By MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hey looked innocuous enough when they started: Clean-cut, dressed in subdued suits and ties with nary a whisker on their youthful, beaming faces. There was none of that unwholesome stuff with the hips, either, like Elvis was doing -- none of that devilish rock beat that was already poisoning the youth of the era. No, the Chad Mitchell Trio sang simple folk music -- clear, confident voices ringing out with gutsy tremolo in pitch-perfect harmony. Their mothers must have been proud. Yet the trio, formed in 1958 at Gonzaga University, made their name in the 1960s by means of an even more audacious tactic than a gyrating pelvis: Political satire. And in that moment between Elvis and the Beatles, the Chad Mitchell Trio was a fixture on the Billboard charts, powered by their commentary on social and political issues that crossed the boundary of what was acceptable at the time.
What did you learn in school today
Dear little boys of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie
I learned that soldiers seldom die
I learned that everybody's free
That's what the teacher said to me
And that's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school
I learned that policemen are my friends
I learned that justice never ends
I learned that murderers die for their crimes
Even if we make a mistake sometimes
I learned that wars are not so bad
I learned of the great ones we have had
We fought in Germany and in France
And someday I may get MY chance!
What did you learn in school today
Dear little boys of mine?
I learned our government must be strong
It's always right and never wrong
Our leaders are the finest men
And so we elect them again and again
And that's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school
It hardly seems subversive in 2007, when bands like Green Day excoriate the government with torrents of street-level verbiage that require their CDs to carry warning labels for parents. Yet many of the Chad Mitchell songs were considered too controversial to be played on the radio -- a trait that set them apart from other folk artists of their day.
"If you listened to some of this stuff today," says Chad Mitchell himself, "you'd wonder: What's wrong with that?"
Now, nearly 50 years after forming, the trio are back together, with Tom Paxton (who wrote the song above for the trio) and other members of the band, for a concert Saturday night at the INB Center.
So is "protest music" too strong a term for what the Chad Mitchell Trio became?
"No, I take it as a compliment," says Joe Frazier, one of the core members of the trio and a vital contributor to its political angle. "To protest means to speak for something as well as against something, you know?"
The trio sang pointed songs about the hyper-conservative John Birch Society, about Barry Goldwater and the Vietnam War, about the draft, the KKK and racial integration in colleges -- all without sounding whiny, bitchy or angry, as so much protest music later became. They also sang a broad assortment of more traditional folk songs about love, life, hurricanes and a "Marvelous Toy." They even tossed in a few gospel songs for good measure.
"We weren't avant-garde in any sense of political thinking," Mitchell says. "The more we sang and got involved in the material, the more educated [about social issues] we became. So in our case, we were kinda getting fed by the movement and feeding it back."
ROAD TRIP TO NEW YORK
The trio began with Gonzaga Men's Glee Club members Mitchell, Mike Kobluk and Brian Finnegan. Finnegan, who "didn't have time to go out and sing for beer money," according to Kobluk, dropped out and Mike Pugh took his place. A priest-in-training by the name of Reinard W. Beaver -- a true believer, it would seem -- had helped Mitchell book some engagements before and took an interest in the new trio. Heading to New York for Army chaplain school, Beaver invited the young trio to ride with him -- "ostensibly, to sing on The Ed Sullivan Show," Kobluk says. "Of course, he had no contact with Ed Sullivan, and it wasn't until three to four years later that we finally did."
So the trio, like another famous Gonzaga student before them, packed into a car with Beaver and a guitarist and headed out of town with no money, no contacts and no plan. Father Beaver, full of faith, pitched the group's performance to anyone along the way who would listen.
"Like in Miles City, Montana, he heard a golf country club was having a meeting," Kobluk recalls, "and he would say, 'That's where we're singing tonight.' He'd go in and tell them he had this group out in the car who were on their way to New York to sing on The Ed Sullivan Show." Even when they balked, Beaver would talk them into it, Kobluk says. "What happened in Miles City was typical -- we ended up with $50 to $60 more than we started with, and they called someone they knew to discount some motel rooms. So all of a sudden we had dinner, a few extra dollars and a place to stay that night."
