Fare Thee Well, Bob Shane

The man who led the Kingston Trio to explore new frontiers in folk music dies at 85

The Kingston Trio (Art: Ron Hart)

Bob Shane, the last original member of The Kingston Trio, passed away last Sunday, January 26.

He was the Trio’s lead singer and guided the group through its various incarnations, from its inception in San Francisco in the early 50s, until his recent health problems. The Trio was one of the biggest bands in America between 1958 and 1967, winning a Best Country and Western Recording Grammy for their hit “Tom Dooley” in 1959. (There was no Folk Music Grammy until 1960.)  

The Kingston Trio took off the same year Elvis took over, 1956. The Trio –Bob Shane, guitar vocals; Dave Guard banjo, guitar, vocals; Nick Reynolds guitar, voice, percussion – didn’t release their eponymous debut until 1958, but they were already creating a buzz in San Francisco clubs in ’56, building fans in a parallel universe of hip nightclubs and college campuses, insulated from the mania generated by Elvis. They remain the biggest selling folk act in history, laying the groundwork for the folk revival, the rise of the singer/songwriter, folk rock and AOR radio, becoming the first act to sell more albums than singles. Shane retired in 2004 after a heart attack, but the Trio continues on with Mike Marvin, Tim Gorelangton and Don Marovich. 

The Globe spoke with Shane a few years ago: excerpts of that conversation follow. 

In the early days, part of the Kingston Trio’s appeal was it’s clean-cut image, but Shane said the band had its shady side. “We started in college singing bawdy songs. Getting chicks was one of the primary motivations. The second was for the fame and, later on, it was just money. We used to have a saying – ‘Too much fun is not enough,’ but it got to the point that it was almost enough. I hung out with a rowdy group. I didn’t know anyone who was clean cut. Clean-cut guys don’t play music in bars till 3 am and try to make class at 8 am. Menlo College, where I met Nick (Reynolds), was the model for Animal House. The morning I met him, Nick came in and sat next to me at a morning class. I was sleeping and he nudged me and said: ‘I want to meet you.’ He was the finest natural harmony man I ever heard in my life. He could harmonize with anyone.

“I sang with Dave (Guard) when we were in High School in Hawaii. He was going to Stanford. Dave had a band called the Calypsonians and we’d all play together sometimes, but I went back to Hawaii to do a solo act. I was the first Elvis impersonator in Hawaii.”

When Reynolds and Guard decided to turn pro, they sent for Shane and he rejoined the group. As they began their meteoric rise, they were often accused of ‘cashing in’ on the folk boom. In fact, they almost single-handedly create the folk boom. 

The Kingston Trio from their first album cover. (Art: Ron Hart)

“People thought the folkies were our enemies, but I used to go out with Mary Travers, before she sang with Peter, Paul and Mary and we were good friends with everybody. Our success gave them a chance. People didn’t realize show business is a business. It’s how you make your living and folkies wanted to make a living too. We always told people we weren’t folk singers, but singers of folk oriented material. We were world music before world music came along. We sang all kinds of songs in many languages, Hawaiian, Zulu, French. Anything we liked, we cut, but even when we had our biggest records, we still made more money performing. We were touring 280 days a year and played 400 colleges in three years, which gave us an audience for the next 50 years. We had 14 albums that went Top Ten, five of them hit #1. We had nine gold albums and one gold single for ‘Tom Dooley.’ If we’d sold those numbers today we’d be multi-millionaires, but in those days you didn’t make much money off records.

“People often want to know where we got the name, and I honestly don’t remember who came up with it. We played a lot of calypso in the early days and Kingston sounded kind of calypso. There’s also a town called Kingston in almost every state in the Eastern United States, where we played so many colleges.”

The trio often cut three albums a year, a pace most bands today couldn’t match, and pioneered the technique of double voicing – recording the harmony parts twice. “Voyle Gilmore, our producer, was a genius. He’d have us sing over our parts, which gave the vocals a fuller sound. Capital built the original echo chambers, which are actually chambers beneath the parking lot.”

Dave Guard eventually quit the Trio to start The Whiskeyhill Singers with folk diva Judy Henske. Shane and Reynolds hired John Stewart to take his place and soldiered on until the mid-‘60s when rock knocked folk music off the charts. “Capitol dropped us for The Beatles, duh! It was a business decision, but we were starting to phase out anyway. Before anyone noticed how the business was going to change, we managed to sign a big deal with Decca. They gave us a 750,000 dollar advance, the biggest deal up to that point.”

When Stewart quit to start a solo career in 1967, the Trio called it quits. Shane put out a solo album and the first single was “Honey,” later a smash for Bobby Goldsboro. “Decca didn’t reorder the album or promote the single and I didn’t like going around pimping my record to radio stations or working solo. I enjoyed the group thing, so I hired Roger Gambill and Bill Zorn and went out as The New Kingston Trio. We tried doing some new tunes, but when I realized people only wanted to hear the old stuff, I bit the bullet bought the rights to use The Kingston Trio name from Nick and Frank Weber, our manager.” 

The Kingston Trio (Art: Ron Hart)

In 1982 The Trio put on a Reunion Concert to benefit PBS with Guard, Stewart, Reynolds and the musicians Shane had been playing with. There was brief talk of a Reunion tour, but nothing came of it. Shane went back on he road as The Kingston Trio with various musicians including Gambill, Zorn, George Grove and Bob Haworth. Nick Reynolds came out of retirement for a few years in the late ‘90s, leaving again in 1998. 

Shane said he’s proud of everything the trio accomplished, including getting the first Country Music Grammy in 1958. “It was the first year of the Grammys and they didn’t have a folk category, so we won Best Country and Western Performance for ‘Tom Dooley.’ In ‘59 we won the folk singing Grammy for Kingston Trio At Large, but they never invited us to play. A while back, I wanted to donate the gold single and Grammy for ‘Tom Dooley’ to the Country Music Hall of Fame, so I called them up and asked the guy who answered the phone if he knew who won the first Country Music Grammy. He said ‘Ferlin Husky?’ and I said, ‘No it was The Kingston Trio.’ He said ‘I never heard of them’ so I cussed him out and hung up.”



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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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