by Mike Corrigan
He's in real estate these days and lives a quiet life in a modest brick rancher on Spokane's South Hill with his wife and 14-year old daughter. But in 1962, Chad Mitchell was a cultural emissary, a voice on the front lines of a social revolution and a member of one of the hottest tickets on the national college and club folk circuit. How the Chad Mitchell Trio -- a folk vocal group from Spokane, Wash., of all places -- got there is a textbook example of what's possible when one (literally) stumbles into the right place at the right time.
"When we started we didn't know anything," confesses Mitchell, who performs at the Met this week as part of the Singing Nuns' "Christmas Evermore" concert. "When the Kingston Trio had a hit in 1958 with 'Tom Dooley,' all the music publishing companies thought it was a complete fluke. But then their album sold like a million copies. They all went bananas because there weren't any other folk groups around."
The three guys who would form the Chad Mitchell Trio, (Chad Mitchell, Mike Kobluk and Mike Pugh) all attended Gonzaga University. In the summer of 1959, with very little performing experience under their collective belts, the newly-christened trio took a trip to New York City and found that their folk leanings, three-part harmonies, and amiable, all-American boy presentation were in high demand.
"We went to New York just kind of on a lark but the record companies were so hysterical to try and find 'folk' singers because they realized that something was up here. And so we got funneled into that. We were just damn lucky."
Faster than you can say "Goodnight Irene," the group was signed to a record label, recorded (with the aid of Harry Belafonte's assistant director) and packaged as the next big thing. Their first album was entitled The Chad Mitchell Trio Arrives.
"The first album was kind of a fake -- trying to make traditional things sound commercial," says Mitchell. "But we could sing. And that was the neat thing about it."
The group was on its way. But vocal folk ensembles weren't the only things happening in New York in 1960, either in popular music and in the country at large. While the Kingston Trio had made it okay for everyone to listen to folk music again -- for the first time since Pete Seeger and the Weavers had been blacklisted almost a decade earlier -- the music itself was also becoming, in the post-McCarthy era, more overtly political. Labor issues and civil rights were at the forefront of liberal politics, and the folk revival was fast becoming an instrument of social change.
Meanwhile, the Chad Mitchell Trio was undergoing the first in a series of lineup adjustments. After the initial album, Mike Pugh left and was replaced by Joe Frazier, a classically trained vocalist who had sung in the choruses of several Broadway shows.
"And that really became the trio," Mitchell says. "The original guitarist we brought from Spokane -- who was no more a folk guitarist than we were folk singers -- also left and that's when we found Jim [McGuinn]." (Note: Guitarist Jim McGuinn would leave the trio, form the Byrds and inexplicably change his name to Roger.)
With McGuinn as their instrumental muscle, the trio was a formidable performing unit. They gigged at several Greenwich Village clubs and toured the campus circuit extensively.
"We were doing this really topical, political stuff that worked at the colleges. The colleges were just starting to become politically alive. It was really a great time. And we were just innocent kids from Spokane who could sing getting caught up in this thing, sort of riding the crest of the movement. We were a reflection of the time."
The group recorded two more albums Mighty Day on Campus (1961) and At the Bitter End (1962) -- and scored hits with "Lizzie Borden" and "The John Birch Society" -- before embarking on a South American tour as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the Kennedy administration.
Explains Mitchell, "The idea was that we were supposed to run around South American and convince the locals that America wasn't such a bad place and that they needn't go communist."
"But," he laughs, "we were such a left-leaning group, it was kind of hard to not sympathize with them a little."
On a stop at a television studio in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a representative of the U.S. Information Office asked the group what songs they'd be performing on the show.
"We told him we thought we might play this and this -- and we'll probably sing 'Moscow Nights' in Russian. And he was like, oh you shouldn't do that. And we thought why not? I mean, that was exactly why we were supposed to be there. To show what the freedoms really were in this country. To show that we can sing stuff in Russian, Polish, Portuguese, whatever. We didn't want to sing it because it was a political song -- it wasn't -- but because it was a great song."
Upon returning to the United States, the group's fortunes began to turn. The trouble started with a song written by a young Minnesota-born folk singer/songwriter then making serious waves on the Greenwich Village scene.
"When Bob Dylan wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind,' we got it first," says Mitchell. "We recorded it and wanted to release it as a single. But our producer wouldn't let us -- because at that time, no song with the word 'death' in it had ever become a hit."
Dylan's manager instead gave the song to Peter, Paul & amp; Mary, who turned it into a huge hit, helping to establish them as the most popular folk group of the early '60s.
"We were just furious about it," says Mitchell. "Not only that, but when the first pressing of our album (originally entitled In Action) sold out, the producer renamed the second pressing Blowin' in the Wind. That was it. We left the company [Kapp Records] like that. I don't think Belafonte has ever forgiven us for that, but there was nothing we could do. It was such a philosophical difference."
The trio signed to a new label (Mercury), but the folk group frenzy that had propelled them to early success had by now largely evaporated. With the ascent of the Beatles and electric rock, folk vocal groups were increasingly seen as yesterday's news. To complicate matters, a rift had formed within the group -- Kobluk and Frazier on one side and Mitchell on the other.
"Our manager had come up with an idea to do a folk-oriented TV show called Folk Songs. I was supposed to be the host, which from our manager's point of view made sense because we were partners in this thing. It made sense to me, too, since I did most of the introductions for the trio, anyway. That's how naive I was. Well, when I dropped that bomb on the other two guys it was just kind of like 'boing'. And that was the beginning of the rift. Suddenly we weren't trio any more, we were Chad and two other guys. I didn't see it that way. But they did."
"We also started to run out of real viable material," continues Mitchell, who finally left the group in 1965. "It came to a point where we were going to do a piece about one of Johnson's daughters. And I thought, 'Why would I want to satirize one of the president's daughters? The John Birch Society -- that was worth satirizing. I was just getting tired of it. It wasn't much fun anymore."
After Mitchell's departure, Kobluk and Frazier secured the talents of John Denver to fill the gap. As the Mitchell Trio, they continued for several more albums until there were no more original members left. By 1969, Denver had embarked on a solo career.
Mitchell made a half-hearted attempt at a solo career. "I didn't quite know what to do," he says. "I was a group singer. That's what I loved to do. Solo performing scared the hell out of me." By the late '60s, he realized that his moment had truly passed.
"As the '60s wore on, our brand of protest seemed pretty tame," he says putting the group's music into a historical context. "The beauty of the early '60s was that a lot of people were really emotionally involved in what was going on, the civil rights movement in particular. They could do something. It was something that was in this country, happening locally and it was such a great cause that young people could get behind it. And they did get behind it. But then the Vietnam War happened. And the focus went to Vietnam -- 'over there' someplace -- and you no longer had a personal investment in the same sense as you had before. Somehow, the civil rights movement and our songs fit. And that period still means a lot to people because it reminds them of a time when they were personally involved in issues and politics. And our music was part of that."