Bob Shane: Kingston Trio founder who took folk music into the mainstream

Less politically strident than their peers, the group nevertheless helped to usher in a more socially conscious musical era with hits such as ‘Tom Dooley’ and ‘M.T.A.’

Emily Langer
Tuesday 25 February 2020 13:03 GMT
From left, Bob Shane, John Stewart and Nick Reynolds in LA in 1967
From left, Bob Shane, John Stewart and Nick Reynolds in LA in 1967 (AP)

Bob Shane helped to bring folk music to the forefront of the American cultural scene in the 1950s and 1960s as a founding member of the Kingston Trio, a group best remembered for songs such as “Tom Dooley”, “Scotch and Soda” and “M.T.A.”.

Shane, who has died aged 85, was the last surviving original member of the Kingston Trio, which he founded in 1957 with Nick Reynolds and Dave Guard (later replaced by John Stewart). With their gentle harmonies and clean-cut looks – they favoured button-down shirts with stripes – they became in their heyday one of the most popular singing groups in the US.

They were in some ways successors to the Weavers, the folk group known for its ballads of peace and freedom and whose members, including Pete Seeger, became targets of the anti-communist “red scare” in the 1950s. The Kingston Trio were assiduously less political – a point that rankled among some folk music traditionalists – but nonetheless were credited with helping to lead the way for folk musicians including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.

From the group’s founding until it disbanded in the mid-1960s, and in later forms that continued to feature Shane, the Kingston Trio was known for such numbers as “A Worried Man”, Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “It Was a Very Good Year” (later a hit for Frank Sinatra) and “M.T.A.”, about “a man named Charlie on a tragic and fateful day” when he is stuck on the Boston transit system because of a fare increase.

Perhaps their greatest hit was also their earliest, “Tom Dooley”, for which the group won their first Grammy award, in 1958. The ballad, about a veteran of the Confederate army who is hanged for allegedly killing his lover, is widely considered one of the most important songs in the American canon. Its success, reaching No 1 in the US singles charts and No 5 in the UK, stunned Shane and thrilled Capitol Records, which in time came to rely on the group for 15 per cent of its sales.

Shane and his colleagues had not planned to be folk singers. Their preferred genre was the calypso music popularised by Harry Belafonte – the “Kingston” of the group’s name referred to the capital of Jamaica – but found themselves rebranded as “Tom Dooley” gained a following.

The Kingston Trio, and folk music in general, faded with the arrival of the Beatles and other rising groups. But Shane continued performing for decades, leaving many listeners awash in nostalgia.

Robert Castle Schoen – he changed the spelling of his last name in adulthood – was born in Hilo, Hawaii, in 1934. His parents ran a wholesale sporting goods company in Honolulu, where he and Guard met at the private Punahou preparatory school.

He and Guard moved to California for college, where Guard enrolled at Stanford University and Shane studied at nearby Menlo College. There he met Reynolds and the three performed at fraternity parties. After his studies, he returned to Hawaii and, finding himself ill-suited for his family’s business, worked as an Elvis impersonator. Reynolds then invited him to return to California to form a trio with Guard.

They got their start performing at venues in San Francisco – for all the success of their many albums, Shane said they always considered themselves foremost live performers. Besides the Kingston Trio’s musical legacy was its sartorial one, with the striped-shirt look later employed by groups including the Beach Boys. For the Kingston Trio, it was not as intentional as some fans might have imagined. “We just wore them because they were cheap,” Shane recalled, “and off the rack.”

He retired from the stage in 2004 after suffering a heart attack. Guard died in 1991, and Reynolds and Stewart both died in 2008.

Shane is survived by his second wife Bobbie Childress and five children from his first marriage to Louise Brandon.

Bob Shane, musician, born 1 February 1934, died 26 January 2020

© Washington Post

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