Bright lads, the Kingston Trio.
They avoided that whole incongruous name thing. So many of their contemporaries called themselves something that underscored their boyishness. But if you get lucky and have a career that lasts longer than a gardenia on a prom dress, you don’t want to be stuck with gray hair and a name like the Four Freshmen. As a friend observed recently of the Beach Boys: “Why don’t they just call themselves the Beach Geezers?”
Certainly, the Kingston Trio has been around a long time. Formed in ’57, they had their first hit the following year, an updated version of a century-old ballad about a man who loved his way to the gallows. For one week in November, 1958, “Tom Dooley” topped Billboard’s charts (surprisingly, it was the group’s only No. 1 single). It not only earned the trio a footnote in the history of our time, but it also served the public weal, if only for a week, by keeping “The Chipmunk Song” out of the top spot.
The Kingston Trio will appear tonight at Glendale’s Alex Theatre, doing what they have been doing for two generations now. They will sing “Tom Dooley,” “Scotch and Soda,” “MTA,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and their other greatest hits for what Bob Shane (still the Cute One at 62) calculates is at least the 37,000th time. And they will joke with audience members who may not still worship them, but fondly remember when they did. “The reason we’re here,” Shane routinely quips, “is to prove you’re still alive.”
It is hard to imagine, if you weren’t there spending your hard-earned baby-sitting money on their albums, how big the Kingston Trio once was. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s they were the top vocal group in the world. They won the first country and western Grammy ever in 1958 (there was no folk category), and they were the only group ever to have four No. 1 albums in a single year, in 1960. They appeared, in their trademark striped shirts, on the cover of Life magazine.
Over the decades, the trio has taken a fair amount of flak for failing to preach the activist message implicit in so much of their populist repertoire. Accordingto Shane and Nick Reynolds, two of the original members, the trio decided at the outset that on stage, at least, the Kingston Trio would have no politics. As a result, they were an odd hybrid, singing gritty songs by Woody Guthrie but looking like Pat Boone clones. When you heard the Kingston Trio’s version of “A Worried Man,” you didn’t think about economic inequity or reform. These guys looked as if the only thing they ever worried about was whether they would be tapped by Kappa Sigma. “We don’t protest anything,” Shane says to this day. “We entertain people.”
The reason for their quietism was simple, says Reynolds. “We were realistic. We saw what happened to our idols, the Weavers.” As unapologetic leftists, Pete Seeger and the rest of the Weavers had been denied airplay--blacklisted--and thus denied major commercial success. “We had to make a conscious decision,” Reynolds recalls. “Either we were going to go for the business end, which we did, or you would stifled, you would be shunned, you wouldn’t be played on the radio.”
The trio went for the big time. And by practically printing money for Capitol Records, they made the music business safe for activist folk singers who came after them, including Bob Dylan. As Ted Myers, who produces Rhino Records’ Troubadours of Folk series, says, the Kingston Trio “epitomized that clean-cut, brash, collegiate cool that was very in vogue in the late ‘50s.” And, Myers says, “they were the force in folk music that commercialized folk music.”
The trio’s heyday ended not with a bang, nor a whimper, but with a yeah, yeah, yeah. In 1962 they headlined a series of concerts in London. One of the opening acts was a quartet called the Beatles. “We came back to California and told people about this great group,” recalls Shane. “We should have shut up.” Capitol began to concentrate its resources on the lads from Liverpool and ignore the lads in the striped shirts. The end, or at least the end of record album sales, was nigh. For the trio, Reynolds says, “the Beatles were just like standing in front of a moving train. You just wanted to get off the tracks.”
The third founding member, the late Dave Guard (who died in 1991), left the trio in 1961. “In every group that becomes successful, there’s always someone who thinks he’s better than the rest,” Shane says. But in Shane’s view, the group’s essential sound was his lead and Reynolds’ harmony. Guard was replaced by singer-songwriter John Stewart, who was with the group until it disbanded in 1967. Shane resurrected the trio in 1972, with Roger Gambill and George Grove. After Gambill died in 1985, Reynolds returned, after some 20 non-musical years as a rancher in rural Oregon.
Shane is the one who kept the group alive, long after record sales had all but stopped, by taking it on the road. “For 20 years we had nothing on the market,” says Reynolds. “You had trouble finding a record or tape unless you went to a garage sale.” In 1976 Shane bought the group’s name. As part of the deal, he gave up his share of their royalties on the old recordings--no big thing at the time.
But the advent of CD technology, with its ability to make the old sound better than new, has boosted many vintage groups, including the trio. Capitol is bringing out a boxed set of their CDs in August. Capitol has also increased the amount it pays its older artists. Shane acknowledges that the situation is sometimes painful. “I work with Nick, and he gets paid for things I sang the lead on.”
Grove’s own special purgatory is to be regarded as the new boy after 23 years with the group. Reporters routinely decline the opportunity to interview him, wanting to speak only to the originals. But Grove, who began playing the piano at 4, is the best trained musician of the three, and he claims credit for subtly updating the trio’s sound in performance. “I’m able to bring both the flavor of the old and temper it with what people expect to hear in the contemporary market,” says Grove, 47, who has been a fan since he first heard his big sister’s “Live at the Hungry I” album.
Part of the group’s charm has always been that it didn’t take itself too seriously. Even when they were on the cover of Life, the guys were never prima donnas, Reynolds says. There were no rock star-style demands written into their contracts: no Dufy-blue walls required in their dressing rooms, no prohibition against brown M & Ms. “We never acted like jerks,” Reynolds recalls. “Sometimes we were jerks, but we never acted like jerks.”
WHERE AND WHEN
Who: The Kingston Trio.
Location: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.
Hours: 8 tonight.
Price: $22.50 to $26.50.
Call: Box office, (800) 414-ALEX, or TeleCharge, (800) 233-3123.