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The Kingston Trio


n spring 1957, Frank Werber, was working as a publicist for the Purple Onion, the north-beach area of San Francisco nightclub with a reputation of showcasing new talent during the Beat era, and Hungry nightclub, also in San Francisco.  One night he stopped into The Cracked Pot, a club in Palo Alto, just east of Stanford University, and music history was made.  Some young musicians had ambled onto the stage, guitars and banjo in hand, promising the club’s owner to entertain in exchange for free beer and pretzels.  Werber listened and knew that what he heard would play all across America.  When they finished, the group sat around a table drinking their pay and munching pretzels.  Werber approached and offered to manage them, providing they lose the bass player.  In the resulting personnel shuffle, three members left and two original members returned, transforming the Kingston Quartet into the Kingston Trio.  Werber wrote a personal management contract on a paper napkin that split everything equally four ways.  Twenty-five percent to each of the Trio and a generous twenty-five percent to himself.Bob Shane was born Robert Castle Schoen in Hilo, Hawaii, February 1, 1934.  His father was a wholesale distributor of toys and sporting goods in Honolulu and young Bob was expected to take up the family business.  In 1948, he entered Honolulu’s Punahou School, the oldest private school west of the Rockies.  He sang in the Glee Club and appeared in several school plays and variety shows.  In his free time, he hung out on the beach strumming his ukulele and singing Polynesian songs he learned from his Hawaiian friends.  In his junior year, he became friends with Dave Guard, a fellow student at Punahou.  He taught Guard some basic chords on the guitar.  They teamed up to perform at the junior carnival and sang songs by the Weavers, the most popular folk group in the country at the time.  After graduation in 1952, they each moved to California where Guard attended Stanford University and Shane attended Menlo College in nearby Atherton, California.  In his junior year at Menlo, Shane fell asleep in the back of a classroom during a dull accounting lecture.  A classmate, Nick Reynolds, found it amusing and they became good friends.  “I showed up at Menlo not knowing a soul,” recalled Reynolds.  “And the first day I walk into this accounting class and there’s this guy sleeping in the back of the room during the lecture.  So I said to myself, anybody that’s got the guts to do that I’ve got to get to know.  It turned out to be Bobby Shane, and we immediately went out and became really tight pals; I don’t think we showed up for school for about two weeks afterward.”  Shane recalled, “He nudged me and said, ‘Hey, I’m Nick Reynolds – have you got a car?  Mine just blew up.’  We started singing the first day we met.  Nobody could nail a harmony part like Nick.  He could hit it immediately, exactly where it needed to be, absolutely note perfect.  Pure genius.”

Kingston Trio Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane, and Dave Guard

Original Kingston Trio members
Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane, and Dave Guard

