Monday, December 21, 2015

Nick Reynolds And "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight"

The late Nick Reynolds was allotted by Providence with a greater range of talents and interests than most of those mere mortals among us could ever imagine. He was best known, of course, more than half a century ago as a singer and percussionist with the Kingston Trio in its heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s; the high harmonies that he generally created himself became an integral part of the group's signature sound. And because he could play a bit of guitar and needed to find a rhythm instrument whose sound could cut through that of the booming rosewood Martin guitars of his bandmates Bob Shane and Dave Guard, Reynolds adopted the all-but-forgotten four-string tenor guitar, so effectively resurrecting the instrument in public awareness that when the national Tenor Guitar Foundation opened a hall of fame in 2011, its first inductee was Reynolds - even though there were many other distinguished tenor players from earlier generations, including actor Scatman Crothers and Mousketeer-in-chief Jimmie Dodd.

In the picture above, Nick's original Martin tenor had been modified to an eight-string version of the instrument, with the extra four strings being doubles and octaves, much as you would find on a 12-string guitar. Holding the instrument in this photo from about 1962 is Nick's son Josh, himself now an accomplished professional in advertising and communications and the chief proponent of his father's musical legacy as well. And "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight," a sadly little-known Christmas tune from an excellent but largely forgotten record album, is a song whose inclusion on that LP is precisely because of Nick and Josh.

The record itself was The Last Month Of The Year, released in early October of 1960. It was a startlingly different kind of holiday album, as Bill Bush notes in his 2012 book Greenback Dollar that chronicles the earliest years of the Kingston Trio:

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What the album did include was a genuinely eclectic mix of songs: a medieval French carol, an ancient Welsh lullaby, a couple of seventeenth century English wassailing tunes, two African-American spirituals, and more, all masterfully arranged to stay within the musicians' somewhat limited vocal and instrumental ranges while at the same time respecting the traditions from which the songs sprang and in the process creating as memorable and original a holiday album as U.S. pop music had ever seen to that point in time.

But Last Month was a landmark KT album in other and less positive ways as well. It was the Trio's sixth studio album, with the first five reaching #1 on the Billboard 200 album charts and attaining gold record status. Further, the Kingstons had had the top-selling album in the country for 18 weeks in 1959 and a fairly astounding 24 weeks in 1960. Last Month's top chart position of #11 and eventual sales of 200,000 units may not have been chopped liver and well may have been a signature effort for less dominant performers - but it was so disappointing for a group that had sold about five million recordings in the previous two years that the band's label, Capitol Records, pulled the LP off of the market and offered it for sale for only two more years during the holiday shopping season.

That is a large part of the reason why pretty much only the hardest core of Kingston Trio fans have ever heard "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight." And a pity that is. Bill Bush remarks above that each Trio member volunteered suggestions for songs to include on the album, and "Goodnight" was one of Nick Reynolds' two choices, with the Welsh "All Through The Night" being the other. Reynolds claimed copyright for both of those numbers, though it would have been for the arrangement and some slight modifications to the lyrics for "Night," which is hundreds of years old. The case isn't so clear for "Goodnight, My Baby," though. Josh had been born a few weeks prior to the early summer recording of Last Month, and Reynolds remarked to Bush that "I was just knocked out by having a kid." If there had been an antecedent melody from which Reynolds derived "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight," it is still clear that Reynolds reshaped it and supplied lyrics that conformed to his characteristically emotional reaction to new fatherhood. I believe that those emotions are audible in Reynolds' vocals here:

While some of the arrangements and performances on this LP are most assuredly more intricate - and nine of them appear in other CV101 articles - none is more heartfelt, and for some people whom I know very, very well who are intimately familiar with this album - this is their favorite track - new parents, many of them, and that is not surprising.

Nor is it surprising that today's KT of George Grove, Bill Zorn, and Rick Dougherty also regularly include "Goodnight, My baby" in their annual series of holiday concerts, as they did here in their 2008 Christmas CD On A Cold Winter's Night:

Lead vocal here is by Dougherty, who owns the sweetest and truest tenor voice of any of the singers who have ever been a part of the group - by which no disrespect is intended toward Nick, who was actually a high baritone with an amazing and elastic upper range.

The other professional folk group still performing the number also has roots deep in the 1960s pop folk revival. The Makem and Spain Brothers originally included three of the sons of Tommy Makem, who was one of the greatest experts on and performers of traditional Irish balladry - and though contemporary with the KT, a major influence of the latter group's selection of Irish material as well.

This was from a December 2012 show in Boothbay, Maine.

"Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight" remains among my favorite contemporary Christmas songs for its simple innocence. I was about ten years old when I first heard the tune, a bit past belief in St. Nick but only growing into the adult's appreciation of the magic created by that belief in the ready imaginations of so many little children. I watched as my seven younger brothers and sisters grew into and through that belief and all that it entailed, and no memories of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood remain more precious and vivid to me than those of Christmas Eves long past. Our family ritual was always the same: following an early light dinner, the youngest four or five would be bathed, pajama-ed, and brought downstairs to the living room for the ceremonial taping of the socks to the fireplace mantel, to be followed by all of the children sitting around my mother, each clutching one of the figurines of our Nativity set, moving them toward the stable as my mother intoned her greatly simplified retelling of the Gospel of St. Luke - and thence to bed, with the little ones in a hyper state of excitement for the five or so minutes it took them to fall asleep. Something about "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight" takes me back to those times like virtually nothing else can.

Upcoming in a couple of days - the eighth edition of a "For The Season" articles on a traditional carol.


Linkmeister said...
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Linkmeister said...

The CD is now available at Amazon for the ridiculous price of $3.85.

Hi, Jim!