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The Kingston Trio

The Reverend Mr. Black

Dave Guard met Bob Shane when the two teenagers attended high school together in the early 1950s. When they discovered a mutual love for calypso music, they put together what talents they had. “Bobby knew how to play the guitar a little bit and I knew some Tahitian songs that he kinda was faking the words to,” reminisced Dave Guard in a 1991 interview. “Bobby and I really loved Tahitian music, 'cause it was wild. We wanted the wild, eerie-sounding stuff so we learned that. But I didn't know how to play the guitar and Bobby didn't know the words to the Tahitian songs. I would sit around and transcribe them off records and then ask people what those words meant. So, when we got together, he taught me a little guitar and I taught him the words to the songs.” It wasn’t long before the two were performing at parties and in school shows a blend of Tahitian, Hawaiian and calypso songs. (1)

After high school graduation in 1952, both headed east to the mainland as Guard enrolled at Stanford University while Shane entered nearby Menlo College. Nick Reynolds attended Menlo after stops at the University of Arizona and San Diego State. During a particularly dull accounting class at Menlo, Reynolds noticed a student dead asleep and later introduced himself to Bob Shane. "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," Shane remembered. (2) Reynolds, from Coronado, California, cut his musical teeth singing at family sing-a-longs as his father, a Navy Captain, had an affinity for old folk songs.

With mutual interests of hanging out, drinking, chasing coeds and playing music, it wasn’t long before the duo became popular at parties with Shane on guitar and Reynolds on bongos. Within a few weeks, Shane introduced Reynolds to Guard. With the background in Hawaiian music perfect for backyard luaus in Northern California, the group pooled their talents and worked the lush lawns in the neighborhoods of Palo Alto. Adding a few nights a week working at a local bar, the trio seemed destined for a career path. Billed as Dave Guard & The Clypsonians, none of three at that time had aspirations for a show business career and the group disbanded.

In late 1956, Shane returned to Hawaii to work at his father’s sporting goods store during the day and sing solo at night. Meanwhile, Guard and Reynolds added bassist Joe Gannon and singer Barbara Bogue and worked as The Kingston Quartet. At a gig in Redwood City, Guard met Frank Werber, a publicist from San Francisco who had heard of the group through a local entertainment reporter. Werber liked their raw energy but found their stage presence unrefined. Guard took the assessment as constructive criticism and invited Werber to a performance a few weeks later. Sufficiently impressed, Werber agreed to manage the group with one caveat. They had to replace Gannon. Bogue left the group with Bannon, which opened the door for Bob Shane, who had returned from the island in early 1957. They rechristened themselves as The Kingston Trio.

When asked how they chose the name, Shane had this to say in an undated interview. “I'll give you the whole bit that I give on stage and it's true: We started this group as a Calypso group. We got the name Kingston from Kingston, Jamaica, a place to which not a one of us has been to this day.” When pressed by the interviewer about a future trip to Jamaica, the irrepressible Shane responded, “Who the hell wants to go to Kingston? I'm from Hawaii. You got better coffee there and better pot. So, what the hell, you know? (laughs) No, it never interested me what-so-ever.” (3)

The group turned serious in early summer of 1957 when they met at Werber’s office to sign a contract making Guard, Reynolds, Shane and Werber equal partners in the venture of the Kingston Trio. Werber, now the manager, insisted the group rehearse up to eight hours while employing a vocal coach to help preserve their voices. During these sessions, the group worked not only on an eclectic array of songs, but the delivery of the supposedly spontaneous banter between the songs. Yes, the Kingston Trio rehearsed their ad-libs.

Their first big break came in late June when comedian Phyllis Diller cancelled a week-long engagement at San Francisco’s Purple Onion. Werber convinced the club owners to give the untested group a chance. The club owner agreed and the trio covered Diller’s contract for the week of June 25-July 2. Dave Guard seized the opportunity and went the extra mile sending postcards to everyone the group knew to publicize their appearance. (4) Accordingly, Werber took the time to plaster handbills about the city announcing the Trio’s appearance. (5) Those efforts, along with the months of preparation, paid dividends. The reception was so strong they were brought back the following week. The two-week engagement turned into a five-month stay from June through December of 1957.

