TOM BLAIR: It’s hard to believe it was half a century ago The Kingston Trio not only revived American folk music but took it to its pinnacle. Does it seem like 50 years?
NICK REYNOLDS: No. No. But we keep it alive. Every summer, John Stewart and I do a “Trio” fantasy camp. We advertise through the Internet and John’s fan base. I just saw Bobby Shane and John; we sang together in August at the fantasy camp. People pay a bunch of money, and we have them come to the camp in Scottsdale. The first night is Q&A. They quiz us—and they can get very personal— and we answer them straight out. Second day, we form them into trios, and they all get the striped shirts . . . What’s fascinating is the cross-section of people. They’re judges, brain surgeons, businessmen and lawyers. One night, each of them gets to sing with John and me, and they’re all members of The Kingston Trio—for a night. And they’re pretty good.
TB: At one time, the trio had four albums in the top 10 on the charts—a feat that’s never been duplicated, even by the Beatles. That’s some kind of fame. Did you realize how big you were?
NR: Nah. We never took ourselves very seriously, until . . . Well, that’s what caused our breakup with Dave Guard. To Bobby and me, the trio was just a great thing that happened. But Dave wanted to change. He wanted us to read music; not to be spontaneous at all. Bobby and I said no. And Dave said, well, then, I’ll just form my own group.
TB: And that’s when John Stewart joined the Trio, without a hiccup.
NR: Well, we had to wait a couple of weeks until Dave fulfilled certain contracts with us, but then we moved ahead.
TB: Your brand of folk straddled a couple of eras in music—the end of pop/ swing and the advent of rock ’n’ roll. Was there something about that time, the mid-’50s to mid-’60s, that made folk music—and The Kingston Trio in particular—so successful?
NR: It really started with the Weavers, in the early ’50s—with “Goodnight, Irene,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” “Wimoweh.” We were big fans of theirs, but they got blacklisted in the McCarthy era. Their music was controversial. Suddenly, they couldn’t get any airplay; they couldn’t get booked into the big hotels, nothin’. We played their kind of music when we were first performing in colleges. But when we formed the trio, when we first got booked into San Francisco’s Purple Onion, we had to sit down and make a decision: Are we going to remain apolitical with our music? Or are we going to slit our throats and get blacklisted for doing protest music? We decided we’d like to stay in this business for a while. And we got criticized a lot for that.
TB: For not doing protest songs?
NR: Yeah. You just couldn’t. If Bob Dylan or Joan Baez had come out at that time, they’d have been dead in the water. But four or five years later, it became commercially viable. And every record company had a folk act: The Brothers Four, Chad Mitchell, Dylan and Baez, who pushed the protest music.
TB: And you started that.
NR: Well, we opened the door. We made it commercially viable; we sold millions and millions.
TB: Of course, The Kingston Trio was about more than just the music. Humor was a basic element, with songs like “M.T.A.” and “Tijuana Jail.” And you were the clown of the group.
NR:We all just really had a good time. We were spontaneous. Some of the things we said were funny, and some not so funny. Some, actually, were very political. We’d sneak songs in, with lyrics like “They’re rioting in Africa; they’re starving in Spain. What nature doesn’t do to us will be done by our fellow man.” If the McCarthy committee were still around and they’d heard that . . .
TB: And so it was the music, and the joy, but also the sex appeal. Did the girls scream for you the way they did for the Beatles and Rolling Stones? Did they throw room keys at you?
NR: Well, we were clean-cut. Mothers said to their daughters, “Of course you can go to their concert.” Like fools, they said it.
TB: The girls must have thrown some room keys at you.
NR:Well . . .
TB: You don’t want to say it for print?
NR: I’ll say it for print. And some of those girls are still around. They come to our fantasy camps. Of course, they don’t throw any room keys at us now.
TB: A biography of the trio says your music set the stage for Dylan, Joan Baez and the ’60s protest movement. True?
NR: Yeah. I’m very proud of that, and proud of them for doing it. Of course, it became viable for these record companies to take a chance. It was great. This helped change the world. It stopped the Vietnam War. The biggest thrill I had was singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” at the White House during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency—on the White House lawn.
TB: How did Lyndon like that?
NR:Well, he didn’t say anything . . . but he was there—along with Lady Bird.
