In the history of popular music, there are a relative handful of performers who have redefined the content of the music at critical points in history: Blind Lemon Jefferson
, Benny Goodman & His Orchestra
, the Beatles, Bob Dylan
, Led Zeppelin
-- people whose music left the landscape, and definition of popular music, altered completely. The Kingston Trio were one such group, transforming folk music into a hot commodity and creating a demand -- where none had existed before -- for young men (sometimes with women) strumming acoustic guitars and banjos and singing folk songs and folk-like novelty songs in harmony, of which the Trio themselves were the defining ensemble for the next five years.
On a purely commercial level, from 1957 until 1963, the Kingston Trio were the most vital and popular folk group in the world. Their record was incontestable, one of the most popular acts in the history of Capitol Records and the American record industry, making them the most popular folk group in history, surpassing the Weavers' earlier success. Equally important, the trio -- Dave Guard
, Nick Reynolds
, and Bob Shane
-- made folk music immensely popular among many millions of listeners who previously had ignored it.
The group's success transcended their actual sales. Without the enviable record of popularity and sales that they built up for folk music, it is unlikely that Columbia Records would ever have had any impetus to allow John Hammond
to sign an unknown singer/guitarist named Bob Dylan
, or to put Weavers
co-founder Pete Seeger
under contract; for Warner Bros. to record the Greenwich Village-based trio Peter, Paul & Mary
; or Vanguard Records to do as many albums as they actually ended up recording with the re-formed Weavers
in the late '50s and early '60s.
The group was founded in Palo Alto, CA, by Dave Guard
(1934-1991), a graduate student from Stanford University, and two of his close friends, Bob Shane
(born 1934) and Nick Reynolds
(born 1933), from Menlo College. Guard
had both been born in Hawaii, and had originally played together in high school in Honolulu. Reynolds
hailed from Coronado, CA, the son of a career Navy officer, and had previously attended San Diego State and the University of Arizona before enrolling at Menlo College as a business major. He first spotted Shane
asleep in the back of the hall during a very boring lecture on accounting, and the two became friends. They soon started hanging out, drinking
, and chasing women together, and this, in turn, led to playing music, initially as a way of being popular at parties -- Shane
's guitar and Reynolds
' bongos became a fixture at local frat gatherings, and after a few weeks of this, Shane
to Dave Guard
It turned out that Hawaiian music fit in perfectly with the luaus that people were throwing locally, and Shane
some genuine Hawaiian songs. The group was playing at a local tavern two nights a week, but the formation of the Kingston Trio was still not quite in place. Shane
returned to Hawaii for a time to work for his father's sporting goods company, and tried to become the future island state's answer to Elvis Presley
as a solo act -- meanwhile, Guard
began playing with Joe Gannon
on bass and singer Barbara Bogue, and became Dave Guard & the Calypsonians. Reynolds
then left for a time following his graduation and was replaced by Don McArthur in a group that was known as the Kingston Quartet.
Fate stepped in when a local publicist who'd seen the Calypsonians offered to help out the group, but only if they got rid of Gannon
, whose bass playing was less than rudimentary. When he left, Bogue exited as well, and in the resulting shuffle, Reynolds
(back all the way from Hawaii) were brought back into the group, now rechristened the Kingston Trio.
Their initial approach to music was determined by the skills that each member brought or, more accurately, didn't bring to the trio -- Bob Shane
sang most of the lead parts simply because he had no familiarity with harmony singing, while Nick Reynolds
sang a third above the melody, and Guard
handled whatever was left above or below. Guard
had taken some banjo lessons, but otherwise they were completely self-taught on their instruments, with Shane
his first guitar chords while they were still in high school. Reynolds
swapped his ukulele for a tenor guitar.
They were booked into the Purple Onion, a leading night spot in San Francisco, opening for comedienne Phyllis Diller
then sent out postcards to 500 people that all three of them knew at Stanford and Menlo, inviting them to a week's worth of shows at the Purple Onion. The result was a series of sell-out shows, and a one-week engagement that was doubled, before the Trio got its own headlining gig at the club, lasting five months from June to December of 1957. During that summer, the group was spotted by Bob Hope
's agent, Jimmy Saphier, who brought demo tapes of the trio to Dot and Capitol Records -- the latter label sent producer Voyle Gilmore
, who had previously recorded Frank Sinatra
and the Four Freshmen, to the Purple Onion, and a seven-year contract was signed soon after.
