Friday, April 30, 2010

"Good News, Chariot's A-Comin' "

Last week's post about Bob Gibson reminded me of another fascinating but largely forgotten character from the folk revival era, Dr. Lou Gottlieb (left, on bass) - musicologist, comedian, scholar, hippie, bon vivant, eclectic genius, and the the heart of the pop folk group The Limeliters, of whom Time Magazine wrote, "“If the Kingston Trio are the undergraduates of big-time folk singing, the Limeliters are the faculty.”

Gottlieb was clearly a unique figure in a whole variety of ways. He was the only person I know of in the entire folk movement who had a doctorate in musicology. He was a founding member of the Gateway Singers, a group that he and his friend (and ours) the late Travis Edmonson proudly proclaimed was the first integrated vocal group in the U.S. He was a comedian turned folksinger a decade before Noel Paul Stookey did the same as a member of Peter, Paul and Mary. And Dr. Lou was the first external vocal arranger employed by a young and unknown at the time Bay Area act that would become the Kingston Trio.

Gottlieb worked the North Beach night clubs in San Francisco in the early and mid 1950s already a grown man - he was born in 1923 - and combined his own cutting edge comedy (he was said to be an influence on Mort Sahl, who is happily still with us) with outstanding musicianship on piano, clarinet, and upright bass, all of which he used to comedic effect. He was paying his way through grad school at UC Berkeley and in fact left the Gateway Singers to finish the doctoral degree in 1958. What happened next that year Gottlieb described to Ronald Cohen for his wonderful folk history, Rainbow Quest:

I had a wife and children and no money so I started working as a stand up comic and got a job at the Purple Onion. There were three guys there who used to hang around the Hungry i all the time. In fact, they'd be in the dressing room half the time. But they were cute....They were the opening act at the Purple Onion...Well, sir, these kids really had something different. There was a magic about that act that was hard to explain. When they made their first record...they needed a tune. I had a couple of old charts from the Gateway Singers that I quickly re-scored for three voices. They sang a song I stole from Uncle Dave Macon called "Rock About My Saro Jane" and put it on their first album. And they let me publish it. The royalties ultimately came out to thirty grand.

[Note: that comes out to about $200 Gs in today's dollars and meant at songwriter's rates that the album sold about half a million copies]

Lou also did some uncredited arrangements for the Kingston group but earned full copyright for two spirituals, "Round About The Mountain" and "Good News" from the Trio's third real album, At Large. You can hear the touch of a real pro in that latter arrangement, where Gottlieb creates simple but tasteful harmonies, rhythms, and a slight key change that are well within the limited musicianship of the still-young Trio:



Note that once again, producer Voyle Gilmore is working his studio magic with the able assistance of engineer Pete Abbott and remixing engineer Rex Uptegraft (thanks to PC Fields for pointing that out). David Wheat's bass is given a prominence in the mix that reflects the "swing" that Gilmore liked so much and that emphasized the professionalism of the most accomplished musician in the quartet that's playing here.

Lou Gottlieb's good friend Bob Gibson was, like Lou, a pop folk artist who had a successful if modest career before the Kingston wave raised all the folk boats. Gibson's role model early on was clearly Pete Seeger, from Gibson's use of the extra long neck banjo to the fact that on early albums that was Bob's only accompaniment (see his Carnegie Concert - no guitar or bass) to Gibson's success at lining out songs and getting audiences to sing along - just like Seeger. Here Bob does "Good News" on TV's Hootenanny with the exact sing-along arrangement he used on the 1957 Carnegie album:



That's legendary banjo player Eric Weissberg behind Bob with the mandolin, with the Gateway's second generation Elmerlee Thomas on the other side.

The next two versions of today's song are from gospel groups. The King's Heralds are a kind of corporate endeavor, having been founded in 1927 and continuing today. A total of thirty singers have graced the group using the same original arrangements over the eighty plus years of the group's history:



The Heralds have Gibson's verve and just a bit of that Gottlieb key shift (which I'm betting Lou got from these guys).

More in the tradition of the African-American roots of the song, The Raymond Raspberry Singers rock out a classic gospel version - from the early '50s,I believe:



A choral version next from the Jubilate! Chamber Choir from the University of British Columbia - nice creative rhythm shifts here:



And who better to close with this week than arguably the greatest spiritual singer of them all, Mahalia Jackson:



As with many good and real folk songs, "Good News" lends itself to a wide variety of very effective interpretations.

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