TB: Okay, let’s go to the bottom line. Legend has it that by the early 1960s, The Kingston Trio accounted for 20 percent of Capitol Records’ sales. Of the original trio, Dave Guard was a Stanford business major; you and Bob Shane were business majors at Menlo College. Did you all invest wisely? That was a lot of bread.
NR: It was, at that time. We invested—sort of wisely. We bought some properties—a building in San Francisco that Francis Ford Coppola owns now. We bought in Marin County. We got in the restaurant business, big time, in Sausalito. That turned out to be a gold mine. Then later, Bobby bought John and me out. He gave up all his holdings in the trio—including royalties—for the name The Kingston Trio.
TB: Big buyout.
NR: It was—it was the land overlooking Mill Valley. You can imagine. We did all right. And Bobby’s done all right; he’s had The Kingston Trio for a long time.
TB: In 1967, when the group disbanded—when Bob Shane bought the name—word was the breakup was your decision. Why?
NR: By that time, I had a son, and I was on the road all the time. Also, the Beatles had signed with Capitol. And John and I could see that freight train coming down the road. You want to jump out of the way. Our accountants said, “You guys are financially okay.” John just wanted to go off and be a songwriter. And I moved up to Oregon; took my family up there to a rented cabin for 10 years. No television; no telephone; no radio. And we had great times. My wife lasted 10 years, and then she wanted to get back to the city. I stayed for another 12, bought a 300-acre ranch next door, and built a house.
TB: Sounds like a good antidote to a life on the road. The road must have taken its toll. Was there any upside to it?
NR: The upside was like holding onto the tail of a rocket. It was fun, and very ego-gratifying. And financially rewarding. But we’d be on the road more than 300 days a year. It plays games with your head, because the family isn’t there. You’re away from home for Little League games. Lots of guilt.
TB: Over the years, with names and personalities changing, there were new incarnations of The Kingston Trio. And then, more than two decades after you quit the group, you rejoined it. Why?
NR: Well, I’d left Oregon. I was back in Coronado managing a restaurant and tending bar at Bula’s. A great friend of mine owned it, and he kept me off the street. Then Bobby came along—he’d gone through five or six different partners—and he was just gonna fire another one. So he called me, and I said, “You know, this might be fun.”
TB: By then, was it mostly about nostalgia? Was it hard to do the same songs again and again?
NR: Not really. Because the audience loved it. And we’d feed off the audience. We’d sing, “The Ballad of the Reuben James” or “M.T.A.” or “Tom Dooley,” and they’d go crazy.
TB: And then, eight years ago, you quit again.
NR: By that time, Leslie and I were together. And she said, “With what you have, you really can get off the road. You don’t have to do this.” It was starting to wear me down again, after 10 years. I gave Bobby my notes, and he replaced me, which was fine.
TB: I know you’re still getting fan mail 50 years later. How about residuals?
NR: Still get fan mail. We’ve had two recording careers. We sold millions of record albums, and had a few singles that sold a million. Then you couldn’t find a Kingston Trio in the racks. But then CDs came out. And everybody who bought the original records bought a CD version.
TB: And you got residuals from those.
NR: Oh, yes. Still am!
TB: So you’re back here in Coronado, where you grew up as a Navy brat—before you went off to college and show-business fame. Life is good?
NR: I’ve had the greatest lives you could possibly live. And after a couple of false starts, I have the greatest wife you could possibly have. Growing up in Coronado in the old days, when dogs ran free—and so did the kids— and then being sent to college, then The Kingston Trio—and we didn’t pay a lot of dues—then to be able to retire back in Coronado and not have to worry about finances.
TB: How does it feel?
NR: Well, other than getting old . . . But what a wonderful place to get old.
TB: Okay, tell me one story that hasn’t been told about The Kingston Trio. Or one thing you’re most proud of—or most regret.
NR: One of the things I’m most proud of—and also ashamed of—is that we had a chance to join in the Freedom March at Selma, Alabama. John Stewart went. And I’m so proud of him. I stayed home with my family. And Bob stayed home. Just as a matter of logistics and family. But I really felt very, very strongly about it. That’s why I say “ashamed” that I didn’t go. And disappointed. I mean, John was on the floor of a car with Harry Belafonte so he wouldn’t get shot. Of course, some of the people who were at the front of the march were flown in on Lear jets, but they were there. I wish I had been.