John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Don’t Write off The Kingston Trio

Or lead singer Bob Shane, and his performance of “It Was A Very Good Year”.

By - Feb 7th, 2020 04:42 pm
The Kingston Trio. Photo is in the Public Domain.

The Kingston Trio. Photo is in the Public Domain.

At the center of what comic Martin Mull drolly dubbed the “Great Folk Scare of the 60’s” stood the polished The Kingston Trio. Reviled by purists and bought by millions, they ushered in the era of Martin guitars and hootenannies only to be shown the door when more authentic talents like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez arrived. The group was led by Bob Shane who, his obituary asserts, sang lead on approximately 80 percent of their material. And you thought stats were just for sports fans!

The Kingston Trio dressed like the early Beach Boys and, like them, were harmony mavens who had an ear for good songs — they went to great lengths to get the song “Scotch And Soda,”  but that’s another story. They did justice to the ones they found, giving an air of bonhomie (in short supply these days) to even the melancholy numbers. That’s no small trick. There’s really nothing to complain about in their music unless you prefer things roughed up and less supper-clubby. There was also nothing to rave about – mania, in the form of a certain British group, was just around the corner. They were called Folk, but were really a pop group with acoustic guitars. They never pretended to be fresh off a mountain top or a truck farm. Viewed in that light, they don’t look, or sound, that bad.

One thing I learned was their secret admirers included Ms Baez. It wasn’t any cooler to say you liked them back then than it is now, but however reluctantly, she admitted it. I’m not saying go out and buy “Tom Dooley,” but Bob Shane really does deserve to be put a little higher on your list of vocal talents. His singing was beyond a doubt the thing that put the zip in those Kingston Trio records. On “It Was A Very Good Year,” a song written specifically for them and not Frank Sinatra, he does a bang-up job. He doesn’t have “Ole Blue Eyes” impeccable phrasing; his take is so strictly on the beat it seems slightly mechanical. It also seems a tad vanilla. But despite his lack of hip delivery, or maybe because of it, he makes you feel this melancholy lyric in his virtually a capella performance.

And how do you get someone to write a song for you as iconic as this? You tell a publisher you’ll be stopping by in the morning to listen to songs, and he mentions it to a guy named Ervin Drake who then goes right to work, tossing it off in about 20 minutes. Ervin had the concept in his head, comparing past affairs to vintage wines, but had to act on it fast when he got the word. That was 1961. In 1965 Sinatra heard it on the radio and liked it enough to cut it. It’s no shame to lose out to Sinatra. The song fit him like an Italian suit — he was the guy in the song, older, wiser and with more than a few broken hearts to recall. The orchestration by Norman Jenkins was the best money could buy and is worth every penny. The lyrics describe a man a little further down the road than Shane, who was in his mid thirties when he first sang it.

When I was seventeen it was a very good year
It was a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights on the village green
When I was seventeen

When I was twenty-one it was a very good year
It was a very good year for city girls who lived up the stair
With all that perfumed hair and it came undone
When I was twenty-one

Then I was thirty-five it was a very good year
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls
Of independent means, we’d ride in limousines their chauffeurs would drive
When I was thirty-five

But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs, and it poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year

© Ervin Drake

I’m surprised Bob Dylan hasn’t taken a swing at this, or maybe he has. I’ve tuned out a little as he makes his way through the Sinatra catalog. I do like the blurry world of this music – high brow mingles with low, confusing all the right people. Sometimes “authentic” folk musicians had to fill out their endless sets with whatever was on the radio. Thus a string band like Martin, Bogan and Armstrong would remember playing an old standard like “Lady Be Good” years later when recording for the folk label Rounder Records. Of course history will favor them and put an asterisk next to The Kingston Trio. That’s all right, good is good, and clean cut, buttoned down Bob Shane was good enough to merit a toast. What will it be, scotch and soda or vintage wine?

Sieger on Songs: Conversations
Host John Sieger and special guests Holly Haebig and David Wake (of De La Buena) explore the topic “Songs of Freedom” through conversation and songs — their own and those of songwriters they admire. The first in a five-part series that includes talk, performance, and perhaps a bit of audience participation.

Thursday, February 13
7 – 9 p.m., doors open at 6:45
Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts
926 E. Center St.
$15 advance / $20 at the door
Advance tickets:

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One thought on “Sieger on Songs: Don’t Write off The Kingston Trio”

  1. Thomas Martinsen says:

    I fondly remember Bob Shane’s vocals on “It Was a Very Good Year.” When I was a freshman at Olivet College in south central Michigan in 1966, I had access to a music listening room in an upper story of the college library. My first college girlfriend and I frequented that room. We made out up there while listening to Shane’s “Very Good Year,” a Tony Bennett record, some “Yardbirds” stuff … Shane’s vocals on “Very Good Year” remained in my ear after Sinatra more or less claimed that song.

    Goodnight, Bob Shane. I still hear your voice.

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