The Kingston Trio had a major impact on pop culture, setting off a folk music boom, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. Credited with kick-starting America's love for acoustic guitar and interjecting social commentary into top 40 radio, the group is considered to be a product of the San Francisco Bay Area, while, in fact, founding member Nick Reynolds was born on July 27, 1933 in Coronado, where he remained a resident until his passing in 2008.
The trio, which included Reynolds (vocals, tenor guitar, conga, and bongos); Bob Shane (vocals, tenor banjo, and six-string guitar); and Dave Guard (vocals, six-string guitar, 12-string guitar, and five-string banjo), came together during their college days in 1957. As part of a loose group of musical friends at school in Palo Alto, they took part in projects, the most significant of which would likely be Dave Guard and the Calypsonians, which saw Reynolds and Guard teamed with Barbara Bogue and Joe Gannon. While this combo never officially released anything at the time, they did record acetates of at least eight tracks.
Replacing Bogue and Gannon with Shane toward the end of the school year, the trio was set. Barely a month after they had named themselves after a Jamaican town, they were on their way. Asked to fill in for comedienne Phyllis Diller on Memorial Day weekend at San Francisco's below-ground nightclub the Purple Onion, the group's mix of ballads and folk songs was a huge hit. Asked to return for a week-long engagement, the band's stay at the club would end up lasting seven months.
Quickly drawing major label attention, the Kingston Trio signed with Capitol Records, releasing their self-titled debut in early 1958. Their first single, "Scarlet Ribbons," was given a major promotional push, resulting in their national TV debut that May. When the three made an appearance as World War II pilots on "Rumors of Evening," an episode on Playhouse 90, it naturally offered an opportunity for them to plug their song.
Despite the hoopla surrounding their debut, it was the trio's second single, "Tom Dooley," plucked from obscurity by a Utah deejay who remembered the tune from a live performance, that captured the public's attention. Reynolds, Guard, and Shane quickly hit the media spotlight and became regulars on dozens of variety programs and magazine covers. The tune would hit number one on the pop charts and number nine on what was then termed the "black" charts. It would also go on to sell more than 3,000,000 copies and earn the group their only gold disc for a single, although they would earn seven gold album awards by 1964.
Oddly, while the song was nominated for that year's Grammy Awards in the category of "Best Performance by a Vocal Group," it instead scored a trophy for "Best Country & Western Performance." The following year, the Academy got it right and the group won a second award for their album The Kingston Trio at Large in the category "Best Folk Performance."
In 1961, despite the group's success, Guard opted out of the trio, and his place was taken by another musician with a local connection: John Stewart. Born in San Diego on September 5, 1939, Stewart first emerged as a member of the Cumberland Three in 1958. He began rehearsing with the group in June 1961 and started to work in the studio with Reynolds and Shane. His first album as part of the trio, Close Up, was released on September 11, with his live debut five days later at a Boys Club Fundraiser in Santa Rosa as a warm up for a date at the Hollywood Bowl later that month. Stewart would go on to record with the Trio on such classics as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
The plug was pulled on the group's first era on June 16, 1967, with a final show at San Francisco's Hungry I nightclub before a star-studded audience. Interestingly, at a time when most acts' careers revolved around singles, the Kingston Trio was very much an album act.
After leaving the group in 1967, Stewart quickly landed on his feet, penning the song "Daydream Believer." Stewart went on to critical acclaim as a solo artist and, by the late 1970s, was playing electric-based rock with a band that included Nick Reynold's nephew, future Beat Farmer Joey Harris. In 1979 Stewart finally struck gold with the album Bombs Away Dream Babies, the title courtesy of Dave Guard and with Reynolds present at sessions. The key to the album's success likely boiled down to the involvement of Kingston Trio fan Lindsey Buckingham as well as Stevie Nicks, both then at the height of their fame in Fleetwood Mac. The Buckingham-Stewart connection would continue into the mid-1980s, with the pair collaborating on three more albums -- Blondes (1982), Revenge of the Budgie (1983), and The Last Campaign (1985). Nicks would later include "Gold" on her career retrospective, Enchanted, released in 1998.
The band was resurrected as the New Kingston Trio just over a year after its split in 1967, now with Bob Shane as the lone, original member, and setting in motion a long string of replacement players. They would revert back to the the Kingston Trio in 1976 following Shane's buyout of the name from his former partners. Although a reunion might have seemed unlikely, on November 7, 1981, PBS brought the original trio together for a TV show, The Kingston Trio and Friends Reunion. Broadcast in 1982, the program included each of the various incarnations of the group including Stewart. Sharp-eyed viewers should keep an eye out for Buckingham who played bass for the trio during the show. However, a bigger surprise lay ahead in 1987. Following the death of latter-day member Roger Gambill, Reynolds returned to the group, where he remained until semiretirement in 1999.
The Kingston Trio continues to tour and record, though now with none of the original members.
-- Written by Bart Mendoza for San Diego Troubadour, used with permission)
In 2008, John Stewart and Nick Reynolds passed away.
A Lifetime Achievement Grammy was awarded to the group in February 2011. A new book bio, Greenback Dollar: The Incredible Rise of the Kingston Trio by William J. Bush, was released in December 2012.