The Kingston Trio - Interview with Bob Shane - part 1

 

In a booklet called 40 Years of the Kingston Trio, A National Treasure, which was sold at Kingston Trio concerts in 1997, it says :

"In 1957 America was ready for a new style of music. Just out of college, Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane and Dave Guard took dormant folk music and gave it a lampoonish twist irresistible to the nouveau ivy league crowd. The irony of sophisticated satirical lyrics with back hills instrumentation was not lost on the burgeoning collegiate crowd. The Kingston phenomenon kindled a flame on campus that blew into a wild fire from coast to coast and beyond. The music was rooted in American popular culture but performed with a rustic refreshing style that now seems timeless. Like the Beatles, the Kingston Trio created a new national audience for their new style of music, causing a ripple effect on the entire music industry."

The Trio’s phenomenal success was evident in their popularity as a live act, influence on other artists, and their many hit records, not just singles but unprecedented sales in the album format. Five of their first six albums hit #1, and between 1958 and 1962 five of their albums had each spent more than two years on the charts. By 1965, 21 albums had made Billboard magazine’s Top 100. The Kingston Trio’s official website is here.

Bob Shane was born February 1, 1934, in Hilo, Hawaii. I interviewed him in his hotel room on October 28, 2000, before the Kingston Trio’s performance at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington, Vermont.

EARLY DAYS

Craig Morrison : Tell me about the scene in your early days in San Francisco.

Bob Shane : The San Francisco scene in those days was just fantastic for music. A lot of jazz, a lot of folk music with the beatnik times, a lot of poetry and a lot of artists, and it was really fun to drive up from college and be part of that. We were in college from ’52 to ’56. I met Nick Reynolds in ’55 and he and I used to drive from Menlo Park to San Francisco, about an hour and a half drive. As a result of it, when Nick and I were just juniors in college we said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to try that professionally sometime ?” The San Francisco scene was really, really avant garde and it was a lot of fun.

CM : You became popular in the North Beach district. Was it at the Purple Onion ? I have a record from the hungry i.

BS : We always said it took us a year and a trip to Reno [Nevada, where they honed their act] and New York in order to get across the street from the Purple Onion, a small “discovery club,” to the [prestigious] hungry i.

CM : Was there something about the city itself or its music scene that had any particular effect on your music or your act ?

BS : Very definitely. When we were in college down in the peninsula we’d go up to the hungry i to see the group called the Gateway Singers. The Gateway Singers were probably one of the earliest and most important along with the Weavers. The Weavers were a great singing group and we liked their music, their singing, and their songs. The Gateway Singers gave us the first real chance to see a live act that was also a singing group.

CM : Had you seen the Weavers ever perform ?

BS : Yes. But they were not the type of act that we liked. The Gateway Singers were a little looser and a lot more fun and sometimes a little risqué.

CM : With the comedy.

BS : Yeah. There was a regular run from Los Angeles to Hawaii to San Francisco to Vegas of the lounge acts. We were inspired a great deal by them because they had so much fun and did a lot of risqué material. There was a group called the Vagabonds and another called the Four Jokers which I had seen in Hawaii first. They came from Hawaii and did San Francisco, Vegas, back to LA. We got the interest from singing groups like the Weavers singing the kind of songs we liked and the comedy that the lounge acts did and some other alternative type of songs. We never set ourselves as anything. The funniest thing about our act is that we never called ourselves folk singers. We still don’t. We were an entertainment act and that’s all. We always considered ourselves live entertainment. Even in our largest years of selling records we made more money off of personal appearances.

CM : And you made so many records.

BS : That’s why we’re still working today. All we ever wanted to be was a live act. The records were always secondary, and they became the thing that helped us a great deal because it made us an audience for the rest of our life. It’s still not lucrative but steady business. We were all raised in upper middle class families and we just basically maintained the way we were raised. Our houses are paid for and we own our cars. We have very few payments going out and stuff. We’re happy. I never really wanted to be rich. I never had that drive, but I have a lot of rich friends that share their toys with me. We learned things being in the middle class like : “The longer the limo, the easier the target.”

When we got out of college I went back to Hawaii and I became the first Elvis Presley impersonator probably in the world because his big hit was in ’56 and that was in ’56. I at one time impersonated Harry Belafonte, Hank Williams Sr., and Elvis Presley in order to find my own style. And I sang pure Hawaiian music and I sang all kinds of music from around the world because Dave and I used to hang out with the yachtsmen. Been all over the place. We got into calypso that way. These yachtsmen said, “Here’s some calypso stuff and you’ve got to ask your folks if they’ve got any calypso records.” Nick Reynolds’ father and mother came up with some records they had from the late 1930s. The first record we picked up said, “Woe Is Me,” by Lord Invader and his Twelve Penetrators.