Taking a cue from the group’s successful club act, Werber was in contact with record labels shopping for a recording deal. Dot Records and Liberty Records expressed interest but only for a 45 single. Conferring with the trio, the foursome agreed that albums were the best way to display their talents. (6) Werber then contacted Capitol Records producer, Voyle Gilmore, who saw the group’s performance at the Purple Onion and recommended that Capitol sign the group to a seven-year deal. (4)

L-R: Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/NBC

It was time to choose the songs for their first Capitol album. "We were big fans of the Weavers, the New York-based quartet that included Pete Seeger, but they got blacklisted in the McCarthy era. Their music was controversial. Suddenly, they couldn't get any airplay or booked into the big hotels,” Reynolds mentioned in a 2006 interview. "We played their kind of music when we were first performing in colleges. But when we formed the trio . . . 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.” (2)

With David “Buck” Wheat as the bassist (he would eventually be hired full-time), the trio headed into Capitol Records studios on February 5, 1958. They put to tape seven songs, one of which would be their only #1 hit, Tom Dooley.

The Trio first heard the song on the afternoon of August 20, 1957, at a talent audition at the Purple Onion. They singer provided the lyrics, which they rehearsed that night between shows, and built the own arrangement using his lyrics. The Trio was told the song was public domain. It turned out that wasn’t the case. Eventually, a copyright infringement was filed against the Trio in 1963 and settled out of court with writer and publishing royalties awarded to the plaintiff. (7)

In the studio, after a few takes, their final arrangement featured Nick Reynolds' now famous spoken intro ("Throughout history . . . "), Bob Shane's lead vocal and it was one of the few songs the group did with Bob on banjo. (8)

The song was a cut on the Trio’s first LP, The Kingston Trio. Two Salt Lake City disc jockeys, Paul Coburn and Bill Terry, played cuts from the album on their respective shifts. Coburn and Terry called other DJ’s around the country asking them to play the cut of Tom Dooley. The song gained momentum in other markets. Eventually, Gilmore at Capitol Records, released the song as a single on August 8 as requests from around the country poured into the Hollywood and Vine offices. Listener requests were overwhelming and more stations throughout the United States began programming the track. Tom Dooley hit the charts on September 29, 1958 where it stayed for 21 weeks hitting #1 on November 22. (9)

Tom Dooley spurred album sales as the LP entered the chart on November 3, 1958, peaked at #1, stayed on the chart for 195 weeks and both the single and album were certified gold. (10) The Trio won a Grammy in 1959 in the Best Country and Western Performance at the awards inaugural ceremony. There was no category for folk music that year but because of the Kingston Trio, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences instituted a folk category and the Trio won the first Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording for its second studio album At Large. (11)

A quote from Bob Shane seems to put the rise of the Trio in perspective. “We started off playing Calypso and that lasted for about three months and then we went over to what you call Folk-oriented material. We never called ourselves Folk singers. We called ourselves entertainers who picked different kinds of music that we liked with the instrumentation that we had. In those days, they had to sell you in some bag. So, when Tom Dooley came off the first album which had Calypso music, Folk oriented music, a couple of sea chants, an off Broadway show tune and a Blues number, they picked that number off the album and started plugging it. It became a single. The single sold several million records in two weeks. A guy from Capitol Records came to us and gave us a big bonus check for Tom Dooley and said, ‘Here, you're Folk singers.’ And as a unit we said, ‘You bet your ass we are! You're gonna pay us good money, we'll be anything you want.’ So, that's how we got to be Folk singers.” (3)

L-R: Bob Shane, Nick Reynold and Dave Guard.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Michael Ochs

All looked well for the Kingston Trio. For five consecutive weeks in November and December 1959, four Kingston Trio albums ranked in the top ten of Billboard's Top LPs chart, an accomplishment unmatched by any artist before or since. (12) The Trio also charted several single records during this time, made numerous television appearances, and played upwards of 200 engagements per year. But there was a rift in the making.

