The folk revival between the late 1950s to the late 1960s owes its breath of life to The Kingston Trio and the young men who headed this band from Honolulu, Hawaii. Dave Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds are the three original members that officially kickstarted the recording career of The Kingston Trio in 1958, alongside their manager, Frank Werber. This group earned their first big break in June 1957 when comedienne Phyllis Diller was unable to appear at a popular club in California due to scheduling complications. When the audience first heard the Kingston Trio perform their music, which was a blend of pop-rock and folk music, it was met with rave reviews.
The popularity of the band soared, literally becoming the envy of many in the music industry, especially when Billboard Magazine awarded the Kingston Trio as Best New Singing Group in 1958.
Kingston Trio Influence
From 1957 until 1961, the Kingston Trio was at the top of the music industry chain. However, a rift began to develop in 1961 that pitted Guard on one side of an argument with Shane and Reynolds on the other. Animosity over what roles each band member actually played reached the boiling point that also revolved around creative differences and royalty rights. This led to Guard splitting from the group, which left the door open for John Stewart to join, taking his place.
By 1964, the popularity of Kingston Trio began to wane. By 1967, the Kingston Trio everybody knew, loved, and imitated was no more. Bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones made everyone forget the Kingston Trio. Rock music had changed significantly when the Beatles arrived in 1963. The British Invasion along with the sounds of groups like The Beach Boys, The Doors and so many other 60’s rock acts had turned the music world and pop culture along with it entirely upside down.
Top 10 Songs From The Kingston Trio
#10 – El Matador
We open up our Kingston Trio songs list with the cool cut”El Matador.” The song was released on the third studio recording entitled Sold Out, which was issued in 1960. Despite the single itself only charting at number forty on the US Billboard Hot 100, the album itself charted at number one and remained in the top forty for fifty-four weeks, . The bullfighting theme behind the song, done with a rich mix of the ukulele and vocals is one of the song;s special attributes.
#9 – Bad Man’s Blunder
The final top forty single on the US Billboard Hot 100 from the Kingston Trio featuring Dave Guard was “Bad Man’s Blunder,” which came from the 1960 String Along album. The radio-friendly version kept out the final words of the song, “Bang, you’re dead,” for commercial approval reasons, as was the title, which became Bad Man Blunder. The tale of a lawbreaker having to answer for his crime was melodically spun with a hint of humor.
#8 – Desert Pete
Released from the album, Sunny Side!, “Desert Pete” was the final top-forty single for the group, Kingston Trio. It was chosen by the Western Writers of America as one of the top hundred songs of all time in 2014. Both the song and album were released in 1963, a time when Glen Campbell was now part of the lineup, who performed the banjo specifically for Desert Pete.
#7 – Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
On November 14, 1961, the Kingston Trio, now with John Stewart instead of Dave Guard, recorded the single, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and it became a number twenty-one hit in 1962 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Taken from the Cossack-inspired folk song, then modernized in order to accompany the current political situation of the times, the Kingston Trio voiced their version of a political rally song. It, plus the album, College Concert, was the third live release for the group.
#6 – A Worried Man
In 1959, “A Worried Man” peaked at number twenty on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. While the single itself was not a chart-topper, it did contribute to the album, Here We Go Again! to chart at the number one US Billboard 200 Albums chart for eight solid weeks and became certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The Kingston Trio’s version has verses added to the 1930 original, which gave the otherwise traditional folk song an edgier flair to better appease the audience of their generation.
#5 – M.T.A.
On the US Billboard Hot 100, “M.T.A.” became a number fifteen hit in 1959. It owes its origins to the 1949 written original that was used for a mayoral campaign in Boston by Walter O’Brien. For the Kingston Trio, Guard starts off with a speech as the cello plays in the background. When officially breaking into a full song, the story revolves around a character named Charlie who boards a Massachusetts Transportation Authority’s (M.T.A.) subway car. There is so much Boston lore put into the song that it has influenced its mass transportation practices into nicknames and slogans revolving around M.T.A. and its named hero.
#4 – Reverend Mr. Black
In 1963, the Kingston Trio releases the single, “Reverend Mr. Black,” along with the album, The Kingston Trio #16. On the US Billboard Hot 100, the song reached number eight. John Stewart is credited for his stellar performance to perfectly mix originality with tradition that served as a true compliment to the talent of Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds. The song had enough rhythm, blues, and soul put into Reverend Mr. Black that it also appeared on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart at number fifteen.
#3 – Greenback Dollar
In 1962, John Stewart replaced Dave Guard as the Kingston Trio’s lead vocalist, allowing the band to move away from adaptive traditional songs into singer-songwriter cover material. “Greenback Dollar” served as a highlight to the cheerful album, New Frontier, which received critical acclaim for the celebration of youth and optimism.
#2 – The Tijuana Jail
In 1959, “The Tijuana Jail” peaked at number twelve on the US Billboard Hot 100. Its melodic performance was loosely based on the old prison song, Midnight Special, which has its printed origin dated as far back as 1905. Midnight Special has been covered many times over throughout the years. The Kingston Trio performs it as a group of young men who travel to Tijuana for a night on the town but run into complications with the lawmen of the land who throw them in prison. This song was recorded for The Kingston Trio At Large sessions.
#1 – Tom Dooley
In 1959, the Kingston Trio won their first Grammy Award, thanks to “Tom Dooley” earning the Best Country and Western Recording. Since its original release, there have been a number of redone recordings and remixes. The song was also recognized by the National Recording Registry as a seminal recording in the history of popular American music. This was originally a North Carolina folk song that was inspired by the 1866 murder of a pregnant woman named Laura Foster.
It wasn’t the murder itself that was the big story, but the complications revolving around it that included love triangles and other dramatical circumstances that make for perfect movie and songwriting material. The murder, trial, and conviction occurred at a time when a famous Dr. Tom Dooley was making headlines of his own for international humanitarian work. The popular performance of the song, Tom Dooley, saw it chart at number one not just on the US Billboard Hot 100, but worldwide as this was the case in Australia, Canada, Italy, and Norway.
Top 10 Kingston Trio Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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