[The song Shane refers to, recorded by the Kingston Trio as “Ah Woe, Ah Me,” is, according to various web sources including Arnold Rypens’ Originals, “Shame and Scandal.” It was recorded by Trinidadian calypso singer Sir Lancelot (real name : Lancelot Pinard) in 1946 on the Keynote label of New York, with songwriting credits to Pinard-Wray. The song was introduced by Sir Lancelot in the 1943 Hollywood movie I Walked With a Zombie. The Kingston Trio’s “Ah Woe, Ah Me,” credited to Reynolds-Shane-Stewart and recorded on the 1964 album Back In Town, is based on Lord Melody’s version, with rewritten lyrics and called "Wau Wau," from 1962. Lord Invader, famous as the originator of “Rum and Coca Cola,” may have recorded it, but it seems he never called his band the Twelve Penetrators. The Kingston Trio did a song by the similarly named Lord Intruder : “Zombie Jamboree” (also known as “Back to Back”).]

And we said, “We’ve got to learn this stuff.” We just called ourselves the Kingston Trio. The folk music thing happened because in 1958 we put our first album out and on the album we had some calypso music. We had actually started playing calypso in ’58.

CM : That’s the connection with the name, right ?

BS : Kingston, from Kingston, Jamaica. As we do on stage, we tell people that the interesting thing about it is that not a one of us has ever been to Jamaica to this day. We took the name also because it we thought it sounded Ivy League because we were West Coasters. I believe there’s a Kingston in every eastern seaboard state and province. All the way down the East Coast, down to Florida even. So the combination of seeing the acts of the music we liked and the comedy that we learned to like and all the different kinds of music, we started singing everything we could with the instrumentation that we had and make it sound good. When our first album came out we had some calypso music, a couple of sea shanties, some folk oriented material, an off-Broadway show tune, and a blues number. A couple of disc jockeys in Salt Lake City picked up on the song “Tom Dooley” off of the album and started plugging it real hard and it became a single. The single sold three million records in two weeks. Became number one in the country over night. A guy from Capitol Records came to us with a large bonus cheque and he handed it to us and said, “Here, you’re folk singers.” And almost in unison we said, “You bet your ass we are.” It was the biggest cheque I’d ever seen in my life up to that point. So that’s how we became folk singers.

The funny thing about it is that the first year the Grammys was also 1958 and after calling us folk singers they wanted to give us a Grammy for “Tom Dooley.” They realized they didn’t have a folk singing category the first year. So what should they do ? They took the liberty, because of the fact that the Kingston Trio song “Tom Dooley” was on the top of all three charts—the first record to ever do that at the same time : pop chart, rhythm and blues and country and western—so they gave the Kingston Trio the very first Grammy ever given for best country and western performance of the year. The next year they added a folk singing category. They gave us the first one ever given for best folk singing performance of the year for our album At Large. So we had a t-shirt made up that said “the Hawaiian calypso folk group who saved country music.”

CM : I only know some of your early records but it seems to me that you didn’t really change that mix. Your music has always had that mix.

BS : We’ve always had all kinds of songs.

CM : You accepted the category but just kept doing everything else that you did.

BS : As live entertainers what you say is, “You can call me anything you want to as long as you pay me.” And then also you don’t get sick very often because the old expression is “No play, no pay.” So we lived by it.

CM : So the San Francisco scene that you had observed influenced you in the comedy and other groups that you saw influenced you in the repertoire, and you put those together. Did you feel at the time that you were expressing any San Francisco-ness after you had done that ?

BS : Well San Francisco was a state of mind in those days, and it was through the flower children thing. After that it became kind of squirrelly. We all moved from there as a matter of fact. I went back to Georgia. Nick went up to Oregon. Dave had quit in ’61 and he went to Australia. But at the time that we started it was just fantastic. It was a real hoot. There was very heavy rivalry between San Francisco and Los Angeles. San Francisco was a state of mind. There was a lot of pride that it was the artsy type of thing at that time, and it was born out by the fact that that’s where the heavy rock, garage, the rock movement from the ’60s, late ’60s was.

CM : What was your opinion of the psychedelic music, when San Francisco shifted over to it ?

BS : Well you see we lost our contract with Capitol Records. At the time we accounted for 20% of their entire sales. They went to the Beatles and the Beatles shifted it over so that it became folk to folk rock, to rock rock. Or complain rock. We all looked at it with a sort of a typical eye because first of all we were entertainers and so we just rolled with the punches. When Dave left the group in ’61, John Stewart came right in and took his place and we went until ’67. By that time we had a restaurant [The Trident] catering to those freaks. We were paying more attention to the restaurant in Sausalito which probably at the time was the most popular restaurant in California. Then I started a group called the New Kingston Trio and then I bought the name a few years later. It all originated in that San Francisco thing for us.

CM : I always ask questions about early influences because I’m very interested in how styles are created. Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane told me that he idolized the Weavers.

