Kings of the American Folk Revival
From 1958 through 1963, the Kingston Trio were the most popular band in the United States. Between the years 1958 and 1967, the group released twenty-seven albums, the first seventeen of which reached the Top Twenty, fourteen making it to the Top Ten. Their success and influence spawned a folk music revival in the late 1950s and early ‘60s; leading directly to the success of subsequent ‘60s folk acts, such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. The trio captured the spirit of the times, transforming the public’s perception of folk music in the process.
In many ways, the trio typified the tastes and attitudes of most Eisenhower-era young people. They were white, middle class young adults, looking for innocent entertainment in a climate free of Leftist intellectual dogma or McCarthy-era heavy-handed politics.
In 1956, three friends from Palo Alto in the bay area of California, formed the group that eventually would become the Kingston Trio. Dave Guard was an Hawaii-born graduate student at Stanford University, who played the banjo in his spare time, with a fondness for Calypso and old folk songs, such as those collected by the John Lomax and his son and Alan; as well as for performers such as Woody Guthrie and the Weavers.
Nick Reynolds, who hailed from Coronado, California, met Bob Shane (a singer and guitarist, who fancied himself as a bit of a rock and roller) while the two of them were attending Menlo College in nearby Berkeley. Reynolds and Shane became fast friends, spending their free time drinking and chasing women.
As a means of attracting attention to themselves, the pair began performing, mostly at frat parties, at first. With Shane playing guitar and Reynolds adding accompaniment on bongos, the pair mugged their way through a loose repertoire of popular and familiar songs.
Quickly tiring of that arrangement, Shane called his friend Dave Guard. Shane and Guard were longtime friends, who had played music together in high school in Honolulu. Curiously, Hawaiian music was in demand, especially at local luaus- a popular party theme at the time. Seizing upon the trend, Guard and Shane taught Reynolds authentic Hawaiian songs and some elementary chords on the ukulele. Soon, the three of them began playing at a local tavern, two nights a week
Shane left the group for a time, returning to Hawaii. Guard, with Reynolds, added a bassist and another singer, forming Dave Guard and the Calypsonians. Then Reynolds briefly left. He was replaced, whereupon the band became the Kingston Quartet.
A local publicist offered to promote the band, if Guard would concede to dropping one of the less talented members, which resulted in a complete reshuffling of the other members, as well. Reynolds and Shane returned to play with Guard and the Kingston Trio was born.
In an effort to broaden the band’s appeal- widening the sonic spectrum within the new version of the group, Shane taught Guard the rudiments of guitar, while Reynolds exchanged his ukulele for a four-string tenor guitar. Other aspects of their performance were still rather primitive, based primarily on expedience. With Shane typically handling the lead vocal duties, simply because he had yet to learn to sing harmonies, and Reynolds jumping on the high harmony part, Guard was often left to find his vocal place wherever he could.
In May of 1957, the publicist managed to get the Trio booked for a week, performing as the opening act for the then up-and-coming comedienne Phyllis Diller, at San Francisco’s prestigious Purple Onion nightclub. Those shows sold-out, due in large part to the fact that Guard sent out five hundred postcards to fans and friends, ensuring a full house every night. Their engagement at the Purple Onion was extended, first to two weeks, then to a five-month long headlining spot.
The stint at the Purple Onion would prove to be pivotal in many ways for Guard, Reynolds and Shane. While rehearsing at the club one afternoon, Guard and Reynolds happened to hear an old folksinger and song collector, Frank Warner, auditioning for the management, singing a song called “Tom Dooley.” Guard was able to locate the song in Alan Lomax’s 1947 book, Folk Song: USA, a standard text in many schools and libraries across the United States, and the band began to perform their own version of the song; which would soon serve the Kingston Trio very well.
Late in the Summer of 1957, during their extended engagement at the Purple Onion., Bob Hope’s agent, Jimmy Saphier spotted the Trio. Saphier took the band’s demos to Dot Records and Capitol. Capitol sent producer Voyce Gilmore to check the out the group. Soon thereafter, the Kingston Trio signed a seven-year contract with Capitol.
The band spent the next several months using their lengthy gig at the Purple Onion to refine their act, developing comic routines to balance their musical presentations, creating a more complete show. Once the Purple Onion shows were over, in December of 1957, the Kingston Trio embarked on a national tour, with successful stops in Reno, Chicago and New York City.
During the tour, in a series of three, day-long sessions, the Trio recorded the material that would be released as their eponymously titled debut album, which contained such memorable hits as “Tom Dooley” and “Scotch And Soda.” A Salt Lake City DJ started playing “Tom Dooley” regularly, generating an enthusiastic public response. This prompted Capitol to release the song as a single in July of 1958. The single quickly sold three million copies.
The success of “Tom Dooley,” and the album it came from, led to a host of television appearances for the Kingston Trio, throughout 1958. The group took up residence at San Francisco’s foremost nightclub, the Hungry i . It was there, in the Summer of 1958, that the Kingston Trio recorded live their second album for Capitol.
The Trio’s hits continued into the 1960s. It was said at the time that the Kingston Trio accounted for 20% of Capitol’s total sales for the entire year of 1960. But, despite the band’s success, Dave Guard was unhappy with the direction their music was taking- away from traditional folk, toward a more pop-like sound with overdubbed vocal and instrumental tracks. In January 1961, after two Grammy awards and several gold records, Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio to form the Whiskeyhill Singers.
