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 — 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. On a purely commercial level, from 1957 until 1963, the Kingston Trio were the most vital and popular folk group in the world, and folk music was sufficiently popular as to make that a significant statement. Equally important, the original trio — Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, and Bob Shane — in tandem with other, similar early acts such as the Limeliters, spearheaded a boom in the popularity of folk music that suddenly made the latter important to millions of listeners who previously had ignored it. The group's success and influence transcended its 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, or for Warner Bros. to record the Greenwich Village-based trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
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 (1933-2008), from Menlo College. Guard and Shane had both been raised 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 attended 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 they 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 future 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 & the Calypsonians. That group didn't last, and finally Reynolds and Shane (back all the way from Hawaii) were brought back to the now newly rechristened 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. And Reynolds soon 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, and 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 sold-out shows, and a one-week engagement that was doubled, before the Trio got their own headlining gig at the club lasting five months, from June to December of 1957. During that summer, Capitol Records producer Voyle Gilmore, who had previously recorded Frank Sinatra and the Four Freshmen, saw them play at the Purple Onion, and a seven-year contract was signed soon after.
The Kingston Trio spent the next few months intensively rehearsing, refining, and polishing their act as they went along — 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 Mr. Kelly's in Chicago and the Village Vanguard in New York, all of them successful appearances. During this tour, the group recorded its 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 DJ 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, and 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 its audience and some spirited singing. At Large, the Trio's third album, was their first done in stereo, and the first recording on which they 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 half a 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 Trio got a reasonably enthusiastic reception at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, 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 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; as well as the Big 3 (with Cass Elliot) and, later, the Shilos (featuring Gram Parsons). All these artists were capable of recording popular versions of old folk songs, although none matched the trio's exposure or sales. Still, there was plenty of work to go around in those days — 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 young singer/songwriter/guitarist named John Stewart.
This era was later recalled and satirized in Christopher Guest's comedy film 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 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 their first major crisis. In January of 1961, amid growing differences over the musical direction of the group, Dave Guard left. The most serious and cerebral of the three, 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). However, the Kingston Trio carried on, their success unabated, with new member John Stewart joining 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 group, and was brought into the Kingston Trio following a lag of several months while Shane and Reynolds took time off, their first break since 1958. His arrival reinvigorated the Trio personally and professionally, beginning with "Take Her Out of Pity," a group original featuring Stewart's first lead vocal, and such Stewart compositions as "Coming from the Mountains."
Fate intervened soon after he arrived when the group happened to catch a performance by the trio Peter, Paul and 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, 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] Dwight Eisenhower 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 group an antiwar statement to its credit on the pop charts, just as American college campuses were slowly becoming politicized again for the first time since the 1940s, and although American troops' involvement in combat in Vietnam was still a few years away, the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962 spurred a small but vocal antiwar movement into existence, whose members often overlapped with the folk music audience. The Trio were still doing standing-room-only business into 1962 and early 1963 — by then they'd even recorded one song that expressed the goals and hopes of the burgeoning civil rights movement, "Road to Freedom" on the album #16. The mere fact that it was their 16th album posed problems for the Trio, however — coming up behind them were performing groups that were more directly political than they were, and more attuned to the next wave of folk music. Where the Trio did Seeger and Guthrie songs, other performers, most notably Peter, Paul and Mary, had picked up on the compositions of Guthrie's self-appointed successor, Bob Dylan, and were soon dominating the airwaves and raising the public consciousness with recordings of "Blowin' in the Wind" and other songs.
The Kingston Trio, by contrast, still had pure entertainment as a big part of their image and purpose, and looked too much like part of the establishment. It was a problem similar to that of the Chad Mitchell Trio, rivals to the Kingston Trio, who had embraced some of Dylan's work (but, thanks to a producer's misjudgment, never issued any of it as singles) and who were known to be "irreverent" — "irreverent" was fine for comics and entertainers, and acceptable to parents, but it made the Mitchell Trio and the Kingston Trio seem like establishment lackeys, while more confrontational composers such as Dylan and Phil Ochs were generating in-your-face challenges to a ton of social and political assumptions that helped hold campuses (or, at least, the communities where they were based) together.
