Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Bob Shane—The Last Kingston Trio Founder Bows Out

Bob Shane, David Guard, and Nick Reynolds--the original Kingston Trio.
Word has come that Bob Shane, the last surviving original member of the Kingston Trio died on Sunday in hospice care in Phoenix, Arizona.  He was 85 years old.  With him faded on of the final lights of the once bright pop folk revival of the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s.  
The group Shane founded with Dave Guard and Nick Reynolds on California campuses in the mid-‘50’s went on to dramatically change American popular music and become by far the most successful act and top recording artists of the era eclipsing rock and roll stars like Elvis Pressley, rhythm & blues acts, pop crooners, and jazz ensembles.  
Shane was born in Hilo, Hawaii on February 1, 1934, the son of a wealthy German immigrant merchant and his Utah born wife who had met while attending Stanford University.  While attending a tony private high school he became interested in Hawaiian and Polynesian music casually picking up the ukulele.  He found a kindred spirit in classmate David Guard.  Shane was self-taught on the guitar and taught Guard.  Both had interest in Hawaiian slack-string guitar.   The pair performed at parties and in school shows doing an eclectic mix of Tahitian, Hawaiian, and calypso songs. 
At graduation both headed for California for college.  Guard enrolled at Stanford while Shane went to Menlo College in near-by Atherton where he met San Diego born Nick Reynolds, a particular devotee of calypso who played bongo and conga drums in addition to guitar and whose tenor voice harmonized with the other two.  Together the three with a sometimes rotating cast of one or two other college musician began playing on campuses and in clubs as Dave Guard and the Calypsonians.  Both Guard and Shane picked up the banjo and either played it.  They also added some traditional sea shanties to their repertoire.  They had fun and developed a local following but none of them seriously considered a musical career.
When Shane graduated in 1956 he returned to Hawaii to join his father’s business as expected. He did not enjoy business and was drawn to moonlighting as a musician.  He later made the entirely unsubstantiated claim to performing as “the first ever Elvis impersonator.”  But he spent more time covering Hawaiian music, Hank Williams, The Weavers, and especially Harry Bellefonte.  
In 1957 Guard and Reynolds decided to give professional performing a shot and Shane eagerly joined them to form the Kingston Trio, named for Kingston, Jamaica home of calypso.  Almost immediately they were signed by agent/publicist Frank Werber.  Werber had them intensely rehearse for six months with an assist from vocal coach Judy Davis while the expanded their repertoire adding traditional folk songs and some foreign language tunes to their calypso core.  Guard, by this time the most skilled musician, arranged most of the songs.  Occasionally they tried out sets at college hang-outs.

Showing their calypso roots, the Kingston Trio with Nick Reynolds on conga.
The Trio also agreed on a sort of stage uniform in an era when most performers were appearing in suits and ties or even tuxedos. The chose open-neck three-quarter sleeve vertically striped sport shirts, the epitome of laid-back So-Cal style.  Four years later at the height of the Trio’s success another close harmony but very different group, The Beach Boys, would adopt the same look.
The Trio’s break-out came when comedienne Phillis Diller canceled a week-long engagement at The Purple Onion in San Francisco.  Webber convinced house management to give his new act a try.  They did not waste the opportunity.  Guard sent out five hundred postcards to everyone that they three musicians knew in the Bay Area and local music movers and shakers while Werber plastered the city with handbills.   The crowds showed up and continued to come on the strength of word of mouth.  The one week gig was extended to six months.  By the time it was over they were West Coast celebrities.
They went national with a tour in early 1958 that included such top clubs as Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, the Village Vanguard in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Storyville in Boston, and finally back to San Francisco and for it premier club, the hungry i, 
Record companies took note and both Dot and Liberty Records offered deals but wanted to record 45 rpm singles, the staple of radio disc jockeys and juke boxes.  But the trio knew that their sophisticated, hip audiences were beginning to prefer LP 33rpm albums to play on hi-fi sets.  Los Angeles based Capitol Records, home of such top talent as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Al Martino, and Dinah Shore, signed the Kingston Trio to an exclusive seven-year deal. 

