HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW ELECTRONIC EDITION: Now free to e-mail subscribers and supported by tasteful, music-oriented advertising with a unique news-format approach. A monthly guide to early rock, blues, country, folk, and traditional jazz in the Seattle area and beyond. Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright E-mail: subscribe@heritagemusicreview.com.

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By Doug Bright

Summary of Part One:

     It all started in late 1956 in Seattle at the University of Washington, where Mike Kirkland, Dick Foley, John Paine, and Bob Flick met as Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers.  "We used to sit around and sing folk songs at this fraternity house," Flick elaborated in this publication in 2003.  "There would be twelve, fifteen guys joining in, and we were the ones who had the instruments."

     "We worked up a few songs for Rush Week parties," Mike Kirkland explained to a Columbia Records interviewer in 1960, "and had such a good time we did more and got to sing at other parties around campus.  Before we knew it, we were performing someplace or other every weekend."

     One day in 1958 Mike Kirkland got a call from a young woman who identified herself as secretary to the manager of Seattle's Colony Club and invited the group down to the famed nightspot the following Saturday for an audition.  When the four collegiate musicians arrived at the appointed place and time with instruments in hand, they found a surprised manager who had no knowledge of        them or their audition and, in fact, didn't even have a secretary.  Obviously, they concluded, the call had been a prank played on them by a rival fraternity.   Nevertheless, they won the day.  "Well, while you're here," club manager Jack Beard suggested, "do a couple of songs."

     As a result, the Brothers Four were booked at the Colony Club for 26 weekends.  The gig didn't pay well, but the performing experience it delivered was invaluable.  By the spring of 1959, the Brothers Four had honed their show into a tight, entertaining mix of rich vocal harmony, solid accompaniment, and hilarious comedic patter.  Brimming with well-earned confidence, they took advantage of the University's spring break to try their luck in San Francisco.

     Their effort won them an engagement at the prestigious Hungry i, where the Kingston Trio had just recorded a top-selling concert



Thanks to some fraternity pals who lived in the Bay Area, they were seen and heard by Mort Lewis, who was managing jazz legend Dave Brubeck's career at the time.  Keenly aware of the Brothers Four's market potential in the newly created folk boom, he urged them to send him a demo tape for submission to Brubeck's label, Columbia Records.

     Columbia reacted to the demo with all the enthusiasm Mort Lewis expected, inviting the group to come to New York for a second round of auditions that resulted in their debut album,

The Brothers Four,

and their first and biggest hit, "Greenfields".  

By the end of 1960 they had released one more


and scored another hit with

 "The Green Leaves of Summer”.

    Due to these successes, the Brothers Four found themselves in high demand for appearances on TV variety shows and concert stages throughout America and beyond.  "The whole pace of activity picked up," Bob Flick recalled, "because we were a folksinging entertainment act in the right place at the right time." ----------------------------------------------------------------------

    The 1961 album


was followed that year by

The Brothers Four Song Book,

a collection of largely familiar folk songs with a booklet of guitar-chorded sheet music included.  The only exception to the formula was the continuation of the "Frogg" narrative with the protagonist making his next bid for hipness as a jazz musician.  Among the album's finest moments were a secularized reworking of the old spiritual "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen", "The Tavern Song (Tavern In The Town", the poignant ballad "Tarrytown", and an ingenious rewrite of "900 Miles From My Home" called "Summer Days Alone".

     Although the Brothers Four's versions of the traditional songs maintained their basic flavor and mood, they often departed radically from conventional interpretation.  "Goodnight, Irene”

and "Ole Smokey"

were taken out of the 3/4 time signature where they originated, and "Smokey" was effectively set in a minor key.  "The material sort of lends itself to that," Bob Flick explained. "Very few people do a traditional song without adding something of their own, so that's how these different variations happen."

     After releasing their first

Greatest Hits

 compilation, the Brothers Four issued ⠐⠕ of the most memorable albums of their career in 1962.  Entitled

In Person,


it captured them in concert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the U.S. Naval Academy at Anapolis, Maryland.  The album offered rousing renditions of "Whoa, Back, Buck”

and the Caribbean shipwreck ballad "Run, Come, See Jerusalem",

the beautifully arranged ("Rollin' home) Across The Sea",

and more spirited renditions of songs from previous releases, including "Roving Gambler"

and "The Rock Island Line".  

In what must have been an unforgettable moment for those in attendance, Bob Flick announced, "Very often, people will ask us if we have a favorite song.  The answer to that question is, Yes, we do.  It's this next number, and we hope you all enjoy "Greenfields".”

     The album's live performance concept allowed the Brothers Four to capitalize fully on their accessibly hip brand of comedy.  In a playful swipe at The Kingston Trio's Dave Guard, Mike Kirkland delivered a hilarious parody of the emotionally charged Mexican-themed ballad "San Miguel".

"The Thinking Man, John Henry",

which Flick attributes to folksinger Bob Gibson, is a side-splitting update that pits the legendary folk hero against a computer instead of a steam drill.  It may well be the funniest moment in The Brothers Four's recording career.