By 1962, there was a split in the folk music audience and community — on one side were the newly identified topical folk listeners, principally younger college students and more serious high-school students, augmented by older activists who had kept their heads down and their profiles low for most of the late '50s. They identified with Seeger, Guthrie, Lee Hays, and the leftist/union background of the Almanac Singers, which extended into modern politics in antiwar sentiment and a deepening involvement in the civil rights movement. They didn't constitute a majority of listeners, even on many college campuses, but they were committed to folk music and their dedicated attendance at concerts and clubs amplified their influence, and on the other side were the more centrist pop-folk listeners, or what the leftist listeners might well have called the right-wing folk audience. It wasn't that groups like the Kingston Trio or the New Christy Minstrels were right wing, so much as that they simply defined their goal and mission differently, to entertain rather than send messages or inspire audiences to mass protest — their concerts and music tended to be upbeat and enjoyable without a lot of heavy lifting in the analysis department.
The Trio might have survived the loss of the activist folk listeners and gotten through this period with their audience of middle-of-the-road college students augmented with younger children (whose parents always regarded folk music as a safe haven) and older listeners, except that those middlebrow college students had no real commitment to folk music; they liked what sounded good to them, and by early 1963, they were ready to move on to other sounds. 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 student attending college in, say, 1957-1961 might have thought of Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry as beneath him, the college student of the early '60s 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), the Kingsmen, Paul Revere & the Raiders, et al. Along with a growing number of R&B-based 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, in which a drunk Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi) comes staggering down the stairs, passing a folksinger serenading a group of coeds with "The Cherry Song" ("I gave my love a cherry that had no stone...."), reaches over, smashes the singer's guitar to bits, and stumbles on, muttering, "sorry," while Sam Cooke's "Twistin' the Night Away" plays in the background.
With the college audience gone, all that the Trio could find as listeners were the folkies. But on that stage, they found themselves swamped by a wave of relevance and topicality on one side and their seeming musical irrelevance on the other. Their sales plummeted toward the end of 1963, and the arrival of the Beatles and the British Invasion in early 1964 sealed their fate. Capitol Records clearly had bigger fish to fry, and in the late spring of that year they and the label parted company. The Trio continued recording and performing, first for Decca, before calling it quits in June of 1967. Ironically, they still had an ear for good songs — "I'm Going Home" was as fine a folk-style single as anyone recorded in 1964, and they subsequently did excellent recordings of works such as Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind" and "Where I'm Bound," as well as Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain." And they also rescued such gorgeous pieces as "Love Comes a Trickling Down" from obscurity. But the group that had so embodied the confidence and boldness of the Kennedy years seemed totally out of place in Lyndon Johnson's America, with its campuses torn by antiwar protests and its inner cities ablaze in racial strife.
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 breakup, however, and in 1972 re-formed 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. By the late '70s, with George Grove and Roger Gambill joining Shane, the group had found a small but enthusiastic audience.
In 1981, as part of a concert taped for a public television broadcast, the current and former group members gathered together into a sort of Kingston Trio mega-group of Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, Dave Guard, John Stewart, George Grove, and Roger Gambill, with Mary Travers as host, with Lindsey Buckingham — a longtime Trio fan — as special guest. The untimely death of Gambill in the late '80s led to Nick Reynolds rejoining, and the Kingston Trio have kept going since, past Reynolds' retirement, as a sort of "folk oldies" outfit, into the 21st century. A recent version of the group, featuring Shane, Grove, and Bob Haworth (born 1946), who succeeded Nick Reynolds on the latter's retirement in 1999, continued working through 2004. A heart attack suffered by Shane in March of that year took him off the road, and since then the touring version of the group — in its 52nd year as of 2009 — has consisted of Grove, Bill Zorn (late of the Limeliters), and Rick Dougherty (also a Limeliters alumnus). ~ Bruce Eder