Will Holt, a 1950s folk singer who wrote the popular song “Lemon Tree” and later composed lyrics and music for several Broadway musicals, died May 31 in Los Angeles. He was 86.
He had Alzheimer’s disease, his son, Courtney Holt, said in a tribute posted on Twitter.
Mr. Holt, who was educated at private schools in his native New England, became interested in folk music in his teens. He traveled throughout Europe and soon made his way with his guitar to the burgeoning folk-revival scene in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
He formed a duo with singer Dolly Jonah, his first wife, and they released albums on Atlantic and other record labels in the 1950s and 1960s. They were based for several years in St. Louis, where they appeared on stage alongside such well-known performers as Barbra Streisand, Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers. They later appeared at such venues as the Village Vanguard in Manhattan.
Mr. Holt composed “Lemon Tree” in the late 1950s, based on a Brazilian melody, and the catchy tune soon became popular among folk singers. It was recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1961 and appeared on the debut album of the folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary in 1962.
Other artists followed suit, including Chad &Jeremy, the Seekers, Herb Alpert and Bob Marley. A 1965 recording by singer-guitarist Trini Lopez became a Top 20 pop hit. Lopez sang the lyrics — about a failed romance — with a bouncy, Caribbean-flavored lilt:
Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.
The song was ubiquitous in the 1960s and later showed up on an episode of “Seinfeld” and in a commercial for lemon Pledge furniture cleaner. Another of his compositions, “Raspberries, Strawberries,” was twice recorded by the Kingston Trio and appeared on the group’s 1960 album, “Sold Out,” which reached No. 1 on the pop charts.
In the 1960s, Mr. Holt began to explore more ambitious projects. He produced a revue of music by Kurt Weill, which he performed with singer Martha Schlamme, and directed a production of Leonard Bernstein’s theatrical songs. He wrote several plays on musical themes before finding success as the lyricist for the rock musical “The Me Nobody Knows,” which debuted off Broadway in 1970.
Mr. Holt’s lyrics were drawn from the writings of children living in poverty in New York. The play evenutally moved to Broadway, where it ran for almost a year. Mr. Holt received a Drama Desk award and was nominated for a Tony Award for best lyrics.
Later in the 1970s, Mr. Holt wrote the book for “Over Here!,” a musical set during World War II featuring the Andrews Sisters singing group. He had another theatrical success with “Me and Bessie,” for which he wrote the book with its principal performer, Linda Hopkins. The musical about blues singer Bessie Smith was performed at Ford’s Theater in Washington and later ran for more than a year on Broadway.
Two later plays by Mr. Holt, “Music Is” and “Platinum,” closed after brief Broadway runs. A 1981 musical “Ah, Men,” about the desires and shortcomings of various famous men, was produced off Broadway.
Mr. Holt returned to performing in 1979 with “A Kurt Weill Cabaret,” singing lyrics he translated from German. He continued to write and produce new shows, including a gritty musical, “Walk on the Wild Side,” based on a novel by Nelson Algren.
He also composed the music for “Jack,” a musical play about the life of John F. Kennedy, that has been produced several times since its 1997 premiere at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.
William Holt was born April 30, 1929, in Portland, Maine, where his father was a doctor. He was a graduate of the Phillips Exeter Academy prep school in New Hampshire, attended Williams College in Massachusetts and studied with folk singer Richard Dyer-Bennet before embarking on his singing career.
He traveled through Europe in 1950, learning folk songs in various languages, then served in the Air Force during the Korean War.
His first wife, Dolores Pikoos — whose stage name was Dolly Jonah — died in 1983 after 26 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife since 1986, Dion Alden of Los Angeles; a son from his first marriage, Courtney Holt of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.
After “Lemon Tree” became a hit in the 1960s, the royalty checks enabled Mr. Holt to cut back on singing in clubs to devote more time to writing music.
“When I saw my first check,” he said in 1988, “I said, ‘Oh, I guess this means I don’t have to keep doing four shows a night.’ ”