William J. Bush,
Greenback Dollar: The Rise of the Kingston Trio
(Scarecrow Press, 2013)

In 1958, "Tom Dooley" appeared on the Kingston Trio's first album, became the hit of the decade and changed American music forever. The song introduced the nation to the Kingston Trio, who became The Beatles of their day. At one point, they had five albums in the top 10. Extraordinarily popular across the musical board, they played folk clubs, jazz clubs, college concerts and international tours, and they headlined the first Newport Folk Festival. A case can be made -- and this book makes it -- that they were responsible the great folk boom of the 1960s.

As this book revisits their history, it seems a miracle that they lasted until 1967 and could have continued on had they been willing to work smaller and less important venues. From the beginning there was a crack in the foundation. That crack was Dave Guard, the self-styled "acknowledged leader" of the band. A publicity release they sent out referred to him with that title and he took it seriously. Actually, he was a 25 percent owner of the Kingston Trio, Inc., along with his partners Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane and their manager, Frank Werber.

Since Shane and Reynolds celebrated good times and were in it as much for the fun as for the money, Guard, a serious and somber man who happened to be a control freak, was always at odds with his teammates. The fact that he had anger issues is also a factor in his leaving the band in a bitter breakup when they failed to follow one of his "suggestions." He was replaced by John Stewart, who, according to Nick Reynolds, made the trio fun again, and they continued to generate hit singles and albums for seven more years.

The whole story is told in Greenback Dollar, and it's a good one: conflict, joy, suspense, manipulation, poor management decisions, the ups and downs of a show business career. It's all here and all spelled out in maybe a little more detail than we need. The author, a friend of the Trio, tries desperately to be fair to all of the actors in this drama and mostly succeeds, although the portrait he paints of Dave Guard is at odds with his insistence that Guard was a good and fun-loving guy.

An additional bonus is the author's complete and detailed discussion of each of the Trio's albums, along with a look at the technical things that made their sound unique.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

6 February 2016

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