Down Beat magazine

The Kingston Trio Story



By Richard Hadlock

Once in a while folk songs find their way back to folk people, sometimes by way of a hit record featuring an artist who happens to have pressed the right commercial and artistic buttons at once.

But for the three young men of the Kingston trio, who recently parlayed the century-old legend of a North Carolina murder into a million records, success was not accidental; it grew from shrewd investments of time and talent coupled with systematic work.

Perhaps some of this brass-tacks outlook can be traced to the business administration training that Dave, Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds completed before turning to folk-singing careers. Their mutual capacity for sweat and salesmanship, added to talent, made them college favorites from Balboa beach to San Francisco and also convinced bay area publicist Frank Werber, in 1957, that he had discovered something more than another bunch of campus whiz kids.

Werber, who had seen lots of overnight wonders come and go, prodded, groomed, worried, and pushed the three young men until he was satisfied that they were ready.

With a year of vocal coaching and many rehearsal hours to bolster their showmanship, plus a tight little repertoire of international songs, the three performers jumped into the so-called supper-club circuit, taking giant steps to New York’s Blue Angel and Village Vanguard, television’s “Playhouse 90,” and back to packed houses at San Francisco’s hungry i. All this was accomplished within a few months.

Then came “Tom Dooley,”a song about a youthful Civil war veteran named Thomas E. Dula (in North Carolina it’s pronounced Duley), who became a national figure by pulling off one of the more sordid killings in the annals of American crime.

The Kingston trio caught Dula’s spirit of resignation (it is said that Dula sang and played banjo on his way to the gallows), and the record sold 1,000,000 copies, mostly it would seem, to teenagers, who constitute the bulk of the popular-record purchasers.

To the Kingston trio the aim of singing folk music is to communicate what the words were designed to say.

Guard, the 6-foot-3-inch former Stanford university graduate student who usually speaks for the group, put it this way:

“We are not students of folk music; the basic thing for us is honest and worthwhile songs, that people can pick up and become involved in. Like ancient poetry, songs like that are successful because the audience participates in what the artist is doing.”

“We don’t collect old songs in the sense that the academic cats do,” affirmed the wiry Reynolds. “We get new tunes to look over every day. Each one of us has his ears open constantly to new material or old stuff that’s good.”

“Good” songs, the boys agree, are songs that can be made to live during the performance.

“When the performance is over,” Guard stressed, “the piece is not significant anymore.”

In spite of their experience with “Tom Dooley,” and, to a lesser degree, “Tijuana Jail,” the trio continues to build a library of tunes it feels is directed to adults rather than teenagers.

“Kids simply aren’t ready to really listen to music,” Guard said. “Tom Dooley was one of those odd things, but in general the younger ones want something more physical, that doesn’t require much thought.”

“Our best audiences are in the south and in colleges,” said Reynolds, who looks like a sophomore himself. “Listeners in the south are hip, too. We found that the natives of Nashville and Memphis, regardless of race, put down Elvis and dig Bo Diddley. New York tends to be more square.

“Regarding colleges,” Guard added, “we sang to 4,500 students at Michigan and the wildest crowd — 4,000 of them at Notre Dame. They nearly screamed and yelled the walls down.”

The trio, along with bass player David Wheat, manages to cover astonishing distances between concerts. But it takes their own private plane to do it. Last March (a Friday the 13th, to be precise), the plane’s radio and generator went out. The pilot was forced to land in an Indiana cornfield. Unruffled, the trio hitched a ride from a farmer and set off for their scheduled concert.

This summer’s crowded itinerary will include at least two jazz festivals — French Lick, Ind, and Newport. However, the Kingstons do not pretend to offer jazz in any form though, they add, “We may have a couple of surprises.” But all three are avid modern jazz fans. They are particularly enthusiastic about the Lambert-Ross-Hendricks group.

Shane, who isn’t given to much talk, declared bluntly: “I like a good group. Anything too repetitious is a bore, including western music.

“Sometimes there are subtle changes that only seem repetitious,” Guard interjected. “I like good rhythm-and-blues as well as the Modern Jazz Quartet and Thelonious Monk. We played opposite Monk at the Vanguard, and at first he seemed too far out. But his music grows on you. When we left, we were all boosters for Monk.”

“I just love music,” exclaimed Reynolds, who puts a dash of pure energy into everything he says or does. “Chico Hamilton, Annie Ross, Jackie and Roy — anybody who’s good.”

This regard for quality and integrity prevents the trio from diluting its music in an attempt to make quick hits. Its good-natured, sometimes tongue-in-cheek attitude toward folk material is never allowed to mar the music itself.

Tunes are selected for record dates only after the trio has screened hundreds of songs from almost as many sources. Developing a new routine for recording purposes can be done much faster than preparing an in-person presentation. According to Guard, a new piece is ready for records in about two hours, but two months “on the floor” are required before the group feels satisfied with an in-person performance.

A finished number is admitted to the trio’s repertoire only after extended rehearsal time is spent polishing an original arrangement of the song. An idea of the extent to which the trio members are dedicated to perfection may be gained from the surprisingly small number of selections — 40 tunes, representing two years work — that they consider ready for use in personal appearances. Informally, they are familiar with hundreds more folk songs of many lands.

Guard and Shane were born and reared in Hawaii, where they met in a high school variety show. Reynolds, a native of San Diego, met them while attending Menlo Business College.

Sharing an interest in songs and rhythms of other countries, the three got together for sessions and improvised songfests. Borrowing at first from the Weavers and San Francisco’s Gateway Singers, they eventually established an individual style based on straightforward interpretations, leavened with smatterings of satire and hints of cynicism.

For all their prosperity, members of the trio remain devoted to the folk music that brought them together. If there are any more big hits, they will not happen at the sacrifice of intelligence or taste.

“Tom Dooley or no Tom Dooley;” Reynolds reflected, “I don’t think we’re the right types to be heroes to teenagers. None of us has ever been or mobbed or even had his shirt torn off by the girls.”

— THANK YOU to Reed Blair for sharing his transcript and scans
of the foregoing article for our reading enjoyment.

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