Three young men cluster around a single microphone, beaming under powerful spotlights. All three sport button-down shirts, slacks, short hair slicked away from their foreheads. They even have identical grins.
Two of them strum guitars and the third vigorously plucks a banjo, their voices ringing out clear and brassy in a sweet, three-part tangle. The lyrics are jolly and the music technically simple, but their harmonies are spine-tingling, their enthusiasm contagious.
They look and sound like three Cleaver brothers leading a Boy Scout sing-along. But, hey, it's 1957. On the Road has just been published, Jailhouse Rock is out in theaters, Eisenhower is president and Barbie hasn't yet been invented.
They're The Kingston Trio--just three nice boys who permanently altered the landscape of American folk music.
Fifty years later, Nick Reynolds--often remembered for being the shortest and peppiest member of the group--reclines on an overstuffed beige sofa, his cane resting beside him. A lazy ceiling fan ruffles the pages of the TV Guide on the coffee table, and a fluffy black dog lolls on the floor. Reynolds' house, a cozy, wood-shingled bungalow, seems modest and diminutive next to the ostentatious homes on this quiet Coronado street.
At 74, Reynolds--who'll receive the Lifetime Achievement Award as part of this year's San Diego Music Awards--has had three hip replacements, and a fourth looms in the near future. His hearing is impaired, and his speech is deliberate, causing him to choose his trademark wisecracks carefully and deliver them slowly. He doesn't sing or play guitar anymore, save for one special weekend each August when he reunites with his former bandmates for 'Trio Fantasy Camp.' That's where, among other activities, 20 or so die-hard fans take turns performing as the third member of the trio--for a paid audience to boot.
Between sips of root beer from a chilled glass bottle, he reminisces about his past. He remembers his days with the trio fondly but speaks modestly of them and hardly seems preoccupied with his former fame.
'I just have never even given a second thought to how will I be remembered or what will my legacy be,' Reynolds says. 'I really, I don't, it doesn't interest me.'
The question of Reynolds' legacy is an interesting one. Though The Kingston Trio's contributions to American folk music are lovingly remembered by a healthy contingent of lifelong fans, their popularity seems to have been overshadowed by the more politically charged folk acts that came after them. Modern audiences are probably more apt to recognize the fictitious version of The Kingston Trio satirized in the mockumentary A Mighty Wind.
But for many years, The Kingston Trio was the best selling music act in the world. After signing with Capitol Records in 1957, they became the first group to capitalize on the college circuit--touring campus after campus, 300 days a year, well into the '60s. All while recording three or four albums a year.
'They really were the group that made the LP the thing that people bought,' says Pete Overly, a retired mechanical engineer and four-time fantasy camper. 'Before then, there were LPs, but [it] wasn't the commercial success that the record companies were looking for. They were just looking to sell singles.'
The trio took home the Grammy for Best Country/Western performance at the first-ever Grammy Awards in 1958, and the following year they were awarded the Grammy for Best Folk Performance. They made the covers of Life, Parade and Look magazines. At one point, there were four Kingston Trio albums in the Billboard Top 10--an accomplishment that has never been repeated.
'They just found good old fun folk songs to sing, and they put their own twist to them, or at least sang 'em in a way that made them really appealing,' says Overly, who still vividly remembers sitting on his sister's bed and hearing for the first time the trio sing 'Tom Dooley.' (The song that initially made them famous, 'Tom Dooley' was originally a 23-verse traditional folk song about a lynching. As performed by The Kingston Trio, it became a song that made college kids snap their fingers and tap their toes, along with other now-famous tunes like 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone' and 'Sloop John B.')
'Because we were so financially viable, every record company had to have a folk singing act,' Reynolds recalls. 'Peter Paul & Mary were put together as a group to be in competition, you know, and that's fine, but it certainly diluted the record market for us. Dylan admitted it in his book that he would never have been able to sing the stuff he sang if it hadn't been for us.'
But as the '60s progressed, Dylan, Joan Baez and the rest of the up-and-coming folk crowd wrote songs that tried to change the world. In this movement-of-meaning, The Kingston Trio drew criticism for not being political enough.
Reynolds says his band came of age in a different time. He saw the more outspoken role models of his generation 'squashed like bugs' during the McCarthy era. All The Kingston Trio wanted to do was entertain.
'They were relegated to pre-assassination America, which was an Eisenhower era, a feel-good era,' says Tom DeLisle, a writer and TV producer who emcees Trio Fantasy Camp. 'The guys who came along after were fairly surly and quiet, looking at you like they wanted to kill you as part of the act, while the Trio looked like if you got a flat tire on the way home from the concert, they'd stop help you change the tire.'
Once The Beatles signed with Capitol in late 1963, The Kingston Trio's record sales began to taper off. Tired from touring and well aware of the shift in popular music, the original act disbanded in 1967. Fellow founding member Bob Shane bought the name, however, and different incarnations of the group still continue to tour--striped shirts and all--playing to packed, gray-haired crowds.
Once he left the trio, Reynolds put away his guitar and moved to the backwoods of Oregon, where he spent the next few decades running a farm and raising a family.
'I caught a lot of salmon, did a lot of things, chopped a lot of wood,' he says. Nearly 20 years later, tired of rural living, he moved back home to Coronado where he met his third wife, Leslie.
'She's the one I always was looking for,' Reynolds says. 'And it's just--here we are. In heaven. Just the dog and the two of us and all the kids around. We have a quiet social life here. We don't have a lot of friends, we don't do a lot of things.'
Contemporary music seems to be something of an enigma to Reynolds, who says he enjoys relaxing to mostly Hawaiian, jazz standards and light classical music. There is, however, one notable exception.
'I was very impressed with the movie, what is it, Nine? Eight? The thing Eminem did--8 Mile,' Reynolds says. 'It was fascinating. I mean, the whole thing and the whole culture is fascinating. I thought it was very good.'
Reynolds continues to collect royalties from The Kingston Trio's music, as well as a percentage of what the group takes home from the fantasy camp. His wife, who's almost two decades younger, runs a nonprofit organization and manages real estate. Reynolds says he passes his time grocery shopping, cooking and hanging out with his family.
'When you're 74, you look forward to as little pain as possible,' he says. 'As many close friends and family you can have around you... a few good friends that can be construed as family, and peace and quiet. A little nap here and there.'
If Reynolds is quick to dismiss the prospect of his legacy, there are still plenty of people around, both fans and friends, who aren't.
'Nick Reynolds is the finest harmony singer I've ever heard in my life,' says Trio-mate Shane. 'He can sing harmony to anything, immediately. That put him in a real league of his own. He was absolutely the very best at that.'
'We always say, without Nick there's no camp,' DeLisle says. 'His presence has always been, to me, the central focus, the central factor that makes the fantasy camps work. He just has that kind of status and presence and reputation. He's the man; he's the guy. Everybody's crazy about him.'
Nick Reynolds will be honored for Lifetime Achievement at the San Diego Music Awards show, Viejas Concerts in the Park in Alpine, on Monday, Sept. 17.