October 4, 2008
By Spencer Leigh
Musician whose work with the Kingston Trio paved the way for Bob Dylan
During the purge of Communists led by Senator Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s, folk music was seen as subversive and anti-American and the leading group, the Weavers, was blacklisted. As a result, the music lost its popularity and it wasn't until the Kingston Trio recorded the million-selling "Tom Dooley" in 1958 that folk music was again heard on the airwaves. The Kingston Trio, initially comprising Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds, steered clear of controversial material, but their many hit singles and big-selling albums paved the way for more radical performers, notably Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs.
Nick Reynolds was born, the son of a naval officer, in San Diego in 1933 and raised in Coronado, also in California. His father encouraged his children to sing and from a young age Nick was singing lead and learning how to harmonise. He planned to be a hotelier and met Bob Shane while studying for a business degree at Menlo College, Palo Alto, who in turn introduced him to Dave Guard, a student at nearby Stanford University.
They performed at a coffee shop in Palo Alto, and were spotted by a budding impresario, Frank Werber, who booked them into the Purple Onion, a small but highly influential club in San Francisco. They called themselves the Kingston Trio, a nod to the popularity of West Indian calypsos, and they proved to have a natural rapport, knowing exactly what to say to audiences and to each other.
Under Werber's guidance, the Trio was signed to Capitol Records and they scored immediately with a 19th-century ballad about a man hanged for killing his wife, "Tom Dooley". It reached the US Top 10; in the UK it shared its sales with a rival version from Lonnie Donegan, with both versions making the top five. The single won a Grammy for the Best Country and Western Recording, there being no category for folk music.
The Kingston Trio's stage wear of striped, short-sleeve shirts looks quaint today, but their style was copied by the Beach Boys. They recorded prolifically, sometimes as many as four albums in a year, and The Kingston Trio At Large (1959) was a Grammy winner and a No 1 album for 15 weeks. Between 1958 and 1960 they had five No 1 albums, topping the US album charts for a total of 46 weeks.
By singing songs made popular by the Weavers, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie including "A Worried Man", "Midnight Special", "Hard Travellin'" and the song that later became known as "Sloop John B", the Kingston Trio had a similar repertoire to British skiffle groups, but were more clean-cut and had superior instrumentation.
Looking at their repertoire now, it is apparent that the Kingston Trio was far more adventurous than is generally supposed. They introduced "It Was A Very Good Year" in 1961, later a standard for Frank Sinatra, and they were one of the first to spot the potential of English language versions of Jacques Brel's songs by recording "Seasons in the Sun" in 1963. They encouraged young songwriters including Hoyt Axton ("Greenback Dollar"), Rod McKuen ("Ally Ally Oxen Free", "The World I Used to Know") and Billy Edd Wheeler ("Reverend Mr Black"). Best of all, in 1962 they introduced listeners to one of the most poignant songs ever written, the anti- war ballad "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" by Pete Seeger, formerly with the Weavers.
The Kingston Trio sang the comic novelty "MTA" (1959), about a passenger who was stuck on the Boston railway without his ticket, although the song was based on a satire on the city's mayoral race in 1948. Reynolds sang the verses and he added percussion to many of their recordings.
When Guard left in 1961, Shane and Reynolds recruited John Stewart. They came to the UK in 1963, and when they saw the Beatles at the London Palladium, realised that it would soon be over for them. In addition, Bob Dylan was, unintentionally, making them seem old-fashioned. They continued recording but even a second live album from the hungry i club in San Francisco, Back in Town (1964), failed to impress and each new release was subject to diminishing returns.
The Kingston Trio disbanded in 1967 and Reynolds worked with racing cars and then as a rancher and antiques dealer. His love for music never left him and he and John Stewart worked with Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac on a suite of songs, Revenge of the Budgie, in 1983. Being a seven-track album, it was difficult to market and was soon forgotten.
During the 1990s, Reynolds reunited with Shane in the Kingston Trio and, as an indication of folk music's accessibility, he and John Stewart set up the Trio Fantasy Camp in Arizona where guests could take it in turns to be the third member.
Nicholas Wells Reynolds, singer and guitarist: born San Diego, California 27 July 1933; three times married (two sons, two daughters); died San Diego 1 October 2008.
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