BS : Most early acts of that time did because the Weavers had what we ended up with. They had a fantastic array of songs, lots of them. They had great hit records, gold records with Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra and a lot of stuff on their own.

CM : Every one of those San Francisco psychedelic bands had at least one person in the band that had gone through the folk revival. Jerry Garcia was a banjo player.

BS : Jerry Garcia used to play a little club in Sausalito as a folk singer.

CM : Janis Joplin was singing Bessie Smith and jug band music. They all had that so there’s a thread there that goes from the folk revival.

BS : Lyrics. Lyrics were the important thing. You had to say something. It’s like rap, trying to say something. Rap to me is not music, it’s rap. It’s talking. It’s poetry more than anything, I think. If you cross country and rap, you get crap.

CM : On one of your records [Back In Town, released in June 1964] you do “Get Together” and it seems you are the first people to record it.

BS : We got it from the We Five [who recorded it in 1965] because John Stewart’s brother was the leader of the We Five, or we heard it some place else, I don’t know. It may have very well been before the We Five. I don’t remember.

CM : The song was written by Dino Valenti [under his real name : Chester Powers]. Had you seen him do it ?

BS : No.

CM : When those groups came in did you hear anything of your own influence in them ?

BS : I don’t think we paid any attention to that. We enjoyed the music for what it was. We fell right in, we were just getting loaded and having a great time like everybody else was. However, the general public didn’t think of us as that. Somebody once said to me, Dave said it all the time, “Why don’t you write a book ?” I say the same thing that Audrey Hepburn said, and she died not writing one, “First of all, it’s not over with, and second of all, you don’t cop out on your friends.” To make a book interesting you’d have to involve a lot of people in it. A lot of people in funny circumstances to you but the general public might look at that askance.

CM : Yes, they might think, “There’s some fascinating things we didn’t know about your, um, ex-friends.”

BS : When they first booked us they booked us as America’s clean cut college kids. It was about as far from what we were as you could get.

CM : Did you have any concept of what rock groups felt about the Kingston Trio ?

BS : Oh certainly. One of the Allman Brothers told me that they got started listening to our stuff. Fleetwood Mac said that Fleetwood Mac was just the Kingston Trio with electric guitar and drums. The Eagles got started listening to our stuff. Many, many people like that over the years. That’s just chance, just because our music was there. It was certainly not intentional.

CM : There is something on the West Coast about vocals. The Beach Boys, the Mamas and Papas, the Jefferson Airplane all had had three or four lead singers. Every group seems to have wanted to sing harmony. Whereas you look at Detroit or New York or Toronto : often it’s a soul influence with a single singer. On the West Coast they just love that interweaving.

BS : Vocal was always very important. It was a lot more based on having enjoyment of life as a group. It was a different kind of music. Our kind of music actually aced out what was happening on the East Coast ; it was early teenybop rock and it was really boring.

TOM DOOLEY

CM : Right. By the time you came out in ’58 you became an alternative because “Tom Dooley” was a song about something really gritty, a hanging, an event that actually happened. It was something so immediate and in stark contrast to “Young Love” or whatever. A reality dose but still presented in a very acceptable, accessible manner.

BS : Tom Dooley wrote the song himself while he was in prison for killing Laura Foster, which he never said he did. In fact, during his trial he said, “I will not attest to having killed the woman. If I had it would be because she gave me syphilis.” Now that’s Americana.

CM : There’s been a lot of research done on that lately.

BS : My theory all along is that the chivalry that was very, very prevalent in the South at the time—I lived in the South for a long time so I saw this—the chivalry was that if you had a love affair with two women and one of them got killed and you loved the other one too you took the rap for her. I think the other one did it. I think that Anne Melton killed Laura Foster and he took the rap.

CM : I saw a photograph on your web site of you at the grave.

BS : Scariest thing you can do. Yeah, in the late ’50s we went to the grave site. The original stone just said “TD.” I pulled the original one out. It weighed close to 400 pounds and we shipped it to our manager collect on the West Coast. He had it in his office for years. Some guy [then] put up a more reasonable stone.

CM : Where are you finding your songs now ?

BS : We find them on Kingston Trio records. All the songs that we do now are all from my old repertoire.

CM : Are you interested in adding new ones to your repertoire ?

BS : We’re going to do a new album, but there’s no rush on it. Like I said, we’re primarily a live act. That’s where we make our money. We have made albums of this group and we sell them at shows and on our web site. But the chance of the Kingston Trio getting a hit record in this day and age is quite low. This disc jockey said to me, “You’d have a better chance if you released it under a different name.”

CM : Right, because people place things in a certain time.

see part 2


comments or questions ? email me

I have posted interviews with members of the Doors, Electric Prunes, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Music Machine, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, and Strawberry Alarm Clock. To go to the index page, click here.

you may be interested to read Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context, and Evolution by Craig Morrison, available as a download from lulu.com for less than $5

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, © 2006