Donald David Guard (October 19, 1934 – March 22, 1991) was born in San Francisco and grew up in Hawai‘i. Robert Castle Shane (Schoen) (February 1, 1934 – January 26, 2020) was born in Hilo. Nicholas Wells Reynolds on July 27, 1933 – October 1, 2008) was born in San Diego.
Upon completion of his final year of high school in 1952 at Menlo School, a private prep school in Menlo Park, California, Guard attended nearby Stanford University (graduating in 1957 with a degree in economics).
Shane was born to Margaret (Schaufelberger) and Arthur Castle Schoen, who owned a wholesale business, and whose German family had settled in Hawaii. (Shane was a phonetic spelling of Schoen, adopted by Bob in 1957.)
Shane and Guard were Punahou classmates; they began performing at parties, in the school glee club and school variety shows.
Reynolds was the son of a US Navy Captain; Nick grew up in nearby Coronado, California where he graduated from high school in 1951.
Planning a career in hotel management, Reynolds attended San Diego State College and the University of Arizona. He transferred to Menlo Business College where he met Shane and Guard (from Stanford).
They began performing together at fraternity parties and local beer gardens as Dave Guard and the Calypsonians, sometimes as a trio or occasionally with other friends. At the time, calypso music was extremely popular, and the group played songs like “Jamaica Farwell” and “Come Back, Liza” that Harry Belafonte, the reigning king of calypso, had made popular.
In 1956 Shane graduated and moved back to Hawai‘i to work in his family’s sporting goods business. During that time, he worked up a solo act and got a regular gig at the Pearl City Tavern in Honolulu.
Shane says. “I was billed as Hawaii’s Elvis Presley in 1956, which was the same year he got really popular. It was a great idea because they didn’t have much television in Hawaii yet, so you could do whatever you wanted.”
“I had sideburns and I wore a bright sport coat and stuff like that. And I’ll never forget when I met Elvis in ’63, just briefly, and I told him that’s how I got my start. And he said, ‘What did you want to do that for?’ That’s exactly the way he said it. That’s the only thing I ever said to him.” (Simmons)
While Shane was in Hawai‘i, Reynolds and Guard continued to perform in the Bay Area. They joined up with Menlo College student Joe Gannon and singer Barbara Bogue.
They refashioned themselves as the Kingston Quartet (they maintained their link to calypso music by naming themselves after the capital of Jamaica) and tried to get jobs at various local nightspots; but, they had little success.
The struggling quartet crossed paths with publicist and talent agent Frank Werber, who liked them but felt that Gannon’s bass playing wasn’t good enough. When he suggested he might sign them on if they got rid of Gannon, Bogue said she would leave the group if Gannon was kicked out – so they did, and then she did.
Guard and Reynolds called Bob Shane in Hawai‘i, who was finding life in the family sporting goods business uninspiring. And although he was doing pretty well as a solo performer, he really missed singing in harmony. In March 1957 he came back to California to join the now-renamed Kingston Trio under the management of Frank Werber. (Simmons)
Their close-cropped hair and matching (usually striped) shirts projected a wholesome college-boy image, appealing to television sponsors and to baby boomers reaching their teens.
Most of the songs were led by Shane, whose baritone voice and accomplished guitar accompaniment were essential to the group’s acoustic sound. (Guardian)
In the summer of 1957, comedian Phyllis Diller was forced at the last minute to cancel a weeklong booking at the Purple Onion nightclub, a leading night spot in San Francisco.
Werber, who had an office above the venue, saw this as a perfect opportunity for the new act he had just signed to get some much needed stage experience. He persuaded the Purple Onion to give the slot to his group, the Kingston Trio.
Guard then sent out postcards to 500 people that all three of them knew at Stanford and Menlo, inviting them to a week’s worth of shows at the Purple Onion. The result was a series of sold-out shows. (Eder)
The Kingston Trio was asked to stay on for another week, and then another, and then another. Eventually, their one-week trial booking stretched from June until December.
The group followed the Purple Onion engagement with a national tour that took them to Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago and the Village Vanguard in New York, all of them successful appearances. (Eder)
During that time, word about the Trio’s powerful singing and hilarious stage patter made its way down south to Los Angeles. Various music industry figures, and the occasional movie star, made the trek north to San Francisco to check out what the fuss was all about. Voyle Gilmore, a producer at Capitol records, liked what he heard and signed them to a contract.
In February 1958 the Kingston Trio recorded their first album. (Simmons) With it, they achieved chart success with the murder ballad Tom Dooley. (The song is based on the true story of Tom Dula, hanged in Statesville, NC in 1868 for the murder of Laura Foster.) Their rendition reached No 1 in the US singles charts and No 5 in the UK, earning them a Grammy. (Guardian)
On a commercial level, from 1957 until 1963, the Kingston Trio was the most vital and popular folk group in the world, and folk music was sufficiently popular as to make that a significant statement. (Eder)
The Kingston Trio was one of the most critically and commercially successful acts in the American music industry and opened the door for later artists like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. (Menlo College)
Equally important, the original trio, in tandem with other, similar early acts such as the Limeliters, spearheaded a boom in the popularity of folk music that suddenly made it important to millions of listeners who’d previously ignored it. (Eder)
In 1959 they performed at both the Newport jazz and folk festivals and recorded four albums, all of which were in Billboard’s Top 10 at the same time. (Guardian)
The trio made the cover of Life magazine on August 3, 1959, and were voted the Best Group of the Year for 1959 in the pages of both Billboard and Cashbox magazines, the twin recording industry bibles; they also won two Grammy Awards.
By the early-60s, there were lots of Kingston Trio imitators running around: the Highwaymen (from Wesleyan University); Bud & Travis; the Journeymen; the Halifax Three from Canada; and, on the “big-band” folk side, the New Christy Minstrels under Randy Sparks, the Serendipity Singers from the University of Colorado, and the Big 3 (with Cass Elliot) and, later, the Shilos.
For the next few years, the Kingston Trio toured relentlessly, playing on college campuses and in nightclubs across the country. (Simmons)
The pressure of touring and Guard’s and Shane’s different personalities led to conflict between the two men, and Guard left the group in 1961, to be replaced by John Stewart. (After leaving the Trio, Guard founded a quartet called the Whiskeyhill Singers.)
Within a few years the American folk music scene had changed, displaying a more political edge, and the Beatles became the new favorites of American teens.
From 1958 to 1964, the Kingston Trio played thousands of shows and had released 19 albums, five of which made it to the top spot on the Billboard charts. The Beach Boys’ song Sloop John B came from the trio.
The Kingston Trio brought the urban folk revival into the mainstream of American popular culture and made Martin guitars and long-necked banjos must-have items for musicians everywhere. (Simmons)
The trio continued to release albums and enjoy success but Shane failed to change their musical direction to reflect new trends, and they disbanded in 1967. (Guardian)
After a couple of years playing solo, Shane leased and later bought the trio name from the other two members to form the New Kingston Trio, playing past hits and contemporary songs, but without the earlier success.
The reunion gig of the three original members in 1981 was broadcast by PBS in 1982 but plans for further reunions were cancelled when Guard died in 1991. Shane continued to front various lineups of the Kingston Trio until 2004 (when he died). (Guardian)
This era was later recalled and satirized in Christopher Guest’s comedy film A Mighty Wind, in which the Kingston Trio and other collegiate-type folk groups of the period were parodied in the guise of “the Folksmen.” (Eder) There have subsequently been different members in the Kingston Trio – and, it started with a couple guys from Punahou and their friend.