New York proved to be more difficult than expected, but with the help of a literary agent who had connections in the entertainment industry, the trio got engagements and that all-important record deal.
"We didn't have the slightest idea what folk music was about," Mitchell says. "We were singers and didn't even play instruments. But everybody was looking for the next Kingston Trio, so we got lots of auditions." Mitchell says the initial success of the Kingston Trio was considered by many in the industry to be a fluke until their second album, From the Hungry I, went gold. "They realized that this was a phenomenon -- that the whole college market was hungry for this kind of entertainment."
Milt Okun, a music arranger/singer/producer who worked with Harry Belafonte, was brought in to help to polish the trio's sound. He became their music director and even something of a mentor. "Without him, we probably would never have been heard from again," Mitchell says. The trio, who actually wrote few of the songs they sang, credit Okun with helping to develop their social conscience and with charting their course by bringing them the music that defined what they became. They recorded as backup singers for Belafonte, sang on Pat Boone's TV show and lined up a tour with Bob Newhart.
At the same time, Pugh went back to school and the group picked up Joe Frazier, who had the strongest social and political convictions of any of them. He tugged the trio's helm even further to the port side.
"My father was a steelworker, and I was raised in a working-class family," Frazier says, "so my own political opinions leaned rather hard to the left at an early age -- 15, 16 years old."
Frazier admired the music of the Weavers, a folk band formed in 1948 that greatly influenced and inspired future folkies. The Weavers came under FBI investigation and were eventually blacklisted during the McCarthy era because of their support for labor unions and their leftist views. Member Pete Seeger had once belonged to the Communist Party of the United States. As a result of the blacklisting, radio stations terminated their airplay and the group virtually disappeared from public view.
"I think the Chad Mitchell Trio were direct descendants of the Weavers ideologically, politically and musically," Frazier says. "They were the generation before us. [Weavers member] Freddy Hellerman actually played on some of our albums with us and wrote some songs that we did, including one we'll be doing in Spokane: 'Business Goes on as Usual.'"
Frazier felt the sting of censure personally when he joined the Air Force, right out of high school. He auditioned for the Singing Sergeants -- a military chorus -- and was initially accepted. "Then I found out I wasn't," he says. "I was under investigation because of my politics. I was reading the wrong things, and saying the wrong things, and I ended up three months in the stockade." Considered a security risk even though he had broken no law nor done anything wrong, he was offered an "honorable" discharge -- and after his imprisonment, he was ready to accept.
"If I was not a radical when I was put in the brig, I certainly was one when I got out," Frazier says. Fortunately, he then had funds from the G.I. Bill to do what he wanted to do in the first place: go to college. "I was a Christian at the same time, and I identified my Christianity -- which has a lot to do with the poor and with peace -- with my political opinions," Frazier says. "I didn't really see a difference or a conflict between them at all." An Episcopal priest since 1973, after his confessed "hippie period" in the late 1960s, Frazier still considers himself a protest person in what he preaches.
The trio, with Okun and Belafonte, sifted more than 150 hopefuls before they settled on Frazier as Pugh's replacement. It's the Mitchell-Kobluk-Frazier incarnation of the trio that will be the one performing on Saturday night.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Mitchell and Kobluk were relatively apolitical when the Chad Mitchell Trio began. Soon, however, they became activists. By 1965, they were guest celebrities at the Stars for Freedom rally in Montgomery at the end of the Selma march.
"We had come out of the Eisenhower period, which was very secure and safe and you did whatever you did by the numbers and you were promised a wonderful life," Mitchell says. "Why the kids changed, I have no idea, but they revolted against that. In a great number of cases, they were thinking that it was all a lie."
