Peter, Paul And Mary - Biography
By J Poet
The most popular and commercially successful folk group of the 1960s, Peter, Paul & Mary have won eight gold records, five platinum records and five Grammys in their 50 years of performing. After conquering the New York City folk scene they signed with Warner Brothers Records in 1961. Peter, Paul & Mary (1962 Warner) hit #1 on the pop charts and stayed in the Top 200 for years. The album won two Grammys – Best Folk Recording and Best Performance by a Vocal Group for “If I Had a Hammer.” Their third single, “Blowin' in the Wind”, went Gold in two weeks and their In The Wind album (their third in just two years) also hit #1 on the pop charts. They were one of the few folk acts to survive the chart blitz of the British Invasion and were known for their anti-war and Civil Rights activities. On Album 1700 (1967 Warner) they dabbled with folk rock and hit with “I Dig Rock’n’Roll Music.” They broke up for a few years in 1970, but reformed in 78, and continue to work together to this day. Their good taste, fine harmonies and dedication to worthy causes have never faltered. Like Pete Seeger, they’re the living embodiment of the folk tradition, always using their music to lift people up and confront the economic and political forces that try to keep the common folk down. They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999. They received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from The Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006.
Mary Travers was born in Louisville, KY. Both parents were newspaper writers, but in the late ‘30s, Mary’s father felt war was imminent and moved the family to New York City so he could join the Merchant Marine. Travers grew up in Greenwich Village in the 40s and 50s. A reluctant singer, Travers joined her high school chorus, a group directed by Bob DeCormier. DeCormier knew Pete Seeger. When Seeger recorded “Talking Union” for Folkways records, he hired the high school chorus as back up singers. Travers’ recording debut was at age 14, singing on a Pete Seeger album.
A few blocks from the Travers apartment, Peter Yarrow was growing up with his sister and mom, a single mother long before the term was current. Yarrow’s home was filled with music, classical and folk. After seeing an Isaac Stern concert, he took up violin, but soon switched to guitar. Yarrow was an art student, went to the National Music Camp at Interlochen and fell in love with the blues after seeing Josh White perform, but wound up studying physics and experimental psychology at Cornell. A folklore class with Dr. Harold Thompson changed his life. His guitar skills and knowledge of folk music made him the “star” of the class, and made him decide on a career in music. After graduation Yarrow started doing open mikes and landed a job on Folksound USA, the first national folk TV show. Albert Grossman (later Dylan’s manager) had seen Yarrow sing in the Village and asked him if he’d consider singing with a small group. He eventually connected Yarrow with Stookey and Travers.
Noel Paul Stookey was the only group member who grew up wanting to be in show business. He was in an R&B band in High school and an instrumental group called The Corsairs at Michigan State University. His between song patter got more applause than his musicianship, so in 1961 he came to New York to be a comedian. After seeing a classical guitar concert, he traded in his electric axe for an acoustic guitar. Travers lived in an apartment across the street from the Gaslight Café and ran into Stookey after a gig one evening. They started doing duets to highlight Stookey’s solo sets.
Albert Grossman was Stookey if he’d like to join a trio he was forming, not knowing Travers had already signed on. Travers invited him to a rehearsal with Yarrow and herself and the first time the trio harmonized they knew it was going to work. They rehearsed for nine month’s in Mary’s apartment and before they even appeared in public Grossman got them a contract with Warner Brothers Records, then a new company with only two other acts, Bob Newhart and The Everly Brothers. The trio had been singing together for slightly more than a year when they made Peter, Paul & Mary (1962 Warner) It hit #1 and went on to sell two million copies. In The Wind (1963 Warner) and Moving (1963 Warner) with “Puff The Magic Dragon” also topped the charts and earned Gold Records; In The Wind also won two more Grammys – Best Folk Album and Best Vocal Group Performance for the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” Within two years they were singing for JFK at the White House and true to their progressive political ideals, well on their way to becoming the “house band” for the Civil Rights Movement. Their renditions of “If I Had A Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the March on Washington are part of the National memory. PP&M also took part in the March on Selma, when the hostility and violence hung in the air like poison gas.
PP&M’s success as interpreters of the songs of a new generation of folk based writers and their political activism, tends to obscure another element of the group. Yarrow and Stookey both write songs, each contributing at least one standard to the American song bag, Yarrow’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and Stookey’s “Wedding Song.” The group’s winning streak continued with A Song Will Rise (1965 Warner), See What Tomorrow Brings (1965 Warner), The Peter, Paul & Mary Album (1966 Warner), Album 1700 (1967 Warner), Late Again (1968 Warner) and their first children’s record Peter, Paul and Mommy (1969 Warner) Grammy, Best Children’s album.
As the ‘60s drew to a close, PP&M were approaching crises mode. They’d taken folk music to the pop charts, had gold albums and singles, performed thousands of concerts, been tireless in their support of social change and Yarrow and Stookey were finally getting some recognition as songwriters, but the strain of almost 200 gigs a year, every year and the time it took away from their family life was taking its toll. They took a break.
In the early 70s, Travers, Yarrow and Stookey all released solo albums and worked on other creative projects. Travers continued touring and made five solo albums, Mary (1971 Warner), Morning Glory (1972 Warner), All My Choices (1973 Warner), Circles (1974 Warner) and It’s In Every One of Us (198 Chrysalis). Yarrow remained politically active and helped found the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, a yearly event that continues to introduce and promote up and coming folk and Americana songwriters.
In 1978, Survival Sunday, an Anti-Nuclear benefit set to take place at the Hollywood Bowl, contacted Peter and he reassembled the group for a one off concert that went so well that the group reformed. They’ve been going strong ever since, albeit as a somewhat slower pace. The albums of PP&M part two include No Easy Walk to Freedom (1988 Gold Castle), Flowers and Stones (1992 Warner), LifeLines (1995 Warner), a hootenanny with Richie Havens, Holly Near, Dave Van Ronk and other old buddies, Such Is Love (1998 Warner), a live set with a folk rock band in tow, and In These Times (2003 Warner).
To celebrate their 45th year in 2003, PBS produced a DVD Peter, Paul & Mary – Carry It On, A Musical Legacy that’s often shown on PBS stations during pledge drives and a four CD one DVD set Carry It On (2003 Rhino.)
Peter Yarrow founded Operation Respect in 2000, a program that teaches students, parents, teachers and administrators how to deal with bullying around issues of race, sexuality and cultural differences. The program is presented free of charge to any school that requests it. In 2005 Mary Travers was diagnosed with leukemia: she underwent a bone marrow transplant in 2006. The group resumed a limited concert schedule in late 2006.