Dave Guard had been referred to as the leader of the group both in the press and in album liner notes. Bob and Nick didn’t endorse this description, as they believed the three were equal contributors to the group’s success. Dave also understood that the group as a leader in folk music, needed to grow and expand. He was years ahead of his time as he suggested the group add electric guitars to produce a “folk-rock” hybrid. Bob and Nick preferred to play and perform what the fans come to know and love as the Kingston Trio. No middle ground could be found as Dave alienated himself away from Bob and Nick. On May 10, 1961, Dave Guard made a series of demands about the way the group was to be run, fully expecting the other members to comply. Guard asked Frank, Nick and Bob, “Well, what’s it going to be boys?” Their response was, “We’re not going to do it, Dave.” With that, Guard got up and said, “Then, I’m out. You’ll be hearing from my lawyers.” Out the door he went. (13)

The group found Guard’s replacement in the person of John Stewart. The Trio knew him as a songwriter, recording two of compositions a few years earlier. Stewart was part of the folk group, the Cumberland Three, a folk trio that used many of the Trio’s songs in their act. So, he knew the songs note for note.

When Guard made plans to leave the group, bassist David Wheat decided to leave and join Guard with his next group, the Whiskyhill Singers. His replacement for the next incarnation of the Trio was Dean Reilly, a jazz bassist who had worked with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee.

Guard’s last appearance was a concert in Ipswich, Massachusetts on August 5, 1961. John Stewart’s first appearance with the revamped Trio was on September 16, 1961 in Santa Rosa, California. The first album featuring Stewart and the 11th by the Trio was Close-Up, released on September 11. The transition was complete. (8)

Three of the four albums released in 1962 featuring Stewart hit the top ten. (10) Two singles, Where Have All The Flowers Gone in 1962 and Greenback Dollar in 1963, reached #21 on the Pop chart. (9) According to Bob Shane, “We did nearly as well with John as we did with Dave.” (14)

On January 23, 1963, the Trio entered the Capitol studios to record Reverend Mr. Black. The song was a combination of an old spiritual, Lonesome Valley and a narrative written by Billy Edd Wheeler. The song featured the appearance by Glen Campbell on banjo, guitar and background vocals. Shane recalled that during the rundown of the song, Campbell suddenly stopped playing and said, “Wait a minute! I know what this song needs!” He ran out of the studio and down the block to Music City on the corner of Sunset and Vine and bought a six-string banjo that he then played on Reverend Mr. Black and several other cuts. (15)

John Stewart was selected to do the lead vocal. But Stewart didn’t like the song and had to be convinced to do it by Voyle Gilmore. So, it’s Stewart who sang and spoke the recitation while the background voices included Shane, Reynolds, road manager Donnie MacArthur and Glen Campbell.

L-R: John Stewart, Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/GAB Archive

The LP, The Kingston Trio #16, was released on March 4, 1963 (8) and entered the Billboard Album chart on March 30th where it stayed for 29 weeks peaking at #4. (10) Normally, a single precedes an album release but Capitol presented a different strategy. Release the LP and let the radio stations choose the next single based on listener requests. Capitol’s strategy worked but not quite in an orthodox manner they would have guessed.

William Idol, a high school English teacher in Chicago, wished to teach his class about how a vocal minority can shape public opinion, an idea presented in a then-current book, Profiles In Courage by John F. Kennedy. Idol asked his students to choose what they considered the worst and most obscure cut from a current record album and flood Chicago’s top radio station, WLS, with calls requesting the station play the song. The class’ choice for the experiment was Reverend Mr. Black.

On March 18th, the station was deluged with calls to play the song. WLS was a Midwest powerhouse blanketing a number of states, which gave the station a great deal of power in determining the fate of a record. If WLS said a song was a hit, it was a hit. Within 48 hours, the station asked Capitol to release Reverend Mr. Black as a single.

The newly minted 45 was released before the end of the month, crashed the Pop chart on April 6th, stayed a total of 11 weeks peaking at #8, only the second single by the Kingston Trio to land in the top ten. (9) No doubt, the student’s requests had an impact, especially in the WLS listening radius, but the song had appeal around the rest of the country as it eventually sold over 400,000 units. (16)

Toward the end of 1963 and the start of 1964, interest in the group had lessened. Desert Pete, their next single, was released in July of 1963 and reached #33. (9) Only one of their next three singles landed in the Hot 100. Album sales fared a bit better as the follow-up to #16, Sunny Side landed in the Top Ten.

Many reasons could explain the slow fade from the top. Imitators such as Peter, Paul and Mary were gaining notice because they sang songs of protest, something the Trio refused to do. The British Invasion saw musical tastes change. Also, the Trio’s seven-year deal ran out and with the sales of acoustic folk albums declining, Capitol’s main focus turned to the Beatles.