Nicholas Wells Reynolds was born July 27, 1933, in San Diego, and grew up in the affluent suburb of Coronado, a peninsula separated from the mainland by a ten-mile wide strip of land called The Silver Strand.  Stewart Reynolds, Nick’s father, was a captain in the United States Navy, which maintained a large base at Coronado, including the training center for Navy SEALS.  Stewart  played guitar and would gather Nick and his two sisters, Barbara and Jane, and sing old folk tunes  and native songs he learned from his world travels.  Nick played the bongos and some guitar.  After graduating from Coronado High School, Reynolds attended the University of Arizona, San Diego State University, and then Menlo College where he met Bob Shane in that dull accounting class and soon discovered their common interest in music.  They formed a duet, with Shane on guitar and Reynolds on bongos, and entertained at school functions, frat parties, and beer gardens.  Within a few weeks, Shane introduced Reynolds to Dave Guard who was still at Stanford.  Shane and Guard taught Reynolds how to play some genuine Hawaiian songs on guitar and they began playing two nights a week at a local tavern and as many frat luaus they could squeeze in.  After graduation, Shane returned to Honolulu and began putting his business degree to work for his dad’s company.  He also wanted to pursue a solo singing career as ‘Hawaii’s Elvis Presley.’  Guard and Reynolds added Joe Gannon on bass and singer Barbara Bogue, and called themselves Dave Guard and the Calypsonians.  They auditioned at the Italian Village, a popular San Francisco nightclub, where Frank Werber spotted them.  Werber suggested Guard and Reynolds drop Gannon as he was not skilled musician and they’d get more bookings as a trio.  But Reynolds left after his graduation and was replaced by Don McArthur.  The group was now called The Kingston Quartet.  Around this time, Werber encouraged Reynolds to return and Gannon was dropped from the group.  “Joe wasn’t really a bass player,” recalled Reynolds.  “He was just standing there faking it like a gut bucket.  So Barbara goes ‘Well, if Joe goes, I go.’  Well, I’d kept in touch with Bobby [Shane] and I told him there was a chance of getting a gig if we really worked at it.  So he came back and the three of us got involved with Frank.”  Bob Shane had tired of the wholesale toy and sporting good business.  Furthermore, his career as ‘Hawaii’s Elvis Presley’ had not taken off so he welcomed the opportunity to return to California as part of the Kingston Trio in spring 1957.

“It really started with the Weavers in the early 1950s,” recalled Reynolds.  “Goodnight Irene,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” “Wimoweh.”  We were big fans of theirs, but they got blacklisted in the McCarthy era.  Their music was controversial.  Suddenly, they couldn’t get any airplay, they couldn’t get booked into the big hotels, nothing.  We played their kind of music when we were first performing in colleges.  But when we formed the Trio, when we first got booked into San Francisco’s Purple Onion, we had to sit down and make a decision: Are we going to remain apolitical with our music?  Or are we going to slit our throats and get blacklisted for doing protest music?  We decided we’d like to stay in this business for a while.  And we got criticized a lot for that.”  Interestingly, Jerry Wexler resigned from Billboard magazine because he refused to write a dossier on the Weavers that would contribute to their being blacklisted.  It was Wexler who coined the term Rhythm and Blues which the music weekly adopted June 25, 1949, for its black music chart which had been called Race Records.  Wexler then worked briefly as promotions director at MGM studios.  He declined Ahmet Ertegun’s offer to work for Atlantic Records, preferring instead full partnership.  When Atlantic co-founder Herb Abramson was drafted into the Army, Ertegun relented and Wexler bought a thirteen-percent share of the company for $2,063.25.

Werber hired San Francisco vocal coach Judy Davis and rehearsed the Trio in his office above the Purple Onion until they had near-perfect vocal harmony and a repertoire that consisted of three hours of songs.  Kingston trio purple onionThey readied a twenty-five minute set for a one week gig opening for comedienne Phyllis Diller on Memorial Day weekend 1957 at the Purple Onion.  Mort Sahl, Shelly Berman, and Ronnie Schell had been discovered there.  Dave Guard mailed 500 postcards to everyone they knew at Stanford University and Menlo College, inviting them to the Onion.  Word of mouth spread and the initial week turned into two.  That July 1 they began headlining at the Onion for seven months.  During that run, they polished their stage act, interspersing their intricate harmonies with comic banter that always seemed spontaneous.  Reynolds, whom the other two called budgie or runt of the litter, often provided the comic zingers.  The Kingston Trio revitalized American popular music, paved the way for the folk music revival, and set the stage for the protest music era of the early sixties.  And in the late 1950s, they represented a wholesome, clean-cut alternative to the sexualized rock and roll of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard.  Parents approved of the Kingston Trio.  It was safe for their children to listen to their music or attend one of their concerts.