The Kingston Trio's debut album.
The group’s first album, the self-titled The Kingston Trio, was recorded over a three-day period in February 1958 and released in June that year, just as the group was embarking on its engagement at the hungry i.   It included an eclectic mix that mirrored what the group did on the nightclub stage—calypso inspired songs like The Sloop John B, Weavers style folk song like Santy Anno and Bay of Mexico, and contemporary songs like Scotch and Soda, whose authorship is still in dispute despite having been copyrighted by comedian Morey Amsterdam.
The album was recorded without the orchestral back up standard on even folk recordings at the time but with a string base accompaniment.
Sales were brisk in California but so-so nationally until Salt Lake City DJs Paul Colburn and Bill Terry at KLUB in Salt Lake City began playing one cut—the Appalachian murder ballad Tom Dooley and personally called radio personalities in other cities to do the same.  Not only did album sales explode, but there was an irresistible demand for a single.  A single was finally released on August 8.  It reached #1 on the Billboard chart by late November, sold a million copies by Christmas, and was awarded a Gold Record.  It drove the album to #1 on the chards as well winning a second Gold Record.  It remained on the Billboard charts for 195 weeks. 

The Trio's Tom Dooley single shattered sales records.
Such overwhelming success was bound to be recognized. Tom Dooley won the 1959 Grammy for Best Country & Western performance.  The selection outraged top country acts, but there was no folk music category at the time.  The next year as more Kingston Trio recordings were topping the charts and new acts like the Chad Mitchell Trio, The Limelighters, and others were joining in what had suddenly become the great popular folk revival boom, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences the Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording, which the Trio promptly won for their second studio album At Large.   
They were now on an unprecedented roll.  Their first five studio albums achieved # 1 chart status and got Gold Records. For five consecutive weeks in November and December 1959, four Kingston Trio albums ranked in the top ten of Billboard’s Top LPs, a feat unmatched by any artists before or since. They Trio also charted several single records during this time, made numerous television appearances, and played upwards of 200 engagements per year.

The Trio on the Jack Benny Program with Mel Blanc.
But such overwhelming success also brought fierce criticism.  Country artists continued to be miffed about the group’s encroachment on some of the songs that were the foundation of modern country & western.  Rock and roll acts considered them bland and as a rival for teen audiences. R&B performers considered them as “white bread” intended to keep young audiences away from “dangerousNegro music.  
But for the Trio the most stinging criticism of all came from traditional folk performers who resented their “slick” arrangements and the copyrights they obtained for arrangements of traditional songs including Tom Dooley as well as for contemporary songs like the much-disputed Scotch and Soda.  Yet the rising tide of pop folk lifted all boats giving traditional artists new life on the college circuit, which the Trio was credited with practically inventing, new recording opportunities, radio airplay, and TV exposure on both big name variety shows and on the popular folk series Hootenanny.
Joan Baez later reflected on the conflicted feelings of folk traditionalists:
Before I turned into a snob and learned to look down upon all commercial folk music as bastardized and unholy, I loved the Kingston Trio. When I became one of the leading practitioners of ‘pure folk,’ I still loved them.
Bob Dylan echoed similar sentiments:
There were other folk-music records, commercial folk-music records, like those by the Kingston Trio. I never really was an elitist. Personally, I liked the Kingston Trio. I could see the picture...the Kingston Trio were probably the best commercial group going, and they seemed to know what they were doing…
But before those accolades put their commercial success in perspective, the scorn of “serious” folk musicians put a strain on the three singers.  Guard reveled in being called “the group’s acknowledged leader” in album liner notes and in the press.  Shane and Reynolds resented that and believed they deserved equal credit for their collaborative efforts.  Guard also disdained the musical ability of his partners and pushed them hard to improve the instrumental skills.  He also wanted to change and expand the Trio’s repertoire to prove themselves as worthy serious musicians.  The others saw no reason to change the eclectic selection process that had brought them success.  And like some of the critics they resented Guard personally claiming copyright to arrangements of traditional songs as well as Scotch and Soda.  Business disputes also contributed to the tension.

