The Kingston Trio - Biography
By J Poet
The Kingston Trio took off the same year Elvis took over, 1956. The Trio – Dave Guard banjo, guitar, vocals; Bob Shane, guitar vocals; Nick Reynolds guitar, voice, percussion - didn’t release their eponymous debut until 1958, (The Kingston Trio, Capital) but they were already creating a buzz in San Francisco clubs in ’56. They remain the biggest selling folk act in history and in their ascent they laid the groundwork for the folk revival, the rise of the singer/songwriter, folk rock and AOR radio. They were the first act to sell more albums than singles.
In the early days, part of the Kingston Trio’s appeal was its clean-cut image, but in a 2005 interview Bob 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. I met Nick at Menlo College in California. I sang with Dave 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 turned 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 created the folk boom.
“People thought the folkies were our enemies, but I used to go out with Mary Travers before she joined Peter, Paul and Mary and we were good friends with everybody. We always told people we weren’t folk singers, but singers of folk oriented material. 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.”
The Trio got signed to Capital Records, had 14 albums that went Top Ten, five of them hit #1. They’re almost all available as twofers from Collector’s Choice. (Original release in parenthesis) With Dave Guard they cut The Kingston Trio (1958)/from the Hungry i (1959) (Collector’s Choice 2001), At Large (1959)/Here We Go Again (1959) (Collector’s Choice 2001), Sold Out (1960)/String Along (1960) (Collector’s Choice 2001), Make Way (1961)/Goin’ Places (1961) (Collector’s Choice 2001), Last Month of the Year (1960) (Collector’s Choice 2001). Gold albums include The Kingston Trio, from the Hungry I, At Large, Here We Go Again, String Along and Sold Out. The Trio often cut three albums a year and pioneered the technique of double voicing – recording the harmony parts twice. In ‘59 they won the folk music Grammy for Kingston Trio At Large.
Dave Guard quit the Trio to start The Whiskeyhill Singers with folk diva Judy Henske in 1961. 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. The albums with Stewart didn’t do as well as those with Guard, but times had changed. They did continue to sell out concerts and remained a popular live act. Albums with Stewart, also available as twofers include Close Up (1961)/College Concert (1962) (Collector’s Choice 2000), Something Special (1962)/Back in Town (1964) (Collector’s Choice 2000), #16 (1963)/Sunnyside (1963) (Collector’s Choice 2000) and New Frontier (1963) /Time to Think (1963) (Collector’s Choice 2000).
In 1964 Capitol dropped the Trio to concentrate on The Beatles, but before anyone noticed how the business was changing, the Trio signed with Decca and got a 750,000 dollar advance, the biggest deal up to that point. The Trio made solid albums for Decca such as Something Else (1965) and Children of the Morning (1966) but their chart dominance was over.
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. In 1973 Bob Shane, the only original member, hired Roger Gambill and Bill Zorn and went out as The New Kingston Trio. In 1973 Shane bought the rights to use The Kingston Trio name from Nick Reynolds and Frank Weber, their old manager.
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 the road as The Kingston Trio with various musicians including Gambill, Zorn, George Grove, Rick Dougherty and Bob Haworth. Nick Reynolds came out of retirement for a few years in the late ‘90s, leaving again in 1998. After a heart attack in 2004, Shane left the Trio, although they soldier on with a line up of Bill Zorn, George Grove and Rick Dougherty.
Shane also stayed peripherally involved in the yearly Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ. “Nick and John started it in the late 90s. They have 21 people come in, and then they work up a bunch of trios that have a chance to sing with Nick and John on stage. Most of the guys who come are 55 to 65 years old, and since it’s close to my house, I go over and hang out with them.” With the death of John Stewart in 2008, Trio Fantasy Camp may come to an end.
There are dozens of Trio compilations and boxed sets, and the various Trios Shane fronted over the years recorded sporadically, but the classic Capital albums of the Guard and Stewart years make up their most important body of work.