The late 1950s were "a very apathetic period for college students," says Kobluk, "and we were examples. We had no opinions, and there were few who did. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement were making a lot of noise nationally, and college students started to take some of those issues as their own."
"For me personally, the civil rights situation was the first thing that alerted me," Mitchell says. "It also got to a lot of young people who were thinking for the longest time -- especially if you weren't from the South -- that everything's OK. It's been OK, and our parents are saying it's OK. But it didn't take very long for the college students to jump on that [issue] and say things aren't all right, and haven't been all right, and we're going to become aware of what's going on.
"Our material was ripe for their digestion at that point," Mitchell says. "There was almost nothing we could do on stage with our satire that they didn't get."
The trio were the first to record Bob Dylan's iconic "Blowin' in the Wind" when Dylan himself was a relative unknown, but their label refused to release it as a single because of the song's fleeting reference to death. Okun gave it instead to Peter, Paul & amp; Mary, and it became one of their biggest hits.
Indeed, the trio dealt with censorship throughout their career. Kobluk recalled incidents during live interviews in radio stations where DJs would say, with a big smile, "Let's play a song!" Time and again, they'd pull out an album jacket with big black marks penned through songs that the station manager or the network had deemed too controversial for America's tender ears. In some cases, that meant most of the tracks on the album. "In a lot of ways, the material that we did helped us with the college crowd in live performances," Kobluk says, "but hurt us to the extent that we couldn't get the airplay that Peter, Paul and Mary did, or the Kingston Trio, or the Brothers Four, who did material that was not controversial and without a point of view."
The lineup of the Chad Mitchell Trio evolved over time and spawned some notable names, not the least of which was John Denver, aka Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. (seriously), who replaced Mitchell in 1965 when he left to do his own thing. Frazier befriended Denver, took him to his first peace rally and helped to shape his social views. The trio also launched the career of guitarist Jim McGuinn, who later changed his name to Roger McGuinn, formed the Byrds, and secured a spot in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. When Kobluk eventually left the group in 1968, he was replaced by Michael Johnson, who later released his chart-topping "Bluer Than Blue" and numerous country hits after that.
Since his time with the trio, Mitchell has recorded three solo albums, sung for a cabaret in New York, worked in theater, attempted to start a vineyard in Oregon, worked as the director of entertainment for Delta Queen Steamboat Co. in New Orleans and worked as a realtor in Spokane, where he still lives. Now 70, Mitchell is retired but says he still can't keep up with his "things to do" list.
After a decade in show business, Kobluk moved back to Spokane from New York and finished his degree at Gonzaga -- he had been a semester short when fame struck. A few years later, when the World's Fair started to materialize, "I literally camped out at King Cole's door," he says, and it paid off. Kobluk became one of the first dozen employees of Expo '74.
As Expo's Director of Performing and Visual Arts, Kobluk was charged with filling the brand-new Opera House during its premier run in 1974. In October of that year, he was hired by the city of Spokane to run the Opera House -- along with other facilities over his 28-year career with the city. Kobluk retired in 2001.
THEN AND NOW
Despite their decidedly political bent, the group never lost their sense of humor nor forgot that they were primarily entertainers. They're promising their fans a revised version of "The John Birch Society," rewritten by Rep. Dave Obey of Wisconsin to address more current affairs. Kobluk quotes Frazier as occasionally introducing a song by saying, "The names have changed, but the issues remain the same."
The upcoming concert in Spokane is also part of a long-term project to create a DVD that will include footage from the trio's appearance on Dinah Shore's TV show, The Ed Sullivan Show and The Bell Telephone Hour.
Most of the clips, they'd never seen until recently. After all those performances and such a long career, the Chad Mitchell Trio accumulated quite a few highlights.
The Chad Mitchell Trio will perform on Saturday, Oct. 6, at 8 pm at the INB Center. Tickets: $28-$38. Visit www.inbpac.com or call 325-SEAT.