Friday, June 18, 2010

A Rollin' Stone: An Appreciation Of Bob Shane

All successful singing groups develop their identities from the vocal synergy that evolves among the members, and often the most memorable moments in the group's careers are moments of brilliant and stunning harmony. At the same time, though, most of the great vocal groups (including the pop folk groups) were anchored in the bedrock of the group's best voice. It's hard, for example, to imagine the Weavers without Pete Seeger at the top of the blend, even though both Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays had more trained voices (and great as Seeger's replacement Erik Darling was - just not the same). Glenn Yarborough gave the Limeliters their unique sound, and for my money Peter and Mary would have gone nowhere without the warm, round baritone and dynamics of (Noel) Paul Stookey.

In the Kingston Trio, the greatest of the pop folk groups, the best voice by common acknowledgment by the other performers, the critics, and the public at large, and the one that stood at the center of the group's sound for forty seven years, was that of Robert Castle Schoen, better known for half a century by his stage name of Bob Shane.

I have always believed that this group had no single indispensable member because all three of the originals were utterly necessary for the burst of success that put the KT into the music history books. You just couldn't remove any one component - Dave Guard's arrangements and patter, Nick Reynolds' harmonies and exuberance, Shane's vocal skills and stage presence - and have ended up with the phenomenon that started fifty three years ago. Lou Gottlieb of the Limes noted this as he watched them develop, and Dr. Lou recounted to historian Ronald Cohen decades later that the three had "something really was hard to describe it unless you heard and saw them."

Having said that, however, from the very beginnings of the group, it was clear the the voice at once most powerful and most refined belonged to Shane. An article in Time Magazine at the point of Guard's departure in '61 noted that of the original three, only Shane had the vocal chops to make it as a soloist. And Nick Reynolds, Shane's best friend for half a century, said in an interview a couple of years before his 2008 death that in retrospect he wished that the group had given even more vocal leads to Shane than they did.

In the post-Sanford Mesiner method acting era in performing arts, it has become customary to refer to a performer's physical attributes as his or her "instrument," and Shane's voice was precisely that - an instrument the use of which he honed and refined throughout his career. It has often been referred to as a "whiskey baritone," but I have never thought that quite accurate (possibly an unconscious reference to his most famous solo "Scotch and Soda"). But there was something more in that voice than drinks and smokes, and the best description I have seen of it comes from Time's Richard Corliss, who in a 2003 retrospective on pop folk referred to it as "dusky, knowing." That's it - dark shadings and the suggestion of having been around the block a few times.

Those qualities and Shane's excellent timbre were both on display from the start - his solo on the group's first album and almost everyone's favorite, the anonymous bar ballad "Scotch and Soda":

The combination of power and control and intuitive Sinatra-esque phrasing here makes this performance so exceptional that I believe that it obscures the middling quality of the song itself. Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter - those guys wrote really great bar songs. Shane's skills fool us into thinking that this song bears comparison to the work of those composers. It doesn't - but Shane's performance can stand shoulder to shoulder with any similar song that Sinatra ever waxed.

When you're talking about Shane as soloist, you have to start with "S&S", but for fifty years my favorite solo of his has been Stan Wilson's "A Rollin' Stone." Wilson, who was a local Bay area celebrity and night club star while the guys were still in college, helped to shape both the repertoire of the group and Shane's own approach to singing and song selection. (Jerry Kergan's "Liner Notes" has a lot more on Wilson HERE.) His "Stone" is classic:

The song is a lot closer to folk than some of the other selections here, and Wilson's jaunty, devil-may-care composition seemed ideally suited to the voice, talents, and jaunty, devil-may-care onstage attitude of Shane.

And speaking of genuine folk songs, Shane was an outstanding interpreter of these as well, as evidenced here in "Blow The Candle Out":

Though Shane has copyright for the lyrics, he freely acknowledged that he learned the song from Stan Wilson's performance of it. And in reference to the synergy described above - a good deal of the effect of this cut comes from Dave Guard's brilliant instrumental arrangement (with Reynolds supplying the guitar line) in support of Shane's vocal.

Shane co-wrote the lyrics (with his good friend Tom Drake) for "The White Snows of Winter," whose melody is based on a passage from Brahms' First Symphony. That knowing, smokey baritone never sounded better than it does on this Christmas-themed song:

Here in "Snows," Shane once again (as he so often did) strikes a perfect balance between an almost erotic longing and pure romanticism. Brilliant.

The next two selections are self-evident demonstrations of Shane's interpretive range, one a Broadway tune (see my article HERE to debunk certain myths about it) and one from off-Broadway's longest-running show in theater history:

I've chosen the 2009 Flashback 1963 album version of "Maria" over the original Hungry i recording (1958) because I think that the five year interval demonstrates brilliantly my contention that Bob continually refined and improved his technical and interpretive abilities. The versions of these songs presented here are arguably the two best ever recorded of these pop standards.

We close this retrospective with a song that for me was always special and is now especially poignant, Trio member John Stewart's lovely pop ballad from 1961, "When My Love Was Here":

Stewart wrote this when he was 21, and for my money this is absolutely the most mature and fully realized of all the songs that he wrote that were recorded by the Kingston Trio. Though Stewart seldom again ventured into pop balladry, "When My Love" is the one early composition of his that prefigures the prodigious songwriting talent that evolved during his forty year solo career - and he entrusted this gem to Bob Shane.

Occasionally during the two years and 90 posts of Weekend Videos/CompVid101 I've alluded to the fact that I think we who love folk type music are blessed to live at the same time as some truly sublime artists - I've mentioned Ian Tyson, Emmylou Harris, and Marty Robbins, among others. With these - and it goes without saying but hence needs even more to be said - Bob Shane stands at the head of the class. For more than fifty years he has entertained us, made us laugh, treated us as an audience with respect - and thrilled us with the marvelous use of that great, dusky, knowing voice. Blessed we are indeed.

Addendum - August, 2014

In the four plus years since this was posted, a significant number of other classic Shane solos have appeared on YouTube. Two  of the best, both essential to understanding Shane's brilliance as a performer, are below: the original studio track from 1962 of "Try To Remember" with brilliant but uncredited guitar work from John Stauber and one of Shane's earliest solos, Irving Burgie's lovely pop ballad "The Seine" from the 1959 album At Large.

"Try To Remember"

"The Seine"


burbankbuzz said...

Mostly agree, though I love Dave Guard's voice, as well. Always missed him, after he left. Have you written on Nick Woods of the New Christy Minstrels?

Jim Moran said...

I completely agree - I'm one of those fans who loved the KT throughout its long career - but for me it was never quite the same after Guard left, and it's the albums and songs on which he performs that remain my favorites.

Haven't done the NCM yet or Woods - but I'm drawing to and end of profiling songs done by the KT that have alternate versions, and I expect to keep the blog going with profiles of others like NCM, PP&M, Clancys, Chad Mitchell Trio, and more.

Thanks for stopping by!

淑慧 said...

I guess I will need a lot..................................................

Linkmeister said...

"I expect to keep the blog going with profiles of others like NCM, PP&M, Clancys, Chad Mitchell Trio, and more."

Woohoo! That's wonderful news! I'd miss the musicology if you stopped, Jim.