The group spent the next few months intensively rehearsing, refining, and polishing their act as they went along, secure in their position at the Purple Onion. They recognized that musical ability alone was not going to keep audiences entertained, and they quickly developed a comic stage banter, which grew out of their own personalities, and learned how to pace themselves, their songs, and their banter for maximum effect, and also how to make it sound spontaneous to audiences night after night.
The group followed the Purple Onion engagement with a national tour that took them to the Holiday Hotel in Reno, NV, Mr. Kelly's in Chicago, and the Village Vanguard in New York, all of them successful appearances. During this tour, the group recorded their self-titled debut album in a series of sessions held over the three days. That record contained a brace of classic Kingston Trio songs, including "Scotch
and Soda," "Hard, Ain't It Hard," and "Tom Dooley." The latter song, picked up by a deejay in Salt Lake City who began playing it, became a single in July of 1958 -- it spent October through January in the Billboard Top Ten, selling over three million copies, and becoming, in the estimation of historian Bill Bush
, one of that handful of records, such as Elvis
' "Heartbreak Hotel" and the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand," that transformed the musical landscape. In the process, the trio earned appearances on The Dinah Shore Show and The Kraft Music Hall. "Tom Dooley" was so successful that it became the basis for a feature film, The Legend of Tom Dooley -- a sort of low-budget variant on Love Me Tender -- starring Michael Landon
as the doomed title character.
Their residence in San Francisco was now at the much more prestigious Hungry I. It was there that they recorded their second album, before a live audience in the summer of 1958. The album sold well despite the fact that it broke little new ground, merely showcasing the group's engaging interaction with their audience and some spirited singing. At Large
, the trio's third album, was their first done in stereo, and the first recording on which the group began to change their sound, advancing it significantly from their roots. There was extensive use of overdubbing, with multiple voices, guitars, and banjos, so that there were upward of a half-dozen trio "members" heard at any one time singing and playing. By that time, they had broadened their repertory as well, to embrace R&B as well as folk songs. The trio made the cover of Life magazine on August 3, 1959, and were voted the Best Group of the Year for 1959 in the pages of both Billboard and Cashbox magazines, the twin recording industry bibles, as well as two Grammy awards.
None of this exactly pleased the serious folk audience, who felt that the Kingston Trio, in popularizing traditional songs, also cheapened them. Although the group got a reasonably enthusiastic reception at the Newport Folk Festival, they were never embraced by the folk audience of the late '50s. There was also probably some professional resentment, owing to the fact that these three college graduates in their twenties, who had never paid their dues in the labor or anti-Nazi struggles of the 1930s and '40s, or endured the frosty anti-Left political atmosphere of the early and mid-'50s, were suddenly making hundreds of thousands of dollars with the very same repertories that these serious folkies had performed for decades.
The group was, however, immensely popular with almost every segment of the mass audience, but most of all among college students, who found both relaxation and validation in their mix of folk songs, humor, and good spirits. They were sufficiently well liked by older listeners, and embraced by younger audiences to justify their appearances on television series
such as The Jack Benny Show (where they mimed to their recordings of "I'm Going Home" and "Tijuana Jail," the latter sung on a set made up as -- you guessed it -- a Tijuana jail).
By the early '60s, there were lots of Kingston Trio imitators running around: the Limeliters (featuring Glenn Yarborough
), who actually were contemporaries of the trio; the Highwaymen (from Wesleyan University), who scored big with "Michael"; Bud & Travis
; the Journeymen, whose ranks included John Phillips
and Dick Weissman
, who were probably the most promising of them all; the Halifax Three (with Denny Doherty
) from Canada; and, on the "big-band" folk side, the New Christy Minstrels under Randy Sparks
, and the Serendipity Singers from the University of Colorado; the Big 3 (with Cass Elliot
) and, later, the Shilos (featuring Gram Parsons
), all capable of recording popular versions of old folk songs. None matched the trio's exposure or sales, but there was plenty of work to go around in those days, in any case -- folk music was what was happening, and other record labels and folk clubs were willing to try anything to imitate Capitol's success with the Trio. Even Roulette Records, best known for rock & roll acts and as a recording haven for veteran jazz acts such as Count Basie
, had a resident folk trio in the Cumberland Three, featuring a singer/songwriter/guitarist named John Stewart
. This era was later recalled and satirized in Christopher Guest
's comedy A Mighty Wind, in which the Kingston Trio and other collegiate-type folk groups of the period were parodied in the guise of "the Folksmen."