     The year 1963 opened with another fine live album, Cross Country Concert,

drawn from a coast-to-coast tour made during the previous fall.  "Each of the twelve numbers in the album was taken from a different but equally successful concert in this fast-paced tour," the liner notes explained.  "Then later, in Hollywood, Columbia Records and The Brothers chose from a mountain of tape the performances to be included here."

     Highlighting the traditional material was an energetic treatment of "I Wish I Was In Bowling Green".  

On the neotraditional front the Brothers offered a stirring agrarian lament called "Just A Little Rain",

a beautiful revival of Harry Belafont€'s 1957 Caribbean anthem "Island In The Sun",

and Bob Gibson's "New Frankie and Johnny",

which scored a 1964 hit for a newer folk group called The Greenwood County Singers.  

In addition to comedic opuses such as Tom lehrer's `Since My Canary Died",

there were well-placed topical quips.  With the school desegregation issue roiling the headlines, Mike Kirkland announced, "Certain portions of this afternoon's program are being recorded especially for rebroadcast to our Armed Forces--in Mississippi."

     Although the Brothers Four never took the path of overt political satire that characterized The Chad Mitchell Trio, a couple of songs on the

Cross Country Concert

 album touched provocatively on key social issues.  "25 Minutes To Go",

released as a single in September 1962, addressed capital punishment with a dramatic, minute-by-minute impression of a condemned man's pre-execution experience.  "The Beast",

adapted from a poem written by a Detroit factory worker, chillingly portrayed the hazards of the punch press operator's life.  For a protest song, however, it ends on a surprisingly hopeful note: "Deep inside remain the dreams  That make us the masters of the machines."

     If anyone in the industry harbored any doubts about the existence of a folk-music boom when The Brothers Four joined Columbia, it was an undisputed fact in 1963.  By then the group was competing for airplay with not only The Kingston Trio, but also with a new crop of folk acts like

The Highwaymen,

 Peter, Paul and Mary,


The Rooftop Singers,

 all of whom had scored big hits in the pop market.  Hoping to capitalize on the phenomenon and stay ahead of the game, the Brothers Four and their record label implemented a surefire success strategy.  Gathering and recording the most popular songs from the beginning of the folk era to the present, they issued an album called

The Big Folk Hits.

"Here," its liner notes boasted, "is an unbeatable combination of great material and thrilling performances;  neither the songs nor The Brothers have ever sounded better.  Here, for Brothers Four fans throughout the world, is the boys' best album yet, the finest collection of folk music ever recorded!"

     Artistically, the album didn't even live up to its claim of being the Brothers Four's best effort, let alone the greatest folk collection of all time.  

The Springfields’

 country-rock hit "Silver Threads and Golden Needles"

wasn't well suited to the Brothers Four's style, and even their rendition of "500 Miles"

failed to meet the rich harmonic standard of their previous output.

     Most of the remaining songs, however, were obvious choices for a Brothers Four folk hits album, and the group rose to the occasion.  The album contained spirited versions of "Michael (row the boat ashore)”

"Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”

and "If I Had A Hammer”

and the Belafonté hits "Scarlet Ribbons”

and "Jamaica Farewell”

were beautifully revived.  The record also held its share of pleasant surprises.  "Walk Right In”

was not only sung with the Brothers' characteristic gusto, but it also featured the kind of assertive twelve-string guitar work that took

The Rooftop Singers'

version to the hit parade.  Even country chart-toppers like Marty Robbins' "El Paso"

and Claude King's "Wolverton Mountain"

were masterfully adapted to the Brothers Four sound.

     The group's first release of 1964 was an album called

The Brothers Four Sing of Our Times.


As its title implies, it focused on topical songs, including Ewan MacColl's "Spring Hill Mine Disaster”

and Woody Guthrie's tragic ballad of deported migrant farmworkers, "Plane Wreck At Los Gatos".

The album's underlying concept was epitomized by Bob Dylan's bitterly satirical "Long Ago, Far Away",

which summarized history's greatest atrocities with the mock observation, "Things like that don't happen no more nowadays."  "The four of us will never forget the week when we learned this song," the Brothers recounted in their liner notes.  "By Thursday night of that week we had finished our arrangement.  That was November 21, 1963.  The next day brought with it the assassination of the President of the United States.  "Things like that don't happen no more nowadays.  Do they!","

     "As individuals, we never shied away from informing ourselves and having positions," Bob Flick explained, "and that still is the case today.  If you look at our recording history, we did lots of songs that express political views.  We did a nice version of

"We Shall Overcome".

But as an entertainment entity, we just chose to be entertainers as opposed to using our platform to hammer away at a particular point of view."

     In true Brothers Four fashion, the album also contained plenty of lighter moments.  Jesse Fuller, best known for his classic "San Francisco Bay Blues", contributed "The Monkey and The Engineer",

a whimsical tale about a railroad engineer who stops for lunch and returns to find that his pet monkey has taken the train safely and efficiently to the next port of call.  "Dance Me A Jig”

delightfully portrayed a Southern slave who liberates himself as well as a couple of his master's prized pigs for the journey north to freedom.  "It's a bright, happy story," the Brothers observed in their liner notes, "concerned mainly with the sheer joy of being free."