The Kingston Trio signed with Decca Records but none of the four albums produced by the new label sold well. In 1966, Reynolds announced he wanted to pursue a solo career. So, the group developed an exit strategy. From the middle of 1966 to June of 1967, play as many dates as possible and finish in style at the Hungry I, where they would come full circle. The last performance of the second iteration of the Kingston Trio was on June 17, 1967.

Dave Guard founded the Whiskyhill Singers in 1961. The group disbanded in 1962. Dave and family moved to Australia in late 1962 where he recorded and performed until 1968. Returning to the mainland, Dave continued to perform, recording a live album at Pasadena’s Ice House in the 70s. In the 80’s, he played and taught music. On March 22, 1991, Dave died from cancer at age 56.

Nick Reynolds moved to his ranch in Oregon after the Trio disbanded where he worked his ranch and returned to another passion, motor racing, through 1987. In 1988, he rejoined the Trio, working with Shane and George Grove, through 1999 when he retired again. Reynolds and his wife moved to his hometown of Coronado, California in 2000. He worked with John Stewart in a Kingston Trio fantasy camp held annually in Scottsdale, Arizona for eight years. He passed away on October 1, 2008 from acute respiratory disease.

Bob Shane decided to stay in entertainment as a solo artist for two years. Preferring work in a group, he leased the Kingston Trio name with an agreement the new group would be the New Kingston Trio. Two troupes with the name performed—the first from 1969-1973 and the second from 1973-1976. In 1976, Shane secured the rights to the original name from Werber and Reynolds in exchange for his share of the copyrights and licensing rights to many of the group’s original songs. This formation of the group lasted from 1976-1985 with members Shane, Grove and Roger Gambill. Personnel evolved over the years as Shane retired from touring with the group in 2004 due to a heart attack.

John Stewart pursued his career as a solo act. He was also a prolific songwriter. He wrote Daydream Believer for the Monkees and Runaway Train for Rosanne Cash. In 1979, he found success as a solo artist with the release of his album Bombs Away Dream Babies, which produced the top-ten hit Gold. In 2005 and 2006, Stewart joined with Reynolds and Shane at the Kingston Trio fantasy camp. On January 19, 2008, Stewart died of a brain aneurysm in San Diego at the age of 68.

Pete Seeger sings Lonesome Valley which became the chorus of Reverend Mr. Black.

There was no live video of The Kingston Trio performing Reverend Mr. Black available.

1) Blake, Benjamin, Jack Rubeck, Allan Shaw, The Kingston Trio On Record, July 1, 1986.

2) Lewis, Randy, Los Angeles Times, Nick Reynolds, 75, dies; a founding member of The Kingston Trio, October 3, 2008. Link.

3) James, Gary, Classic Bands, Gary James’ Interview With Bob Shane of The Kingston Trio. Link.

4) Bush, William, Frets Magazine, The Kingston Trio, June 1984.

5) Blake, Benjamin, Jack Rubeck, Allan Shaw, The Kingston Trio On Record, July 1, 1986. Page 19.

6) Blake, Benjamin, Jack Rubeck, Allan Shaw, The Kingston Trio On Record, July 1, 1986. Page 25.

7) Bush, William J., Greenback Dollar: The Incredible Rise of the Kingston Trio, 2013, Page 95.

8) Liner notes; The Kingston Trio: The Capital Years.

9) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Hits 1955-2002, Pages 385-386.

10) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Albums 1955-2001, Pages 460-461.

11) Wikipedia, Kingston Trio, Link.

12) Blake, Benjamin, Jack Rubeck, Allan Shaw, The Kingston Trio On Record, July 1, 1986. Page 37.

13) Bush, William J., Greenback Dollar: The Incredible Rise of the Kingston Trio, 2013, Page 130.

14) Bob Shane interview, Wherever We May Go: The Kingston Trio Story, DVD, 2006.

15) Bush, William J., Greenback Dollar: The Incredible Rise of the Kingston Trio, 2013, Page 233.

16) Moran, Jim, Comparative Video 101, Lonesome Valley/The Reverend Mr. Black, October 9, 2009, Link.

L-R: Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane and John Stewart.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/NBC

Copyright  2009