Striped shirts open at the collar, crew cuts and silly grins, the crunch of happy chords and often inane lyrics adapted from the grooves of academe. In the late '50s, you couldn't get away from the Kingston Trio; they turned America into a giant hootenanny stage, inspired hundreds of imitators and made this nation safe for folk music, even if it was a bastardized pop version.
"Our new record will be out on the Polygrip label," a silver-haired Bob Shane told the opening-night audience at Charlie's on Tuesday. They all laughed. But Shane, the last original Kingston Trio member, was only half-joking. There are plans for a television mail-order offer, a la Slim Whitman, and for a one-time reunion of the original Trio that will be filmed for the undiscriminating refuge of cable television. Shane, possibly doomed to repeat 25-year-old songs for another quarter-century, muses, "If we can sell just half of what Whitman sold . . ."
In the late '50s and early '60s, the Kingston Trio sold a lot of records. In 1960 alone, when they were releasing three albums a year, they were responsible for 15 percent of Capitol Records' revenues. Their almost-authentic folk songs, watered down and braced with collegiate humor, appeared in the right place at the right time, making folk music commercially viable for truly original artists like Bob Dylan and, eventually, for the folk-rock of the Byrds and others.
In one of those simple twists of fate, the Trio took off in 1958 with "Tom Dooley," a hang-'em-high folk song that had nothing do to with the good Samaritan Dr. Tom Dooley. Nevertheless, it sold 6 million copies for the Trio and raised countless funds for Dooley's overseas work.
The Trio also benefited from its clean-cut, noncontroversial image. "We'd all been inspired by the Weavers," Shane admits, "but we were aiming for the college audience." It helped that the Weavers were off the college circuit because of their leftist leanings and that the other major folk revivalists, the Gateway Singers, couldn't tour because they were integrated. The Trio's manager refused to even let them sing any songs from the Spanish Civil War.
"We didn't want to do anything that would make us controversial. The group was there for one reason, to entertain. We didn't have any fight with anybody; let somebody else do that."
In 1963, with original member Dave Guard having quit the group two years earlier over its lack of musical growth and financial troubles, the Trio toured England as a headline attraction. At the bottom of the bill was a young rock-and-roll band called the Beatles. "I knew they were going to be big," Shane says, laughing; in fact, the Beatles signaled the end of the folk boom and replaced the Trio on the Capitol roster. Like their stablemates, the Beach Boys, the Trio kept the summer alive and sang its past over and over. There would be many personnel changes, with Shane as the anchor; ironically, the current group (featuring George Grove and Roger Gambill) has been together longer than the original Trio.
Shane, a former business-administration major who looks like a successful dentist breezing in from an easy day on the golf course, toured for a number of years under the leased name The New Kingston Trio; in 1976, when the show got bad reviews, he was called on the carpet by Nick Reynolds and his old manager (who owned the name). "I sat there and finally decided to buy it outright," says Shane.
He admits that the reunion idea, to be filmed as "Catching Up With the Kingston Trio," will only work as a one-shot; Reynolds is a successful rancher in Colorado, while Guard has held several occupations, including songwriting, in California. John Stewart, a latter-day Trio member who will join the reunion, has had a successful career of his own since leaving the group.