     On the more lyrical side, the album brought valuable exposure to several of the folk revival's best new songwriters.  Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds”

brought The Brothers Four another minor hit.  In addition to the aforementioned "Long Ago, Far Away", Bob Dylan had also penned the poignant "Tomorrow Is A Long Time",

which the Brothers described in their notes as "one of our very favorite ballads."

     With more folk-based material denting the charts than ever before, the Brothers Four built on the success of a previous effort with a 1964 album called MORE BIG FOLK HITS.

It drew from the prior decade with "The Battle of New Orleans”

and "The Banana Boat Song",

but it also shrewdly covered the most recent hits of the group's biggest competitors, incorporating "Puff",

"Don't Think Twice",

and "Don't Let The Rain Come Down".  

It also contained the more obscure but surpassingly beautiful "Come To My Bedside, My Darlin'",

a spirited "San Francisco Bay Blues",

and a soul-stirring treatment of the aforementioned "We Shall Overcome".

     To a large degree, the second BIG FOLK HITS album was a celebration of The Brothers Four's continued success at the crest of the popular folk music boom.  In her liner notes, Eliner Klein reported steadily climbing record sales, characterizing the group's position as "way out ahead in the highly competitive area of folk music."

     "Heck," Mike Kirkland quipped, "if all this comes to a smashing halt, we can always go live on this mountain we just bought back home in Seattle."

     "Whatever it is that keeps them at the top of their field," Klein predicted, "it is not foreseeable that the popularity of The Brothers Four will come to a "smashing" or any other kind of halt.  Instead, happily for all of us, it seems they are here to stay."

     Nevertheless, due in part to the impact of The Beatles on one hand and the emergence of folk-rock on the other, the year 1965 found folk groups in a challenging situation.  The Brothers Four, for their part, met it with admirable creativity on their next album,

The Honey Wind Blows


Their rendition of the title song capitalized on Glenn Yarbrough's recent hit, and their version of "House of The Rising Sun",

though quite different, took similar advantage of the previous year's smash by another group of British invaders,

The Animals. 

For the first time in The Brothers Four's recorded history, a tasteful string section was used to grace a beautifully harmonized treatment of "Somewhere"

from WEST SIDE STORY.  "Our boundaries are growing bigger," John Paine remarked in the album's liner notes.

     Despite the innovations,

Honey Wind

 was definitely a folk album in classic Brothers Four style.  It sported two rousing pub songs: "Nancy O."

from the British Isles and "Lazy Harry's"

from Australia.  The Brothers also had plenty of fun with the Woody Guthrie children's song "Cleano".

    the other end of the mood spectrum was Bob Gibson's haunting maritime ballad "The Waves Roll Out"

and a compelling antiwar song called "Little Play Soldiers".  

"How will it end if you don't know it's wrong?" it asked.  "For little play soldiers will never know why  We love them and kiss them and send them to die."  With the American war effort escalating in Vietnam, the song, released as a single, struck a responsive chord.

     (Note: This article will be continued in the next issue of HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW.  The Brothers Four appear Tuesday, November 20th, at Kirkland Performance Center: www.kpcenter.org.  Most of the albums described here are available on CD through The Brothers Four's website, www.brothersfour.com.) ---------------------------------------------------------------------- WHAT'S IN STORE: NEWS FROM THE MUSICAL Marketplace

                    Find Newest Presley Biography At Phinney Books

          In the foreword to his recent book BEING ELVIS: A Lonely Life, British author Ray Connolly writes of the King, "As a boy, he'd dreamed that success would free him and his family from poverty, but then he discovered that fame on his level imprisoned as well as released.  He wasn't the first rock and roll singer, but he was the first rock superstar, a status which meant that not only was there no one from whose experience he could learn, but also there was no one with whom he could share the burden of being himself, of being Elvis."  Your copy of the hardcover edition is waiting for you at Phinney Books in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood.

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              Learn To Play Irish Music At Dusty Strings

     Dusty Strings Acoustic Music Shop in Seattle's Fremont district, long known for its array of fine stringed instruments, instructional workshops, and folk concerts, offers players at all skill levels a way to learn Irish tunes and techniques from instructor Susan "Tudy" McLain.  The class meets at 6:30 PM on alternate Thursdays, and when the instruction ends, students can practice what they've learned at a real pub session up the street at Shawn O'Donnell's.  For more information, call the store or contact Tudy McLain: greensleevesharp@aol.com.

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Bop Street Records 2220 Northwest Market Street Phone: (206) 297-2232. Web: www.bopstreetrecords.com.


              1963 Stratocaster At Emerald City Guitars

     Emerald City Guitars in Seattle's Pioneer Square, well known for its fascinating selection of new and vintage acoustic and electric guitars, amps, and accessories, has just acquired a 1963 Fender Stratocaster electric in very good condition with original hard shell case.  "The neck plays amazingly,"  the website proclaims.  "This guitar is acoustically resonant and has fantastic, strong-sounding pickups.  All three positions deliver a punchy, full tone with lots of snap and clarity.  This one's got the mojo!"

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