The Kingston Trio

The Kingston Trio formed on the West Coast in the late 1950's and played a key role in launching the folk music movement of the 1960's. The group managed to place a number of records in the pop top forty along the way.

The original members of the group were Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane. All of them had been born in 1933 or 1934, Guard in San Francisco, Reynolds in San Diego and Shane in Hilo, Hawaii. All played a guitar and a banjo, and all supplied vocals, although mostly it was Dave Guard on the banjo and the others with the guitars. They came together in San Francisco in 1957 and began performing together. Things really got rolling for the Kingston Trio when they got a break filling in or Phyllis Diller, playing at San Francisco's Purple Onion nightclub. They remained there for eight months. Folk music groups in the 50's had become associated somewhat with left wing sentiment, but the Kingston Trio came along and changed that perception to an extent. With their matching shirts, short hair, and catchy tunes, they began to draw notice.

In 1866 a young pregnant woman named Laura Foster was murdered in western North Carolina. Her fiance was a young veteran of the Confederate Army named Tom Dula, who worked a short time later as a farmhand for a man named Colonel James Grayson. Dula fled but with the assistance of Grayson a posse tracked him down. Dula was subsequently captured and arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime in a sensational high-profile trial, although there is considerable reason to doubt his guilt. The real culprit may have been a former girlfriend of Dula named Ann Melton, who was unhappy with what she perceived to be a love triangle. Twenty-two-year-old Tom Dula was hanged for the crime on May 1, 1868. A song titled Tom Dula was written by a local man named Thomas Land, and Dula became a legend. Over time the facts of the case became distorted by the legend, the name became Tom Dooley in accordance with the way it was pronounced by the locals, and the song began to spread -- Tom Dula is still sung in the mountainous region that is eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. The song was passed down as folklore and recorded as Tom Dooley for the first time in 1929 by Grayson and Whitter, popularized in a recording by a man named Frank Proffitt a decade or so later, and recorded by others in subsequent years including a version by Frank Warner in 1952. In 1958 what would become the most well-known recording of the song was made, this time by the Kingston Trio, who had heard another performer at the Purple Onion do it and decided to include it on their initial album, on the Capitol Records label.

In July 1958 two disc jockeys at KLUB in Salt Lake City began playing the Kingston Trio's recording of Tom Dooley over and over again, and imploring others at other radio stations across the country to do the same. By October of that year the song had entered the top forty, and the Kingston Trio became a national sensation. The record sold over six million copies and became the number one pop record in the country. It also served notice that folk music was back, making its return to the top ten for the first time since the Weavers in the early 1950's. The Kingston Trio and their song Tom Dooley are generally acknowledged to be the group and the song that revitalized the interest in folk music which remained strong throughout much of the 1960's.

The Kingston Trio continued recording for Capitol with three more popular songs in 1959: The Tijuana Jail, M.T.A. and A Worried Man. The second of these, M.T.A. (a reference to the Massachusetts Transit Authority in Boston), is a humorous, catchy tune about a man who boards a mass transit vehicle and while he is aboard the fare is increased. He has no money with him and cannot get off the subway because he is unable to pay "one more nickel." Charlie now "rides forever 'neath the streets of Boston" and becomes "the man who never returned." It was good fun, and taken from a politician's theme song written in 1948, with a tune borrowed from an old song about a train wreck near Danville, Virginia in 1903 titled The Wreck Of The Old 97.

When the members of the group performed on stage they presented a clean cut image and they became crowd pleasers with their upbeat lyrics and stage banter. The Kingston Trio continued putting out popular songs, El Matador and Bad Man Blunder among them. As the 60's got underway other folk groups were gaining notice, such as the Highwaymen with Michael and Peter, Paul & Mary with Lemon Tree and If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song). In 1961 Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio to form another group, the Whiskeyhill Singers, and was replaced by John Stewart (whose brother, Mike Stewart, founded the popular 60's folk-rock group We Five). Stewart had written some songs for the Kingston Trio. The string of popular songs continued, including Where Have All The Flowers Gone, and Greenback Dollar. In the spring of 1963 the group had its second and last top ten record, a song written by prolific songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller titled Reverend Mr. Black. The final top forty record for the Kingston Trio came later that year with Desert Pete. They switched from Capitol to Decca in 1965 and their last chart entry was in 1969.

Another song associated with the group, Scotch and Soda, has an interesting story behind it. According to Bob Shane the song was written by an unknown person in Arizona in 1932. In 1954 Dave Guard was a student at Stanford and dating a girl. When Guard visited her home in Fresno the girl's parents gave the song to Guard (they had heard it on their honeymoon). The girl's nine-year-old brother went on to be a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher. His name? Tom Seaver. Scotch and Soda only reached #82, but members of the Kingston Trio claimed that it has always been the song for which they receive the most requests. Some of their songs had been popular on the R&B charts, such as M.T.A. and Reverend Mr. Black. The Kingston Trio had a total of 23 albums on the charts, four of which remained there for more than two years, in response to the strong demand for folk music that they helped to create. Other folk singers came along and became popular -- Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the New Christy Minstrels, and others.

In 1967 Nick Reynolds quit the trio, and it disbanded. John Stewart returned to a career as a solo artist and was very popular in that role. Stewart wrote Daydream Believer, a #1 hit for the Monkees in 1967, and had a top ten hit as a solo artist in 1979 with Gold. In 1973 the New Kingston Trio was formed, with some from the original group plus Bill Zorn. Others who played with the Kingston Trio in succeeding years include George Grove, Roger Gambill, Bill Haworth and Rick Dougherty. The original members and some others reunited for a PBS special in 1982, and there were various other reunions from time to time. Dave Guard contracted lymphatic cancer and died in 1991. John Stewart suffered a massive stroke and passed away in 2008, and Nick Reynolds suffered from acute respiratory disease and died later in the same year. The sole surviving founding member of the Kingston Trio, Bob Shane, who had sung many of the lead vocals on their records, continued with his music into the twenty-first century before retiring due to health concerns.

The Kingston Trio deserve the credit they have received for revitalizing folk music in the 1960's. Probably the songs that are best remembered by their many fans would be Tom Dooley, M.T.A. and Reverend Mr. Black.

Most Recent Update: May 1, 2009

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