Orford, Oregon and pursued interests in ranching, business, and race cars for the next twenty years. Stewart commenced a long and distinguished career as a singer-songwriter, composing hit songs like "Daydream Believer" for The Monkees and "Runaway Train" for Rosanne Cash. He recorded more than 40 albums of his own, most notably the landmark California Bloodlines, and found chart success in the top forty with "Midnight Wind", "Lost Her in the Sun", and "Gold", the latter reaching number 5 in 1979.
Bob Shane decided to stay in entertainment, and he experimented with solo work. He recorded several singles, including a well-received but under-marketed version of the song "Honey" that later became a million-seller for Bobby Goldsboro, and with different configurations with other folk-oriented performers. Though finances were not an immediate concern—the Kingston Trio partners Werber, Shane and Reynolds still owned an office building, a restaurant, other commercial real estate, and a variety of other lucrative investments—Shane wanted to return to a group environment and in 1969 secured permission from his partners to use the mutually owned group name for another band, with Reynolds and Werber insisting only that Shane's group be musically as accomplished as its predecessors and that Shane append "new" to the band's title.
Shane agreed and organized two troupes under the name of "The New Kingston Trio". The first consisted of guitarist Pat Horine and banjoist Jim Connor in addition to Shane and lasted from 1969 to 1973, the second including guitarist Roger Gambill and banjoist Bill Zorn from 1973 until 1976. Shane tried to create a repertoire for these groups that included both the older and expected Kingston Trio standards like "Tom Dooley" and "M.T.A." but that would also feature more contemporary songs as well, including country and novelty tunes. The attempt did not meet with any significant success. The only full-length album released by either group was The World Needs a Melody in 1973 (though 25 years later FolkEra Records issued The Lost Masters 1969–1972, a compilation of previously unreleased tracks from the Shane-Horine-Connor years), and its sales were negligible. Though both troupes of the New Kingston Trio made a limited number of other recordings and several television appearances, neither generated very much interest from fans or the public at large.
The third phase, 1976–present
In 1976, Bill Zorn left the New Kingston Trio to work as a solo performer and record producer in London. Shane and Gambill replaced him with George Grove, a professionally trained singer and instrumentalist from North Carolina who had been working in Nashville as a studio musician.
The same year, Shane secured from Werber and Reynolds the unencumbered rights to use the band's original name of the Kingston Trio without the appended "new" in exchange for relinquishing his interest in the still-profitable corporation, whose holdings included copyrights and licensing rights to many of the original Trio's songs. Since 1976, the various troupes headed and owned by Shane have performed and recorded simply as the Kingston Trio.
The Shane-Gambill-Grove Kingston Trio existed from 1976 through 1985, when Gambill died unexpectedly from a heart ailment at the age of 45. The nine years of this configuration was to that point the longest period of time that any three musicians had worked together as the Kingston Trio, and the group released two albums of largely original material.
It was during this period as well that PBS producers JoAnne Young and Paul Surratt approached Shane and the other principals of the original group with the idea of arranging a reunion concert that would be taped and used as a fundraiser for the network. Agreement was reached, and on November 7, 1981, Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, and John Stewart joined the Shane-Gambill-Grove Trio and guest performers Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Smothers of the Smothers Brothers, and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac at the Magic Mountain amusement park north of Los Angeles for a show billed as "The Kingston Trio And Friends Reunion." The different configurations of the Trio took turns performing sets of the group's best-known songs with all the artists joining onstage for a finale.
More than twenty years had passed since Dave Guard had left the group, but residual tension surfaced between Guard and Shane in an article in the Wall Street Journal that appeared in March 1982 following the national broadcast of the taped show. Guard implicitly disparaged Shane's current group, and Shane asserted a distaste for performing again with Guard, who had spent the intervening decades living and performing in Australia, touring sporadically as a soloist, and writing about and teaching music. Despite the unpleasantness, Shane and Guard reconciled to a large degree (even to the point of planning a possible reunion tour) prior to Guard's death at age 56 from lymphoma nine years later in March 1991.
Following the 1985 death of Roger Gambill, Kingston Trio personnel changed several times, though Shane and Grove remained constants. Bob Haworth, a veteran folk performer who had worked as a member of The Brothers Four for many years, initially replaced Gambill from 1985 through 1988 and again from 1999 through 2005. In 1988, original member Nick Reynolds rejoined the band until his final retirement in 1999. When heart disease forced Bob Shane's retirement from touring in March 2004, he was replaced by former New Kingston Trio member Bill Zorn. A year later, following Haworth's departure, Grove and Zorn were joined by Rick Dougherty, who had performed for a time with Zorn as second-generation members of another popular folk group from the 1960s, The Limeliters.
Both the Grove–Zorn–Haworth and Grove–Zorn–Dougherty troupes of the Kingston Trio have released original CDs and DVDs, and the latter configuration continues to tour extensively under the direction of the only surviving original member Bob Shane, now sole owner of the band. Capitol Records, Decca Records, Collector's Choice Music, and Folk Era Records have released and continue to release compilations of older albums as well as previously unreleased tapes of both studio and live recordings from the Kingston Trio's first ten years.
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