Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The slightly fabulous Limeliters

That was the title of the first album of theirs I heard.  My neighbor, Hugh Morgan, was kind enough to befriend a nerdy, younger kid and turn me on to the fact that there was more to commercial folk music than the Kingston Trio.

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

I was familiar with the "ethnic" stuff--a misnomer we applied to the serious, purist folk stuff like Dave Graham was broadcasting on KTUC.  I had not realized there were successful folk acts who were not getting radio airplay, playing to packed college auditoriums and nightclub audiences.  Among those, The Limeliters--Alex Hassiliev, Lou Gottlieb, and Glenn Yarbrough, who were, as the announcer introducing them said, slightly fabulous.

Their vocal and instrumental presentation was more of a formal sound than the KT, and the range of their music was more like Bud & Travis--eclectic and intricately instrumented.  The big deal, as far as I was concerned, was the work of front man and bass player Lou Gottlieb.

Now, each of their voices had a trained tone and quality that made their speaking voices stentorian by modern, slovenly standards.  Lou had a particularly musical speaking voice that was the perfect vehicle for the continuity he contributed between numbers.  He adopted a hilarious, stilted delivery and couched his humor in vocabulary and phrasing that made the jokes even funnier.  Later, he would advise me to explore the idea of "inner mirth" to help my own comedic style.  Though I had never put my finger on it, exactly what made it so much fun was that you knew he was having fun!

So, I'm in Tucson in 1985, and I get word from a friend that The Limeliters are looking for a stopover gig and might be available at a reduced rate.  I called, and negotiations began with Alex, who handled the business.  My plan was to open for them, so I could get some of their fans on my mailing list.  Though not at all excited about the idea of a small-timer preceding them, Alex allowed it, and preparations began.

This was the beginning of one of the most meaningful, costly learning experiences of my young life.

Glenn had left the group in '63 to pursue a very successful single career as a singer and actor.
The tenor was now sung by Red Grammer, an extremely talented young man.  He had things to do, and we were barely introduced.

I did get to spend a little time with Alex and Lou--both rewarding experiences in their own right.

I did not get to perform.  The audience was spared that by the fact that a young man whom I had rented the monitor system from and was paying to deliver it, was very late.  Some of The Limeliters had to catch a plane, so the show could not be delayed.  I spent my performance time wrestling with the monitors, sweating through my now perfunctory stage clothes.  I couldn't help but recall my first gig with Barbara at the Marriott.

As I expressed to Alex my frustration at being let down by someone I was paying to provide a service, he succinctly said, "These days you have to come on like an (expletive for an obnoxious person) from the get-go just to get them to do their job!"  That made me feel a little better about some of our phone conversations setting the gig up!

Lou actually took time to watch my demo, and wrote me a very nice letter, which I treasure.  He gave me genuinely helpful counsel about the business, and shared with me about how to make "inner mirth" work. One of the things he advised was "Get to a coast.  Either one will do."  (I chose the East Coast, but it took a few years to get there.)

About four years before the episode just recounted, the group had reunited for a tour, and, they still had it.
A gentleman named Ed Waldrup has posted this rare video on his You Tube channel.  You'll hear the end of their famous opener, and then Lou's introduction of the group, followed by a priceless autobiographical song entitled "Acres of Limeliters."  Please leave a kind comment for Ed for sharing this!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The wisdom of the ancients

The Smothers Brothers came to town to perform with the Tucson Symphony.  Travis was going to meet with them, "for old times' sake" and took me along.  We met in their hotel room.  Both Tom and Dick were dressed in snappy white resort wear, and all the spare space was taken up by exercise equipment.

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

Trav introduced me, and, after some reminiscing and small talk, Travis explained that I was "starting out" as a single, and handed them my demo video.  Tom promised to check it out and, pointedly glaring into my eyes, gestured toward the gym equipment and said, "Get in shape."  I was in my late thirties--did I look that bad? He said, "It's like a sport.  It takes a lot of energy and you'll last longer if you train."

They set up comp tickets for me and Judy, so we could see their big show in the Convention Center with the symphony, and we enjoyed a wonderful concert and then went backstage to see them in their dressing room.
On the way to the level where the dressing rooms were, we got into a freight elevator with those weird vertically closing doors.  As we stepped aboard, Tom pulled down sharply on the top door just as I was pulling up on the bottom, and my hand got smooshed between the rubber edges.  Tom was very upset and apologetic, and I assured him no harm was done.

They had actually watched my tape, and their comments were succinct:
Tom said, "This is very thoughtful material," and Dick said, "Calling yourself a humorist is smart--that way you don't have to get as big a laugh."  (That's why they call him--uh--Richard.

Anyway, I took their advice to heart.  They told us to help ourselves to the lovely fruit and snack basket, as well as a bottle of their own label wine that had been included, and we took that to heart, too.  We still have the bottle, though somehow the wine disappeared.

Sometime the next year, or the year after, a friend  involved in "community radio" called to tell me of an opportunity to book The Limeliters, who were looking for a brief money stop and reportedly would work for much less than usual to make that happen. It occurred to me this could be an opportunity.  If I could set up the gig and open for them, I could add their fans in the area to my mailing list, since what I was doing was built for the same audience.

