The Kingston Trio
In the history of popular music, there are a handful of performers who have redefined the content of the music at critical points in history: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Benny Goodman and his orchestra, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin — people whose music left the landscape, and definition of popular music, altered completely with its arrival. 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 folksongs 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, it is unlikely that Columbia Records would ever have had any impetus 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 to record the Greenwich Village-based trio Peter, Paul and Mary; or Vanguard Records to do as many albums as they actually ended up recording with the reformed Weavers in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
The group was founded in Palo Alto, California, by Dave Guard (1934-1991), a graduate student from Stanford University, and two of his close friends, Bob Shane (b. 1934) and Nick Reynolds (b. 1933), from Menlo College. Guard and Shane had both been born in Hawaii, and had originally played together in high school in Honolulu. Reynolds hailed from Coronado, California, 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 introduced Reynolds to Dave Guard.
It turned out that Hawaiian music fit in perfectly with the luaus that people were throwing locally, and Shane and Guard taught Reynolds 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 island state’s answer to Elvis Presley as a solo act — meanwhile, Guard and Reynolds began playing with Joe Gannon on bass and singer Barbara Bogue, and became Dave Guard and 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 and Shane (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 teaching Guard 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. Guard 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, Nevada, 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 “Heartbreak Hotel” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” that transform 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 upwards 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 embraced 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 20s, 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 millions 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 “California” 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 New Christie Minstrels under Randy Sparks, Bud and Travis, the Limeliters (with Glen Yarborough), the Halifax Three (with Denny Doherty), the Big Three (with Cass Elliot and John Sebastian), the Highwaymen, 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, had a resident folk trio in the Cumberland Three, featuring John Stewart.
The trio’s record of hits continued unabated for the next two years, into 1961 — according to Bill Bush, they accounted for 20% of Capitol Records profits for the entire year of 1960. 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. 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 and more serious level. 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 met with little success, but 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 one-time 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 and Reynolds took time off, and, as a result, he reinvigorated the Trio personally and professionally.
Beginning with “Take Her Out of Pity,” an original song featuring Stewart’s first lead vocal with the group, the new Kingston Trio 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 and Mary, and heard a Pete Seeger song entitled “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” This song, released late in 1961, reached number 21, not as high a place as many of their earlier singles, 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.”
It was that newer, younger audience that eventually abandoned the Trio, amid a series of complex sociological changes. When the Trio had started out in 1958, most college students were relatively apolitical, and involved in their studies and, where possible, having a good time. The Trio had perfectly captured the mood of the times and their audience.
Their success with folk songs had led to the signing of hundreds of folk musicians by dozens of labels, ranging from acts such as the harmony folk groups the Highwaymen and the Limelighters to veteran leftists such as Pete Seeger. Gradually, a new audience for more serious folk songs developed — it was small but growing, and it was committed to serious, topical issues, including the emerging civil rights struggle in the south. By 1962, there was a split in the folk music audience.
On one side was the newly identified topical folk audience. These listeners, who were among the youngest and most energetic, identified with Seeger and the leftist/union background of the Weavers, which extended into modern politics in anti-war sentiment and a deepening involvement in the civil rights movement. They didn’t constitute a huge number of people, but they were committed to folk music.
On the other side were the pop-folk listeners, or what the leftist listeners would have called the right-wing folk audience. It wasn’t that groups like the Kingston Trio or the New Christie Minstrels were right-wing (even if the Minstrels’ first Columbia album featured a quote endorsing them from former President Dwight Eisenhower — Ike was hardly an ideologue, but it would be difficult to imagine him endorsing Bob Dylan’s first album), so much as simply not engaged in struggles over politics or human rights, instead doing music that people enjoyed without necessarily having their consciousnesses raised in the process.
The Trio might’ve survived the loss of the folk listeners, and gotten through this period with their audience of middle-of-the-road college students and older listeners, except that the latter had no real commitment to folk music; they liked what sounded good to them, and by the early ’60s had moved on to other sounds. And at just about the same time, they lost their collegiate audience — the kids going to college in 1962 and 1963, after all, had grown up with rock & roll as part of their musical environment, and while the college student of 1957 might’ve thought of Elvis Presley as beneath him, the college student of 1962/63 was a lot more flexible.