Songwriter, singer/guitarist John Stewart, who had been playing with the Cumberland Three, soon replaced Guard. A Pamona College classmate of Frank Zappa (who had taught John the chords to “Streets Of Laredo), Stewart was no stranger to the Trio. They had earlier recorded two of his songs. Stewart’s addition reinvigorated the interest of Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds. Late in 1961, the Kingston Trio released “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” a Pete Seeger-penned song that the group happened to hear Peter, Paul and Mary perform at a concert.
The Kingston Trio’s rendition of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” became the anthem for a new, younger generation of fans, coming of age during the administration of John F. Kennedy in the early ‘60s. Subsequent releases, such as the Hoyt Axton song, “Green Back Dollar,” continued to make an impact with a new legion of fans.
However, that new audience proved to be a fickle one. Late in 1962, a band, coincidentally, also signed to the Capitol label, unveiled a sound that was to signal the Kingston Trio’s eventual demise. The Beach Boys released “Surfin’ Safari” and then “Surfin’ USA.” Unable to adapt to the changes in popular music, the Trio’s sales began to nose-dive throughout 1963.
An exciting new folksinger, Bob Dylan, was commanding attention with his controversial songs- which reflected the sort of political changes the country was undergoing in the early ‘60s. Peter, Paul and Mary were finding similar success. By 1964, with the advent of the Beatles and the whole British invasion, the Kingston Trio’s seven-year partnership with the Capitol label came to an end.
With John Stewart remaining on board only as a salaried member, the Kingston Trio continued to perform and record, first for Decca (the label that originally passed on the Beatles) and later for Tetragammatron. But the musical climate had changed. The ‘50s, in which the Trio was born, were no longer seen as pertinent. The group’s good-time, apolitical stance was no longer relevant nor popular.
In June of 1967, the same month that the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (ironically also on the Capitol label), forever changing the face of popular music, the Kingston Trio disbanded.
Even before leaving the Trio, John Stewart had tried, unsuccessfully, to start a band with John Phillips (who, not long after, formed the Mamas and Papas) and Scott McKenzie, who had a hit with Phillips’ composition, “San Francisco.” After a brief, failed attempt at a duo with the then-unknown John Denver; and spurred by the success of a song he had written, the Monkees’ 1967 smash hit “Daydream Believer,” Stewart was encouraged to embark upon a solo career.
Over the course of the next fifteen years, Stewart released several albums, two of which were especially well received. California Bloodlines, released in 1969, was met with widespread critical acclaim. And Bombs Away Dream Babies, released in 1979, was produced by Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac (who often credited the Kingston Trio as being an early influence- especially upon his “banjo frailing,” finger-picked guitar technique). That album produced the hit single “Gold,” which featured Buckingham’s bandmate Stevie Nix on backup vocals.
After leaving the Kingston Trio in 1967, Nick Reynolds retired from the music business altogether. He moved to Oregon, where he raised sheep and ran a theater in the tranquil peace of anonymity, ostensibly never again to return.
Opposed to the breakup from the start, Bob Shane never officially left the band. Instead he immediately formed the New Kingston Trio in 1967. “Pop music tastes were changing again,” Shane later said. “That whole ‘rock revolution’ thing spread from San Francisco across the country, and took a lot of our audience with it. But you know, folk is timeless, so you might as well keep it alive.”
For the next nine years, Shane performed as the New Kingston Trio, with a host of various musicians filling out the other two positions in the band. But, eventually, Roger Gambill and Bill Zorn became official full-time members. Finally, in 1976, Shane obtained the legal rights to the original name. However, shortly thereafter, Bill Zorn was forced to leave the band, due to personal commitments. He was replaced by George Grove; and the Kingston Trio was reborn- yet again.
Through the ‘70s, the band continued to perform to a modest, but loyally devoted following. By the end of the decade they had resumed making records, touring regularly to promote them.
A 1982 concert honoring the Kingston Trio, hosted by Tom Smothers and Peter, Paul and Mary, was taped for the Public Broadcasting System. For the very first time, the former and current members of the Kingston Trio: Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane, John Stewart, George Grove and Roger Gambill, were gathered together- performing many of of their greatest hits and most popular numbers.
In 1985, Roger Gambill died. “We were devastated by the loss of Roger,” George Grove said, discussing the decision to continue the band, “but the Kingston Trio, as a group, is a musical institution that had to go on, just as it has for twenty-eight years.” Bob Haworth replaced Gambill, playing with the Trio for three years, before leaving in 1988. Nick Reynolds returned, after a twenty-one year hiatus, to replace Haworth; remaining with the group through the 1990s.
Dave Guard, one of the founding members of the Kingston Trio, died from cancer in March of 1992. He had continued with activities relating to music, writing several music instruction books; as well as nurturing an involvement with what would later become known as world music.
Nick Reynolds retired from the band in 1999. His replacement was Bob Haworth, the member he had replaced. To this day the Kingston Trio continues to perform. George Grove has arranged and scored the group’s music for symphony orchestra, allowing the them to play as many as twenty concerts a year with major symphony orchestras.
The appeal of the Kingston Trio’s music still remains strong. “There is a tremendous demand for our type of acoustic music,” says Bob Shane, “and not just from those who remember the Kingston Trio. We attract listeners, even among very young children. All people want is for us to sing a song, tell a story and make it good.”
The Kingston Trio “made it good” through the last half of the 20th century. There is no doubt that their music will live on through the 21st century, as well.