Shane and Reynolds with John Stewart--the second configuration of the Trio.
In May 1961 Guard resigned from the group but agreed to fulfill commitments through November.  Shane, Reynolds, and Werber bought out Guard’s interest in their business partnership for $300,000 and replaced him with John Stewart, a 21-year-old member of the Cumberland Three, one of the many groups that sprang up hoping to imitate the Kingston Trio's success.  He publicly debuted with the Trio in September 1961.
The change did not seem to adversely affect the Trio.  Stewart was an accomplished guitarist and banjoist as well as a songwriter who had already sold two songs to the group.  Shane noted “We did nearly as well with John as we did with Dave.” Six of the group's next seven albums between 1961 and 1963 continued to place in Billboard’s Top Ten and several of the group’s most successful singles, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Greenback Dollar, charted as well.
But nothing lasts forever.  Folk music was changing with Baez, Dylan, and Phil Ochs leading the charge with their new protest music and radical political themes.  Another, even more polished pop/folk group, Peter, Paul & Mary who also did protest material stole part of their thunder.  Then came the British Invasion that threatened to blow all American acts out of the water.
Record sales plummeted.  Capitol dropped the group and Decca picked them up for four more albums that did not have strong sales.  They remained a popular act on the college circuit that they had pioneered but other venues were drying up.  By mutual agreement the group decided to disband after a final two week engagement at the old hungry i in June 1967.
Reynolds moved to Oregon and pursued interests in ranching, business, and race cars for the next twenty years. Stewart enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a singer-songwriter, composing hit songs like Daydream Believer for The Monkees and Runaway Train for Rosanne Cash.  He recorded more than 40 albums, had mid-level chart success with several singles, and had a devoted fan base.
Shane struck out on his own as a single act and recorded several singles and one album to only middling success.  But he still had a great ear for a song and recorded Honey which later became a million-seller for Bobby Goldsboro.  He experimented with different performing partners before securing permission from Reynold and Werber in 1969 to revive the group as the New Kingston Trio to distinguish it from the original group.  He also had permission to use the group’s songs and arrangements in addition to new music.

Bob Shane in one of the later configurations of the group.
The new group went through at least three changes in line up with Shane remaining the anchor.  They did not have much recording success but were kept busy touring.  In 1976 Shane secured the unencumbered rights to use the band’s original name in exchange for relinquishing his interest in the still-profitable corporation, whose holdings included copyrights and licensing rights to many of the original Trio’s songs.  It was not a wise business decision—the old partnership still produced substantial income every year and income from touring and recording seemed to shrink year by year.  But Shane became the last guardian of the Kingston Trio legacy.
Various configurations of the trio continued to tour.  The combination of Shane, Roger Cambrill, George Grove were together from 1976 to 1985—the longest any three singers performed together.  
In 1981 PBS mounted a reunion special for their ubiquitous fund raising appeals.  Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, and John Stewart joined the Shane-Gambill-Grove Trio and guest performers Mary Travers, Tom Smothers, and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac at the Magic Mountain amusement park for a program billed as The Kingston Trio and Friends Reunion.  Despite lingering tensions between Guard and Shane the different configurations of the Trio took turns performing sets of the group’s best-known songs with all the artists joining onstage for a finale.
After Gambill died unexpectedly from a heart attack on March 2, 1985 at the age of 42 there were several changes in line-up for the Trio, including a brief return of Nick Reynolds, all helmed by Shane continued to tour and record until ill health cause Shane’s retirement from performing in 2004.  Grove, Bill Zorn, and Rick Dougherty toured under Shane’s direction for 12 years.

Bob Shane soldiering on despite being on oxygen.
In 2017 Shane licensed his rights to a new trio consisting of Nick’s son Josh Reynolds, Nick’s cousin Mike Marvin, and Tim Gorelangton.  That line-up encouraged a revival of interest but did not last long.  Josh Reynolds left in 2018 and two others have taken his spot.  Currently Don Marovich rounds out the Trio.
Dave Guard died in 1991.  John Stewart and Nick Reynolds both passed in 2008.
After retiring Shane lived in Phoenix surrounded by Gold Records and Kingston Trio memorabilia. His survivors include his wife, Bobbi (Childress) Shane and five children from an earlier marriage, to Louise Brandon.

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