Friday, June 10, 2011

Remembering Nick Reynolds - "Everybody Sings!"

I hope soon to be back to posting regularly and about individual songs - I actually thought to do "Greenland Whale Fisheries" this week because it's maybe my all-time favorite folk song.

But first - a circle needed to be closed here. On the last two anniversaries of John Stewart's death, I've posted memorial articles about him and "July, You're A Woman" and "Chilly Winds", in addition to having created a page in honor of his memory. Last June, I profiled Bob Shane's solo performances, and six months later in December tried to express some of the essence of the genius of Dave Guard.

It only remained to say something about Nick Reynolds, the third member of the original group.

And there is quite a bit to be said, because Nick Reynolds was the heart and soul of the seminal pop folk group The Kingston Trio.

With his college buddies Dave Guard (1934-1991) and Bob Shane (b. 1934), Reynolds and the Trio transformed American popular music, bringing traditional folk songs, sea chanteys, calypsos, world music, and more to an unprecedented level of popularity and visibility, selling more records between 1958 and 1961 than any other American musical act except Elvis Presley and outselling their (today) more respected predecessors, The Weavers, by a factor of five. The group's commercial success, widely belittled by folk purists at the time, paved the way for recording companies to sign and promote traditional musicians, singer-songwriters, topical/political musicians, and international performers - all because of the astounding album sales of the Kingston Trio between 1958 and 1961, more than $175 million in today's dollars.

The core of the Trio's sound was the soaring tenor harmony of Reynolds, and the breakneck energy of many of the group's signature numbers was derived from Nick's supersonic tenor guitar strumming and his masterful percussion accompaniment on bongos, conga, and boom-bams. The late singer/songwriter John Stewart, himself a Trio member for six years following Guard's departure, said that "Nick Reynolds was the real rhythm of the Kingston Trio." And Trio-mate and best friend Bob Shane wrote after Nick's passing, "Nobody could nail a harmony part like Nick. He could hit it immediately, exactly where it needed to be, absolutely note perfect, all on the natch. Pure genius."

Nick was easily the most accessible of the original group members - this despite the fact that for the predictably short period of his international celebrity he was probably the most easily identifiable of the KT, standing as he did nearly seven inches shorter than Guard and six than Shane. There is a section of the video below of "A Worried Man" where you can see Reynolds swarmed for an autograph and jostled by a group of Japanese school girls - he takes the buffeting with a wry smile and just keeps on signing. When I was a teenager in the group's heyday in the '60s, I was granted a short post-concert interview with the Trio for my local newspaper. Shane and Stewart were friendly and cooperative, but it was Reynolds who gave me a story to write, staying with me a quarter of an hour longer than the others and making sure that I had the kind of exclusive tidbits that every reporter of any age prizes. I met him again in 2003 at the Trio's fantasy camp in Arizona - and in each of the four subsequent camps he'd greet me with a "Hiya Jim! How've you been?" with no need for me to remind him of my name - and he did so with literally everyone of the several hundred people who came annually to the event.

Reynolds was nearly always self-deprecating about himself (he was a genuinely outstanding athlete, lithe and muscular til his death at 75 in 2008) and his career, referring to the historic success of the group as "just something we did when we were kids" or "we started doing it for the beer and the chicks and it got all out of hand for a while." On two occasions, however, he let slip comments that might have been nearer to his reaction in the '50s to the excoriating criticism that the group's free-handed but very lucrative adaptations of folk songs excited. In 2004, Nick was talking about his friendship with the late Irish folk star Paddy Clancy and his widow Mary when he interpolated, “People criticized us for not doing enough protest songs. What the heck did they know? You want to hear a protest song? Listen to the Clancy Brothers sing ‘Roddy McCorley!’" Even more so - in 2003, John Stewart and Reynolds duetted on "Sloop John B" in a rough, unrehearsed version . Even before the thunderous applause had subsided, Nick had grabbed the vocal mic and with an asperity in his voice that I found arresting said, "When we were first starting out, there were a lot of people calling us 'phony folksingers' and such. One man who stood up for us - one of the really righteous men - was the poet Carl Sandburg, who collected that song. He sent us all a really nice letter with autographed copies of his works The Lincoln Years. We never forgot that." There was a passion of wronged and wounded pride there, forty years after the event. It seemed like it was rather more than just beer and chicks for Reynolds - it was a good part of his life's work, something of which he was justifiably proud. A word more on that at the end of this article.

It was Reynolds' innate gregariousness and good humor that acted as the balancing point between the combustible temperaments of Guard and Shane, and when the former left the group, it was Reynolds who mentored the somewhat reticent and awkward 21-year-old John Stewart to the point that Stewart eventually became the primary arranger and onstage personality for the act - something that Stewart never forgot and never forgot to acknowledge until the day of his own death a few months before Reynolds. (In fact, San Francisco Bay-area resident Stewart was in San Diego visiting Reynolds at the latter's home when he collapsed from the stroke that took his life - after listening to several hours of KT recordings and reminiscing with Reynolds.)

What is often lost in remembering Reynolds as a person, however, is an appreciation of just how fine a performer he was, and the videos below give some indication of this. He had the most flexible voice in the group, having been a medium baritone with enough clarity and range to be able to sing most of the group's tenor harmonies. Reynolds was also a singularly expressive vocalist, as the first four of today's videos attest:

Hobo's Lullaby

The Mountains of Mourne

One More Town

The Wanderer

The perhaps more familiar high-energy Reynolds performances are typified in the next four clips:


A Worried Man

"Badman's Blunder"

"New York Girls"

And yet - there were plenty of fine vocalists in the pop folk era, as good as or better than Reynolds - the trained voices of the Chad Mitchell Trio members or Glenn Yarbrough's crystalline and honey-sweet tenor come to mind - and other groups that could play at least in the same ballpark as the Kingstons' high-energy performances. No, there was something more to the group and to Reynolds' contribution to it than syncopation and energy and good singing. What that was has been expressed perhaps most eloquently by Nick's son Josh, in the liner notes for the remarkable 2009 CD of a 1963 KT show called Flashback. Josh wrote:

"You hear the guitars and banjo kick in on 'Little Light,' that first upbeat sing-along song that gets everyone going. Rousing openers like that were a signature template to the Trio's live performances.

Then you hear Dad shout out 'All right!,' which is his signal to 'the boys' that things are moving, and then he brings the audience into it by yelling, 'Everybody sings!'

It hit me. That's it. 'Everybody sings!'

If there was one thing he cherished most about what he accomplished with the Trio, it's that he got everyone up and singing."

And in so doing, Reynolds and the Trio helped to complete what Pete Seeger and The Weavers had started but what their politics had prevented them from completing - the gifting back to the American public of its own folk heritage, a heritage that even back then show business had obscured with its often glitzy but shallow celebrity culture. And that was a priceless and ultimately enduring gift indeed.


Tom said...

This was an excellent article, capturing not only the essence of Nick, but the importance ot the Trio from a historical perspectice. I was never fortunate enought to have met Nick, but after this article, I fell like I know him a little better now. Thanks for the great bio.

Jim Moran said...

Sorry I missed seeing this! Glad you liked it, Tom!