Three weeks ago, The Kingston Trio traveled through town between dates. They graciously agreed to stop for an interview. We set them up on our stage with the main curtain as a backdrop and videotaped our conversation with them.
Of course they described the kind of concert our patrons can expect when we have them perform on our stage next April, but what struck me in the conversation was the depth of their musicianship and appreciation for a variety of music styles.
The Kingston Trio was known for performing and recording popular folk music, especially between 1958 and 1963. The current iteration of the iconic trio features George Grove, Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty, each of whom is quite a gifted musician.
George sings, plays guitar, banjo, piano and trumpet, and has a Master’s degree in jazz composition. Bill sings, plays guitar and banjo, and has been a music director, record producer and songwriter. Rick sings, plays guitar and directs operas.
Their collected knowledge of music is as broad and deep as their talents. When we asked them what music they listened to themselves, the variety was astounding: Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, old jazz standards, ethnic music from Asia and Africa, Richard Thompson, old swing, Henry Hipkens and Hank Cramer, they responded. Bill noted that as they travel through northern Arizona and New Mexico, they often tune in KTNN Radio to listen to Navajo music.
This all just goes to show that music doesn’t come in a box unless a record label puts it there.
The original members of The Kingston Trio pulled from the collected history of American folk music in the late 1950s and added their own distinctive style. If you listen carefully, you'll hear their love of calypso (they put Kingston in their name in tribute to the Jamaican city and the Caribbean music it harbored) and the influences of Hawaiian music on founding member Bob Shane, a native of the state.
George noted that playing Kingston Trio music is “like painting by numbers, because we have the outline of these wonderful songs. We fill in the spaces in a little different way every night in the concert. It’s fun for us to sing a different note or play a different note every now and then.”
Of course that’s where their grasp of different musical styles comes in. What note they sing or play can easily be influenced by their knowledge of Bach or their familiarity with native music from any number of cultures. That’s what keeps music alive.
The first time George heard country singer Ronnie Milsap, Ronnie was doing a lounge act in Nashville. "He was singing the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, all the Motown stuff," George said. "He was singing Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and he was singing country stuff. Every time he slipped from one genre to another he was perfect. Then somebody said, 'let’s record that song you did, that country one,' and from that moment on he was country. But if you listen to a recording of him doing the Four Tops, you’d have no clue it was Ronnie Milsap."
Because Ronnie Milsap isn’t a country musician. He’s a musician.
Terry S. Davis
Photo: Video capture from our interview with (l to r) George Grove, Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty