Gary James' Interview With Bob Shane of
The Kingston Trio
In the late 1950s, early 1960s, The Kingston Trio took the music world by storm. Their rendition of a folk song called "Tom Dooley" was an instant hit. And the hits kept coming - "It Takes A Worried Man", "The Reverend Mr. Black" and "Where Have All The Flowers Gone". The Kingston Trio have performed to over ten million people. They've never really stopped touring!
Bob Shane spoke with us about The Kingston Trio.
Q - Bob, you're performing on the road 30 weeks a year?
A - Same as it's always been.
Q - What kind of venues are you playing?
A - Same as it's always been. We play Fine Arts Centers, Las Vegas, conventions, private parties, almost any place they pay you.
Q - What was San Francisco's North Beach club scene like in 1957 when you started there?
A - It was a lot more relaxed than the world is now. It was sort of the Beatnik scene more than anything else, which progressed into Hippies and so forth. But, it was very easy going, very exciting time in San Francisco. There was really a lot of great entertainment going on.
Q - You probably worked pretty regularly then?
A - In the early scene, yeah. We went into the Purple Onion to take Phyllis Diller's place, who was sick. We went in there as an audition for a week and stayed for sixteen weeks. From there we went to the Holiday Hotel in Reno to gain a little humility. (laughs) We worked a half hour every other half hour from 12 midnight to six in the morning. That taught us a lot. (laughs)
Q - Like how to preserve your voice?
A - Well, like how to preserve yourself really, how to keep going through adverse conditions.
Q - I would bet that experience helped later when you went on the road.
A - Absolutely.
Q - Frank Werber...
A - He was our manager.
Q - He was a publicist, then he became your manager.
A - He was a publicist for the original Hungry I.
Q - He knew something about management then.
A - Absolutely.
Q - The first thing he arranged was for you to work with a vocal coach.
A - Right.
Q - What was wrong with your voice?
A - A vocal coach teaches you how to use the voice that you have and how to maintain it. It really teaches you how to use your voice to the maximum without killing it.
Q - You were the lead singer on "Tom Dooley"?
A - Yes.
Q - That song really spear-headed the whole Folk movement of the early 60s, didn't it?
A - Definitely.
Q - On a 'live' tape of The Kingston Trio, you introduce "Tom Dooley" by saying "Everybody sing out good and clear and we'll all be on The Andy Williams Show next year." Why Andy Williams?
A - Andy Williams was a much better show for singers as far as I was concerned than The Ed Sullivan Show was. We never worked The Ed Sullivan Show. That was for new talent. Andy Williams was for good, existing talent.
Q - I always thought Ed Sullivan presented all types of entertainment.
A - He was mostly new product. Mostly new entertainers. He got Elvis when he was first coming out and The Beatles when they were first coming out. He got the early stuff. That was his bag. That was the same thing as the Hungry I and The Purple Onion. They would get new entertainers that were new on the scene. It's how we happen to get paired off with when we were peaking for instance, with opening acts like Bill Cosby, Barbra Streisand, Bob Newhart, Henry Mancini, Peggy Lee, The Beatles, you name it. They were all people who opened shows for us when we were peaking.
Q - Where did The Beatles open for you?
A - They opened a show for us at Royal Festival Hall in England in 1962.
Q - How many people did that hall hold?
A - About 4,000.
Q - Did you realize at the time that The Beatles were the future of Pop music?
A - We went back to Capitol Records and told them about this great group we heard in England, not realizing that Capitol Records is owned by an English corporation. They dropped our contract the next year for The Beatles! So, the moral of the story is, if you hear something good, shut up!
Q - Or, start you own record company.
A - Yeah. (laughs)
Q - How were you received in the Holiday Hotel in Reno?
A - It was very strange because we were playing in a lounge that was off a casino and if you played too loud, they told you to shut up. If you played too quiet, they told you to play louder.
Q - You say "I'm not a Folk singer. I'm a folks singer." What's the difference?
A - Well, I'll give you the whole bit that I give on stage and it's true: We started this group as a Calypso group. We got the name Kingston from Kingston, Jamaica, a place to which not a one of us has been to this day.
Q - Gotta do something about that Bob!
A - Who the hell wants to go to Kingston? I'm from Hawaii. You got better coffee there and better pot. So, what the hell, you know? (laughs) No, it never interested me what-so-ever. But, we started off playing Calypso and that lasted for about three months and then we went over to what you call Folk-oriented material. We never called ourselves Folk singers. We called ourselves entertainers who picked different kinds of music that we liked with the instrumentation that we had. In those days they had to sell you in some bag. So, when the "Tom Dooley" song came off the first album which had Calypso music, Folk oriented music, a couple of sea chants, an off Broadway show tune and a Blues number, they picked that number "Tom Dooley" off the album and started plugging it. It became a single. The single sold several million records in two weeks. A guy from Capitol Records came to us and gave us a big bonus check for "Tom Dooley" and said "Here, you're Folk singers." And as a unit we said "You bet your ass we are! You're gonna pay us good money, we'll be anything you want." So, that's how we got to be Folk singers. Now, the first year of the Grammys was 1958 and they wanted to give us a Grammy for "Tom Dooley". They did not have a Folk singing category the first year, so they gave The Kingston Trio the very first Grammy ever given for Best Country And Western Performance Of The Year. The Country people ignored this completely. It saved Country music. Country music was dead at the time. The acceptance of The Kingston Trio's song "Tom Dooley" pulled Country music back up to where it is again. And not one person in Country music, except Minnie Pearl ever acknowledged the fact that it helped them.
Q - What a strange story that is!
A - Isn't it strange? We don't cry about something like that. It's very amusing to me. I've got this Grammy sitting on my desk that says Best Country And Western Performance Of The Year 1958 and the Country people have never given us credit for that. The only person who ever did in Country music was Minnie Pearl and she said "Thank God for the acceptance of that song. You saved Country music." So, we used to have a t-shirt made up in the old days that said "The Hawaiian Calypso Folk Group Who Saved Country Music". (laughs)
Q - There used to be a TV show on every Saturday night called Hootnanny.
A - Yeah. We never played it.
Q - That show was around for what, two or three years?
A - There's an interesting story about that too. In the beginning when the Hootnanny show came out, all the people got together and blacklisted the show because we said they wouldn't hire The Weavers because of the House on Un-American stuff. The Weavers influenced nearly all of us as far as the singing of that music in the beginning. They wouldn't hire The Weavers on that show, so everybody got together and said "let's not do it." I'm talking about us, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and all of those people. We said we wouldn't do it. The Kingston Trio was the only one who didn't do it. Everybody else did.
Q - After that show had run its course, we didn't hear too much about Folk music.
A - No. It was The Beatles back then.
Q - Folk music really didn't make any kind of a comeback if you will until the early 70s when people like James Taylor, Jim Croce and John Denver happened along.
A - John Denver was around already from about 1965, 1966 and so was James Taylor. But, what happened is, it went from Folk to Folk - Rock to Rock. An example of a typical Folk-Rock group would be The Association. These were guys that had all been involved in Folk music to start with and The Byrds and had all started to go over to Rock.
Q - Did you ever think The Kingston Trio would be around all these years later?
A - Oh, yeah. I'm the one that kept it going.
Q - I don't believe the idea of being in a group as a career was thought of back then, was it?
A - Yeah it was, if you could find a way to sustain it. What sustained us was that we were good, professional entertainers. We have an entertainment act we do. And we have 400 songs we cut between 1957 and 1967 and another 50 after that, that we could use for any part of our repertoire. And, we use only our old material so that everything we do, people have heard before. We're an act. We entertain people. We tell stories. We tell jokes. We involve people in what we do.
Q - And you were the first guy to do an Elvis impersonation act?
A - I was the first Elvis impersonator in the world. Back in 1956 I was billed as "Hawaii's Elvis Presley."
Q - Did Elvis ever catch your act?
A - No, but I ran into him back in the mid-1960s and told him that's how I got my start and he said "Why would you want to do that for?" (laughs)