The trio's record of hits continued unabated for the next two years, into 1961 -- according to Bill Bush
, they accounted for 20 percent of Capitol Records' profits for the entire year of 1960, during a period when the label's roster also included such legends (and sales powerhouses) as Frank Sinatra
and Nat King Cole
. They defined the entire folk-pop genre in much the same way that the Beach Boys defined surf music and the Beatles later defined both the so-called "Merseybeat" sound and the entire British Invasion. Their influence extended far beyond their corner of the music marketplace -- the Trio not only recorded an enviable array of hits but also introduced to the world a number of songs that became hits in the hands of others, including "It Was a Very Good Year" during the 1950s and, in the early '60s, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." As a reflection of the group's impact, their manager, Frank Werber
, was one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in music, occupying a position in early-'60s popular music not too far from that occupied by Beatles
manager Brian Epstein
in England from 1963 onward -- he could literally give some aspiring musician a good living and a future at the stroke of a pen, and record labels were eager to audition his clients as potential recording artists.
The Trio's youthful exuberance and mix of upbeat sensibilities and traditional songs seemed perfectly of a piece with the dawn of the Kennedy administration, and their music a veritable soundtrack for college life during the era. Before the new president had even taken office, however, the Kingston Trio faced its first major crisis. In January of 1961, amid growing differences over the musical direction of the group, Dave Guard
left the Kingston Trio. The most serious and cerebral member of the group, Guard
was the one who knew a lot of the folk songs, especially the songs from other countries, that the Trio had performed and recorded. His very sophistication, however, resulted in his departure, out of a desire to explore folk music on a broader level, with fewer concessions to popular taste. After leaving the Trio, Guard
founded a quartet called the Whiskeyhill Singers with Judy Henske
, David "Buck" Wheat (who had been the Trio's bassist), and Cyrus Faryar
-- their one album for Capitol, done in a style very different from that of the Trio, met with little success, and the group later appeared on the soundtrack of the blockbuster Western How the West Was Won (1962).
The Kingston Trio carried on, however, its success unabated, with new member John Stewart
, beginning in early 1961. Stewart
, a onetime aspiring rock & roller who had switched to folk music and gotten two of his songs recorded by the Trio, was part of the Cumberland Three when Guard
left the Kingston Trio. He was brought into the Kingston Trio following a lag of several months while Shane
took time off -- their first break since 1958 -- and his arrival reinvigorated the Trio personally and professionally. Beginning with "Take Her out of Pity," a group original featuring Stewart
's first lead vocal with the Trio, and such Stewart
compositions as "Coming From the Mountains," the group continued evolving musically, and their records kept selling.
Fate intervened soon after he arrived when the group happened to catch a performance by the trio Peter, Paul & Mary
, and heard their rendition of a Pete Seeger
song entitled &"Where Have All the Flowers Gone." The Kingston Trio duly recorded their own version of the song, which marked a new era for the group -- though the Trio had avoided being topical in a confrontational way, they had added Woody Guthrie
songs such as "Pastures of Plenty" to their repertory during the Guard
era, and recorded the anti-Nazi ballad "Reuben James" on their first album with Stewart
, and introduced some politics in their concerts as time went by; College Concert
, recorded in December of 1961, included the comment in the intro of "Goin' Away for to Leave You" describing a piece of square dance music requiring the dancer to throw one's partner "as far right as possible" as "the John Birch Polka," a reference to the ultra-right wing John Birch Society (whose followers believed, among other things, that President [and former General of the Army was a communist stooge).
The Trio's version of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" reached number 21, not as high a place as many of their earlier singles, on the pop charts, but it also got picked up by a new category of radio station and listener, making number four on the Billboard Easy Listening chart. More than that, as a song of social protest and serious intent, it became the favorite Trio song for millions of younger folk listeners who had come along in the years since "Tom Dooley." What's more, the timing of the single could not have been better if it had been planned -- it gave the previously apolitical