Kingston trio2The Kingston Trio continued to wow audiences at the Purple Onion.  Jimmy Saphier, Bob Hope’s agent, caught their show and brought their demo tapes to Dot Records and Capitol Records in Los Angeles.  Randy Wood at Dot passed apparently, but Capitol was intrigued and sent Voyle Gilmore to see the Trio in person.  Capitol, of course, had Frank Sinatra, the Four Freshmen, and the Four Preps on their roster and were always looking for new artists with youth market appeal.  Gilmore liked what he heard and signed the Trio to a seven year recording contract.

In February 1958, after their successful seven-month stint at The Purple Onion, Frank Werber decided the Kingston Trio needed to be performance-tested before different and tougher audiences.  He booked them into the Holiday Hotel in Reno, Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, and the Blue Angel and the Village Vanguard in New York.  Between the Reno and Chicago dates, the group flew back to Los Angeles to record their first studio album for Capitol Records.  On February 5 and 6, Voyle Gilmore produced eleven recordings by the Trio in Studio B at the Capitol Tower.  On February 7, the Trio recorded a twelfth song, “Little Maggie,” and a thirteenth number, “Dodi Lii,” which was left off the album, but appeared as simply “Dodie” on their second album From the Hungry I.  With the Trio, Gilmore, who had produced many of Sinatra’s legendary sessions in the 1950s, made two key decisions that shaped their distinctive sound.  He hired a bass player to anchor their recordings and he resisted adding orchestral instrumentation, a common production practice at the time.

On May 1, 1958, the Kingston Trio made their national television debut on the CBS drama Playhouse 90 where they appeared in Rumors of Evening portraying World War II pilots.  They also introduced and sang their soon-to-be-released debut single “Scarlet Ribbons.”  On May 5, Capitol Records released “Scarlet Ribbons” (b/w “Three Jolly Coachmen,” Capitol 3970).  The single, however, failed to chart.  On June 1, 1958, Dave Guard’s wife, Gretchen, gave birth to their first child, a baby girl.  The following day, Capitol released the Trio’s eponymous debut album The Kingston Trio (Capitol T/DT 996).

Sloop John B. sheet music

Sloop John B. sheet music

The thirty-one minute album contained at least two songs that had a profound influence on fifteen-year old Al Jardine—“Tom Dooley” and “Sloop John B.”  The album enjoyed one week at #1 and an astounding 196 weeks on the Billboard album chart.

On June 19, 1958, disc jockeys Bill Terry and Paul Colburn at radio station KLUB in Salt Lake City, began playing “Tom Dooley” from their debut album.  That July, they were still playing “Tom Dooley” and becoming increasingly frustrated Capitol had still not released it as a single.  Listener requests poured in and other radio stations across the country began adding the song to their play lists.  Although the song was readily available on the Trio’s debut album, this was the age of the 45 rpm single and the record-buying public wanted to know where and when they could buy it.

On September 8, as Al and Brian began their junior year at Hawthorne High School, Capitol Records, in response to requests from radio stations across the country, released a second single from the Trio’s debut album, “Tom Dooley” (b/w “Ruby Red,” Capitol 4049).

On September 17, the Trio appeared in concert with The Cal Tjader Quintet at the Memorial Auditorium in Fresno, California.  The concert was sponsored by the Fresno Junior Chamber of Commerce.  Reviewing the concert in the Fresno Bee Republican, James Bort, Jr., clearly preferred Tjader’s renditions of jazz standards.  Of the Trio, he wrote “The Kingston Trio will leave little mark musically, but it has a heck of a lot of fun, mostly clowning its way through a series of hillbilly, Latin, and calypso things to the great delight of the audience.  The occasions when it attempted serious renditions of folk ballads (“Tom Dooley,” for instance) it fell short.  Basically, the trio gives the impression of a polished version of a college act, which is what it is.”

By October, record executives on both coasts were keeping an anxious eye on the rapid ascent of “Tom Dooley” up the charts.  Anticipating a spike in popularity of folk music, record companies were checking their A&R rosters in the event folk music became the next hottest trend.