Next week we'll see just how that went.

Here's an example of how the Bros. worked with a symphony:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Old Pueblo and an old friend

Though it was obvious I would never have the gifted, wide-range voice I had before the great USMC laryngitis attack, I was able to sing serviceably, and what I lacked vocally would have to be offset by my skills at stealing and writing .

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

I mention stealing because it was long accepted that a repertoire of the best songs of others was quite enough for a group to succeed.  (It was sort of like the plethora of websites now that just "curate" the creativity of others who need and appreciate the exposure.)  If you had original material, you worked it into your show, usually after your strongest numbers so it would be well received (or, at least, tolerated).  No one was labeling him or her self as a "singer/songwriter."   Wasn't that what we all were?
Well, that was before the songs stopped being about anything substantive.

Once the secret got out--that a song that didn't have to be well constructed or have much to say--the small venues began to fill up with "artists" who would play for next to nothing.  The end result of that was audiences who didn't bother to listen, a situation exacerbated by a new disregard for "continuity"--putting a show together with themes and pacing, interspersed with patter that highlighted content and/or entertained comedically.  Why bother?  Indeed.

So into the rapidly shrinking market I stumbled, blissfully ignorant of what was actually happening.

Since Tucson was surrounded by fine, luxurious resorts and guest ranches (more than El Paso, certainly) we moved there again and I began to beat the bushes for berries and nuts to sustain us.  Naturally, the place to start was "The Cup," a coffeehouse started in the Campus Christian Center in the 60s.

The Cup was started, everyone thought, as an outreach place that presented an open-mic type program every Friday night.  I recall (perhaps in '65?) my friends and I plunking down our 25 cents each, then rounding the corner and seeing Linda Ronstadt on stage and literally trying to get our quarters back.  She sat, with a guitar, blonde and chubby, singing "The Great Silky" and "Silver Dagger" ala Baez.

Our disdain would be blown away just about a year later when she came back into town as the protege of Bobby Kimmel and a member of his new group, "The Stone Poneys."

At first, we didn't realize who it was. She was svelte with natural raven hair cascading down her back, hip clothing (she even pulled off wearing a cape) and that voice!  She had discovered her "chest voice," and could belt it out or slip into the soprano falsetto for effect.  We were pretty sure Bobby was the catalyst in all this; but, not only did he not get credit for that, he was out soon after the group returned to L.A. and Kenny Edwards left the group.  Promoters and producers knew what they wanted, and it wasn't showmen or folk rock innovators.  It was babes, and this babe had a voice as great as her ambition.

So, anyway, in the early 80s I went to The Cup, now in a big slick facility right across from the U of A main gate, to perform and hang out among those who might know what was going on in the area gig-wise.  There they were, most of the players trying to make a living at it as well as the usual line-up of complete amateurs.

What was missing was the public.  The audience of performers and a few friends and girlfriends sat through it all, waiting to enthusiastically support their champion when it was their turn.  It was a sweet group of true music lovers, and a nice sharing experience.

The real musicians in this family of folkies formed a group they modestly called "The Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association" (TKMA) and this was their event now.  Some of these folks exhibited musical prowess to which I still aspire, and a few were well-known (if not well paid) in the area.   They were chewing on getting a folk festival going, so I joined up.

Trying to rebuild a fanbase for "folk music" was a daunting task for an outfit with no money to speak of.  My advertising experience told me we needed a more visible profile.

Travis was living in Tucson at the time, having had a devastating stroke that had utterly obliterated his phenomenal skill as a guitarist and left him with the typical speech impairment.

Being from Nogales, Arizona, Trav had gone to highschool, and performed, with Roger Smith, the film star who had been the prime romantic lead on the TV show "77Sunset Strip," and married Ann Margret.  When Roger heard about the stroke, he sent Travis one of the first electronic guitars so he could relearn how to play.  It wasn't long before Trav realized he would never come anywhere close to the skill level he considered minimal, and really couldn't muster the motivation to pursue rehab with the effort required.  The payoff was never going to be good enough.

I went to visit Travis, campaigning for him to come and emcee The Cup. His nephew, Earl Edmonson, (a fine musician and performer) said he'd never do it; but he did.  I'd pick him up, bring him to the event a little early, and we'd go over the line-up, me making notes for him, and sometimes supplying him with relevant one-liners between performers. We put out a press release about the "ongoing Tucson tradition" being hosted by a "local  living legend" and attendance picked up.

When the Tucson Folk Festival materialized, I was introduced on the Main Stage by Travis.  For me, it was historic.  Even though, like most of the big-timers I've known, his ego was insufferable at times and he was ruled by emotion, Travis had appreciated and helped me.  But, what I loved most was the incredible music and the carefully crafted comedy.  I learned much from him, and I miss him.

Here he is, the year before he died, singing with a group he loved, Los Mariachis...
Next week:  Meetings with The Smothers Brothers and The Limeliters.