It’s the time of year for saving money!
Sometimes things happen in the music world that make your head spin in wonder as a pop star appears from seemingly out of now where. In the olden golden dayz of the mid-century music biz, that out of nowhere star had usually put in quite a bit of advance work to be suddenly recognized for his or her skills. The old adage was something akin to this: “it takes 10 years to make an overnight sensation.”
In these days of YouTube insta-Bieber ascensions, perhaps some of the value of that sort of hard road work has been overlooked and lost on a generation or three.
To that, over the course of a few articles I hope to look at some groups that whose influence was felt only after said groups and split up and its individual members moved onto other things. Here is a look at some folk groups from the early 1960s you probably never heard about. All of this music shares some similar roots with tight multi-part harmonies sung in a gospel-country-folk-cum-barbershop tradition, much in the way that Pete Seeger and his original group The Weavers did in the 1950s before they were blacklisted. Acoustic guitars and banjos inevitably pop up in the mix. Its a hootenanny, folks.!
First up are The Journeymen…
Many fans of The Mamas and The Papas (big hit 60s vocal folk-rock group) know that some half of the group came out of a group called The Mugwumps (ya can’t make this stuff up folks). But few (myself included) knew that lead Papa John Philips was in a folk trio called The Journeymen. I recently found one of their albums and it is a classic post-Weavers assemblage riding the then new wave of popular folk harmonies filling in the gaps as rock and roll took a post-Buddy Holly / pre-Beatles breather. In that group was also one Scott Mackenzie who later had a huge hit with Philips’ hippie anthem “If You’re Going To San Francisco;” at last, I finally got the connection and how Mackensie seemingly appeared out of no where. While I have been listening to a pristine original pressing on Capitol Records, you can find the album reissued on CD up on Amazon.
Connecting the dots….
The Modern Folk Quartet (MFQ) is one of Warner Brothers Records offerings to the genre. Same kinda thing. Harmonies. Gospel. Poetry. Depression and elation sung side by side with passion and grace. Nice stuff. So who is in the band? Well, first off is a fellow named Tad Diltz who went on to greater fame under his birth name Henry Diltz, the legendary photographer of the Woodstock festival (who also did album covers for The Doors, CSN and many others). Again, if you ever wondered “how did that guy get that gig?” well now you know. He was there at the right time and the right place, clearly making friends early in his career, contacts that would serve him well later when he gave up singing for photography. Other members of this band also went on to greater fame. Chip Douglas joined The Turtles, which became one of the biggest American rock bands of the day, riding the wave of post-Beatles “folk-rock;” he went on to produce hits for The Monkees (and The Turtles!). Jerry Yester worked with The Lovin’ Spoonful and with his wife Judy Henske. Yester’s brother was in The Association whom he produced and he went on do many things including producing for The Turtles, Tim Buckley’s first two albums and Tom Waits!
Oh, you might wonder how those latter came about: Well, consider that the MFQ was managed by one Herb Cohen who later managed Frank Zappa, Tim Buckley and Tom Waits, among others. Jim Dickson produced their first album (who later managed The Byrds). Connections, baby. Its all about connections. According to the Wiki, they were last heard from in 2003 when they reformed and toured Japan (where they are still popular).
Lots of dots being connected here, eh folks?
]]>Perhaps is the strangest discovery I’ve made in this genre recently — and the one I might keep in my collection as its the most obscure (and I like the feel of the album!) — comes from a short lived folk trio called The Pilgrims who had one album out on Columbia Records in the early ’60s. It was produced by Tom Wilson — who went on to work with Dylan and The Velvet Underground, among many others! Unlike many of the other generally Caucasian folk groups out there, The Pilgrims were comprised of three African Americans including Robert Guillaume who was then a young actor making his way around Broadway. Obviously an accomplished singer, he played the role of Sportin’ Life in a revival of Porgy & Bess in 1964 and (according to the Wiki) he appeared solo on The Tonight Show.
This all happened many years before his rise to public consciousness as Benson from the TV series Soap and then on his own show named after the butler character he played. Who knew?
Just Arrived! by The Pilgrims is a very enjoyable album with a bit more music production backing the group including stand up bass and simple drumming. Their sound is much richer than many of the folk groups of the time, which is what is leading me to add this one to my collection. These are big sounding voices, and while I don’t know which one is Guillaume, you can imagine how either one of the male voices would sound spot on in roles from Porgy & Bess.
The song titles are a bit more diverse on this album including “Two Little Birds,” “Three Little Worms,” “Four Strong Winds.” There is a bluesy — and almost rockin’! — version of “Cottonfields” with drums and electric guitar backing the band! Folk rock! They tackle some gospel tunes and spirituals like “Weep Mary Weep” done with pop accompaniment — tambourine! bass! drums! guitar! “Get Right Church” rocks along with the addition of a groovy harpsichord to the band! They even do a Hebrew love song, “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (apparently a smash hit in Israel in 1957 by another artist). Who knew?
Yeah, so this one but The Pilgrims is a keeper in my collection for sure. Its got all the ingredients: sweet sounding Tom Wilson production, unusual titles I’ve not seen elsewhere thus far (Three Little Worms?), all sung by a trio of big voices that sound great on the original vinyl pressing. Worth seeking out if you are looking for something curious and a bit different from your old school folk.
Oh, and then there is the cover which is sort of mind numbing in its cute dumb right. Feeling somehow innocently inappropriate, how do you feel about seeing the band members dressed as Pilgrims arriving in a old row boat?
Anyhow, there you have three folk groups, each of which had ties to things greater than their initial forays into the entertainment world permitted.
Connecting many dots and making nice discoveries along the way — for me, that thrill of discovery is still a huge part of the joy of collecting music, folks. Maybe you too will get some joy out of that thrill of exploration too.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who’s songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.