In mid-October, Jerry Dexter and Bob Salter, two Las Vegas disc jockeys, urged their listeners to sign a petition to grant Tom Dooley a new trial and a stay of execution from the gallows.  More than half of the callers to the station believed Dooley was a real person languishing in the Clark County Jail accused wrongly of murder.  More than two hundred signatures were collected and presented to Nevada Governor Charles Russell, who had no comment on the case.  But not everyone was amused.  Sheriff W. E. “Butch” Leypoldt, running for re-election at the time, was flooded with calls to release Dooley.  He pleaded with the station to “stop all this foolishness.”  But Dexter and Salter were not to be dissuaded.  They staged such a realistic on-air trial that listeners believed it was coming from the county courthouse.  Finally, the station flashed a bulletin that Dooley had been acquitted and that new evidence presented led to the conviction of Mr. Grayson (another character in the song).  Students at the Las Vegas Southern Nevada University hosted a Tom Dooley Victory Dance.  In protest, the anti-Dooley contingent hung poor Tom in effigy from a 40-foot tree in front of City Hall.  The Van Nuys News reported, “Jubilant, Dexter and Salter hustled Dooley out of the state.  They will not reveal his exact whereabouts, but it is rumored he was seen in Denver, where dj Royce Johnson was tarred and feathered (with molasses and popcorn) for playing Tom Dooley for 24 hours straight.”

But the character of Tom Dooley and the events in the song were based on a sordid murder trial in North Carolina after the Civil War.  Thomas C. Dula was a handsome young banjo picker who had earned a reputation for bravery while fighting for the Confederacy.  After the battle of Gettysburg, Dula returned home to Happy Valley in Wilkes County, North Carolina, where eighteen-year-old Laura Foster made her affection for him known.  Although Tom had his eye on her cousin, Ann Melton, a wealthy, married socialite, he was not above seeing Laura on the side.  When he contracted a venereal disease, he vowed publicly to get even with her.

On May 25, 1866, Laura vanished.  Her body was discovered three weeks later in a mountainous wooded area.  She had been stabbed through the heart.  In addition to Tom, there were two other prime suspects—Jack Keaton and school teacher Bob Cummings.  Cummings is known as Mr. Grayson in the song.  Both Keaton and Cummings were suitors and, along with several other suitors, had disappeared from Happy Valley the day after her body was discovered.

A month later, Cummings rode back into town with Dula and Keaton in tow.  He had found them hiding in Tennessee.  Keaton came up with an alibi, so Dula went to trial where he was defended by former North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance.  Ann Melton was also accused of Laura’s murder.  Dula was convicted once, granted a new trial by the state supreme court, and convicted again.  Dula was publicly hanged May 1, 1868, in Statesville, North Carolina, for the murder of Laura Foster.  His coffin rode atop a horse drawn wagon.  Shortly before he died, Dula helped exonerate Ann Melton by scribbling a note stating, “I am the only person that had a hand in the murder of Laura Foster.”

By November, “Tom Dooley” was #1 on the Hot 100 and #9 on the R&B chart.  It remained on the charts for five months and would be the Trio’s only gold single, selling more than six million copies world-wide.  Meanwhile, the Trio had flown to Honolulu for a little rest and recreation, and to appear at the opening of the Surf Room at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  Frank Werber received a frantic phone call from Capitol’s Voyle Gilmore.  “Get those boys back here.  Tom Dooley is going to hit number one.  It looks like you’re going to have the record of the year.”  The Trio also had a huge impact on the popularity and sales of Martin guitars.  The company built a new factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, to keep up with demand.

On November 16, the Trio played the Woodrow Wilson Junior High School Auditorium in San Jose, California.  It was a sort of triumphant Bay-area homecoming for them as “Tom Dooley” was #1 in the country.  On November 19, they appeared on NBC’s Kraft Music Hall with Milton Berle.  They sang “Tom Dooley” with actress and sex symbol Barbara Nichols who one reviewer reported “adds her nasal whine.”

