John Stewart - Biography
By J Poet
John Stewart, dubbed a “folk patriarch” by the LA Times, was a first class singer and songwriter, one of the major artists of folk’s first generation. He first gained attention as member of the Cumberland Three. Their two 'Songs of The Civil War' albums - Songs of The Civil War: Yankees (1960 Roulette), Songs of The Civil War: Rebels (1960 Roulette) (later reissued as Songs of The Civil War [1991 Rhino]) – were instant classics. His composition “Molly Dee” was a hit for the Kingston Trio in 1959. When Dave Guard left the Kingstons, Stewart was his replacement and his fine songwriting added an extra dimension to the 12 Trio albums he played on. When the trio broke up Stewart had a successful solo career, cutting California Bloodlines (1969 Capital, 1994 Bear Family), considered by many to be the first Americana album. His songs were covered by dozens of artists, most successfully by The Monkees who had a #1 hit with his “Daydream Believer.” In 1979 his album Bombs Away Dream Babies (Polygram/RSO) spawned a Top 10 hit “Gold” thanks to the backing vocals of his friends Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks who were still riding the success of Rumours (1977 Warners).
Stewart never had another hit, but stayed active touring and recording until his death of a stroke in January of 2008.
Stewart was born in 1939 in San Diego and grew up in Pomona and Pasadena. He played guitar from an early age and cut a rock’n’roll single with his first band, Johnny Stewart and The Furies, in the late 50s. Shortly thereafter he discovered folk music and the banjo. He put together The Cumberland Three with friends John Montgomery and Gil Robbins (father to be of Tim Robbins) in high school and cut The Folk Scene (1959 Roulette) which included “Molly Dee.” He pitched that song to The Kingson Trio who cut it on their Here We Go Again (1959 Capital) album. When Dave Guard left the Kingstons, Stewart stepped in and cut 12 albums with them before embarking on a solo career. He almost formed a duo with John Denver and the demos they cut before deciding on solo careers included “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Daydream Believer.” Stewart instead started singing with his future wife, Buffy Ford, and cut Signals Through the Glass (1968 Capital) which included one of his signature tunes “July, You’re a Woman” which also appeared on his next album California Bloodlines (1969 Capital, 1994 Bear Family).
Stewart’s albums weren’t massive hits, but they were marked by his trademark blend of folk, country and pop, delivered in his rough, quavering, emotion packed voice. Willard (1970 Capital, 1994 Bear Family), The Lonesome Picker Rides Again (1972 Warners, 1996 Bear Family), Sunstorm (1972 Warners, 1995 Bear Family), Cannons in the Rain (1973 RCA, 1994 Bear Family), and Wingless Angels (1975 RCA, 1994 Bear Family) are all solid, packed with strong melodies and Stewart’s plainspoken poetry.
In 1979 Stewart reconnected with his pals Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks who helped out on his Bombs Away Dream Babies (1979 Polygram/RSO) album and Top 10 hit “Gold.” It was his most pop album and he followed up with Dream Babies Go Hollywood (1980 Polygram/RSO), an uncommonly good, smart pop record that touched on power pop and dark balladry. He toured as an opening act for Stevie Nicks, but Go Hollywood never took off.
In 1984 Stewart was back on the folk circuit. He started his own label Homecoming Records and made a batch of cassettes that he sold at gigs and a few proper albums including Centennial (1984 Homecoming), The Gathering (1984 Homecoming), Trancas (1984 Homecoming) and The Last Campaign (1985 Homecoming). Punch the Big Guy (1987 A&M, 2005 Shanachie) should have been a hit, a collection as stunning in its way as Bloodlines. It featured Rosanne Cash on backing vocals. She later had a #1 Country hit with “Runaway Train” one of the album’s best songs.
Stewart recorded lass in the 90s and the early part of the 21st Century. His wife Buffy Ford developed a brain tumor and he seemed to be fighting Alzheimer’s himself, although it is later thought that he was having mini-strokes that affected his memory. In 2000 he founded The Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp with former Trio partner Nick Reynolds, a performing and songwriting workshop that gave fans a chance to sit in with their heroes. His later albums include Bullets in the Hour Glass (1992 Shanachie), Rough Sketches from Route 66 (1997 Folk Era), John Stewart and Darwin’s Army (1999 Appleseed), Havana (2003 Appleseed) another classic collection, and The Day The River Sang (2006 Appleseed). Stewart was working on a new folk rock album when he died in 2008.