And just about then, a new wave of rock & roll acts had begun emerging, heralded by the Beach Boys (ironically, also a Capitol act, and who wore striped shirts remarkably like those of the Kingston Trio). Along with a growing number of R&B acts, this music began drawing away the more boisterous, fun-loving segment of the college audience that had always been part of the Trio’s core fandom.
The situation that the group faced was summed up, albeit in hindsight, in the movie Animal House, in the toga party scene. A drunk Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi) comes down the stairs, passing a folksinger serenading a group of coeds with a “The Cherry Song” (“I gave my love a cherry that had no stone….”), when Bluto reaches over, smashes the singer’s guitar to bits, and stumbles on, muttering, “Sorry,” while in the background Otis Day and the Knights grind through another chorus of “Louie Louie.”
With the college audience gone, all that the Trio could find as listeners were the folkies. But on that stage, they found themselves undercut by the likes of Bob Dylan on the left and Peter, Paul and Mary from the center. Frat parties didn’t matter to these singers or their audience — the role models for listeners and performers alike were the Weavers and Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and the 1940s American Left. If most of the singers had never lived among migrant farm workers, or fought against fascism in the ’40s, or hoboed around the country, they tried to sing and act as though they had.
The Kingston Trio, by contrast, still sang of love and good times, or performed tunes so old as to have no particular political significance. Indeed, this was part of the basis for their success — at the time they started out, the Kingston Trio was a new kind of folksinging ensemble. Their sensibilities, like those of the audience they ultimately reached, were formed not in the struggles of the Depression or World War II, but in the more stable times afterward. They were more at home at frat parties than union meetings or Socialist rallies.
The Kingston Trio found themselves swamped by a wave of relevance and topicality. Their sales plummeted toward the end of 1963, and the arrival of the Beatles in America in early 1964 sealed their fate — Capitol Records clearly had bigger fish to fry. In 1964, when their Capitol contract was up, they and the label parted company.
The Trio continued recording and performing, first for Decca and later for Tetragammatron before calling it quits in June of 1967 — ironically, the same month that the Beatles and Capitol Records were to release yet another album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that would effect a seismic shift in popular music; few people noticed the Trio’s farewell gig at the Hungry I in San Francisco on June 17.
Stewart went on to become a very successful songwriter (“Daydream Believer”) and recording artist (“Gold”). Nick Reynolds left the music business, moving to Oregon, where he ranched sheep and ran a theater, among other activities. Dave Guard remained active as a musician until his death from cancer in March of 1991, writing several music instruction books and becoming deeply involved with what had become known as world music.
Bob Shane had opposed the break-up, however, and in 1972 reformed the Kingston Trio (initially as The New Kingston Trio), amid the same ’50s nostalgia boom that had already given performers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley new careers. With George Grove and Roger Gambill joining Shane, the group found a small but enthusiastic audience, and by the end of the ’70s had begun recording in its own right. In 1981, as part of a concert taped for a public television broadcast, the Kingston Trio did something that the rock group Yes, in its various line-ups, would emulate, gathering together the current and former members of the group into a sort of Kingston Trio super-group of Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, Dave Guard, John Stewart, George Grove, and Roger Gambill, with Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary as host. Bobby Haworth joined the group in 1985 after the death of Roger Gamble. Nick Reynolds re-joined the group in 1988 and retired in 1999 leaving the tenor slot to Bobby Haworth.
– Bruce Eder
- Thank You for Smoking (2005) (performer: “Greenback Dollar”)
- A Bright Shining Lie (1998) (TV) (performer: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”)
- The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) (performer: “Try To Remember” from “The Fantasticks”)
- Texas Across the River (1966) (singers: title song)
- The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959) (music performers: title song)
- “Playhouse 90”
Rumors of Evening (1958) TV Episode (music performers)
- Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database