The Limeliters - Biography
By J Poet
During the 60s folk boom, The Limeliters were second only to the Kingston Trio in popularity, and may have actually done more gigs than the Kingstons.
Their albums, mostly recorded live, relied on their finely honed performances, not studio trickery. Signed by Elektra Records two days after their professional debut at San Francisco’s hungry i club, their intellectual take on folk music immediately won them a large college following. Gottlieb had been a stand up comic, and was a musicologist and his in between song patter was always erudite and hilarious. Yarbrough had and has, one of the highest, purest tenor voices in folk/pop and Hassilev spoke and sang in many languages, giving the group an international panache. The Limeliters (1960 Elektra) got them signed to RCA where they turned out two or three albums a year until 1968. A one off folk rock record for Warner Time to Gather Seeds (1968 Warner) brought their classic period to a close. They never had a hit single, but their early albums routinely made it into the Top 10 thanks to their hectic touring schedule, often doing 350 dates a year. Yarbrough left for a successful solo career as a pop singer in 1965, and returned a decade later for a reunion gig that led to another five year run. He left for good in 1981, but the band continued on. Gottlieb died in 1996 and Hassilev retired in 2006, leaving the band to carry on with no original members.
Lou Gottlieb had a two-pronged show business career as a comedian and singer/bass player with San Francisco’s Gateway Singers. He left the group to work on his PhD in musicology at UC Berkeley. When the Kingston Trio hit, Gottlieb was able to place several of his arrangements of folks tune with the band. When he saw Glen Yarbrough and Alex Hassilev performing as a duo, he enlisted them to help demo up more tunes for the Trio. The unnamed group moved to Aspen, CO to arrange and began performing regularly at The Limelite, a club owned by Yarbrough and Hassilev. They returned to San Francisco two months later and were inked by Elektra Records two days after their professional debut at San Francisco’s hungry I, which may not be not as impressive as it sounds. Yarbrough was the roommate of Elektra CEO Jac Holzman in college and had already made a few albums for the label. Still, their debut, The Limeliters (1960 Elektra, 2002 Collectors Choice), included Mexican, Russian and Spanish Civil War songs as well as a few folk obscurities that later became hits and the first pop recording of “The Hammer Song” (“If I Had a Hammer.”)
RCA soon scooped them up and Tonight: In Person (1961 RCA), the first of their eight live albums, hit the charts and lodged at #5. It included Yiddish, French, Irish, and Russian tunes along with more conventional folk and pop material. For the next seven years The Limeliters were unstoppable turning out a string of best sellers including The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters (1961 RCA) hit the Top 10; Sing Out (1962 RCA) a rare studio album; Folk Matinee (1962 RCA) which included the one of the first recordings of Pete Seeger’s “To Everything There Is a Season (Turn Turn Turn)” and “Those Were the Days,” later a hit for Mary Hopkins; Through Children’s Eyes (1962 RCA, 1995 Folk Era) a live children’s concert and their all time best seller; Our Men in San Francisco (1963 RCA) recorded live at the hungry I; London Concert (1965 RCA) recorded in 1963 but not released until Yarbrough left for his solo career; Fourteen 14K Folk Songs (1963 RCA) an album of traditional folk songs cut in the studio and Makin’ a Joyful Noise (1963 RCA) their only religious album and quite a shock to fans of this highly secular group.
Glen Yarbrough quit at the end of 1963 to become a pop singer, scoring a top single and album with Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965 RCA, 1997 Folk Era). The group tried to soldier on, but their new lineup with Ernie Sheldon didn’t cut it with fans. They released More of Everything (1964 RCA) and The Limeliters Look at Love in Depth (1965 RCA) a misguided folk rock album, before calling it quits for a few years. In 1968 Yarbrough came back for Time to Gather Seeds (1968 Warner, 2007 Collectors Choice) another folk rock outing then left again until 1976 when the group started touring again, but more of a folk nostalgia act.