The December 15 issue of LIFE magazine featured an article on the Kingston Trio entitled “Hanged Man in Hit Tune.”  On December 27, the Trio performed at the LA Palladium.  Two days later, Capitol released their third single, “Raspberries, Strawberries” (b/w “Sally,” Capitol 4114) which reached #70 on the Hot 100.

In early 1959, the Trio played the LA Shrine Auditorium to a crowd of 8,000 fans.  On April 24, the Trio packed them in at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.  Warming up the crowd was clarinetist Gus Bivona and his jazz band.  Since the success of “Tom Dooley,” concert bookings for the Trio had skyrocketed and this show was touted as their only southern California appearance.  The Trio would soon appear on more national television shows as guests of Milton Berle, Perry Como, and Dinah Shore.  They also made a return appearance on Playhouse 90.  “‘Tom Dooley’ was a haunting, century-old folk song with a lot of meaning and a good story,” Nick Reynolds told a reporter.  “Although we’ve sung it at least 4,000 times, it still gets the biggest applause.”

As the Trio became more successful, they were constantly looking for new material.  They poured over old songbooks and listened to old records, drawing on native rhythms from countries all over the world.  Dave Guard discussed the criteria the group used in selecting new material with a reporter from The Daily Review in Hayward, California.  “As we progress musically, in search of new material, we put only one restriction on the type of songs we will do.  They must have a basic intelligent thought and be founded in good taste.”

On May 23, 1959, The LA Times reviewed the Trio’s night club debut at the Cocoanut Grove during the preceding week.  John L. Scott reported, “While the Trio opened to a medium-sized audience of first-nighters, the week end tells a different story.  Maitre D’Hotel Michael Chumo has so many reservations from the college crowd that he doesn’t know where he’ll put them all.  Made up of Dave Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds, three young lads with fair to middling voices, the Kingston Trio utilizes a pseudo folk music style.  Rapid rhythms, however, are geared for their youthful fans. Included on the program are two of the boys’ hit recordings, “Tom Dooley” and “Tijuana Jail” (each sold a million).  They also bounce through “Coplas,” “Maria,” “Zombie Jamboree,” and a frenetic rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

In the audience that night at the Cocoanut Grove was John Stewart, a singer-songwriter contracted to Arwin records and scheduled to soon make the switch from rock and roll to folk.  Stewart managed to meet the Trio after the show and played them two songs he had written, both of which the Trio would later record—“Molly Dee” (June 2, 1959) and “Green Grasses” (September 28, 1959).

On June 8, 1959, the Trio released their fifth single, “M.T.A.” (b/w “All My Sorrows,” Capitol 4221).  M.T.A. stood for the Massachusetts Transit Authority and was written to protest a subway rate hike during a mayoral election in Boston.  The novelty song, sung to the tune of “The Wreck of Old 97,” stayed on the charts for eleven weeks and peaked at #15 on the Hot 100.

The Trio on the cover of LIFE

The Trio on the cover of LIFE

In July, Columbia Pictures released The Legend of Tom Dooley starring twenty-three-year-old Michael Landon as the ill-fated Dooley, although the plot bore no resemblance to the true story that inspired the song.  The Trio’s “Tom Dooley” was featured in the film.  On July 14, the Trio appeared on The Jimmie Rodgers Show and on August 3 they graced the cover of Life magazine.

In December 1959, the Trio began work on Sold Out, their sixth Capitol album, which reached #1 for twelve weeks in spring 1960.  On December 8, they recorded one of Al Jardine’s favorite Kingston Trio songs, “Raspberries, Strawberries.”  The album version of the song featured a smoother arrangement with tighter vocals than the single that had been rush-released December 29, 1958, as the follow-up to “Tom Dooley.”  In 1969, Al recorded a version of “Raspberries, Strawberries” the Beach Boys considered for their Sunflower album the following year.  The song did not make the cut and remains unreleased.

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