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Back in the early '60s, the Chad Mitchell Trio were one of the top singing attractions on the campus and club folk circuit, rivaling for a time their somewhat more well-established competitors the Kingston Trio and '60s newcomers Peter, Paul and Mary. And but for a mistake in judgment by their record label, they might have been one of the most enduring '60s folk trios.
Although the Chad Mitchell Trio were closely associated during their best years with New York City, where they recorded three live albums in as many years, they actually hailed from the other end of the United States. Chad Mitchell (born 1936), from Portland, Oregon, was a student at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, on a choral scholarship, when he met Mike Kobluk (born 1937), from British Columbia. Together with a third student, Mike Pugh, they formed a trio in 1958, a three-way partnership that was named the Chad Mitchell Trio because his name sounded best. The next year, with the folk music revival just taking off, they headed for New York City and secured a gig at the Blue Angel nightclub in Greenwich Village, initially for four weeks but soon extended for 12 weeks, billed with South African singer Miriam Makeba and comedian Shelley Berman. Both Makeba and the Chad Mitchell Trio were subsequently selected by Harry Belafonte to appear with him at the Carnegie Hall show that was recorded and released by RCA.
The group was signed to Colpix Records in 1960 and released one album, The Chad Mitchell Trio Arrives, which passed by the public largely without notice. From that effort, the Chad Mitchell Trio did pick up musical advisor Milt Okun, who helped direct them to the songs best suited to their abilities and assisted in helping them avoid sounding too much like the Kingston Trio. Mike Pugh dropped out of the group soon after the release of that album and was replaced by baritone Joe Frazier (born 1939, Lebanon, Pennsylvania), who had classical voice training and had sung with the Robert Shaw Chorale and in the choruses of several Broadway shows. It was around this same time that the trio also added to its instrumental muscle in the person of Jim McGuinn, a guitarist who had begun to make a splash locally and from a stay as a support player with the Limeliters. McGuinn remained with the group until 1963 (he can be seen in the background of the cover photo of the At the Bitter End album), when he lit out for Los Angeles and eventual rock stardom as co-founder of the Byrds.
The trio was signed to Kapp Records, a division of MCA, in 1961. By that time, the folk music revival was in full swing, and the group found a very receptive and accommodating audience at the Brooklyn College concert that was recorded as Mighty Day on Campus. This live recording worked so well that Kapp Records and the trio decided that this was the best way in which to record the group, whose next album, At the Bitter End, was done the same way the following year from the legendary Greenwich Village club.
By this time, the Chad Mitchell Trio were one of the most popular folk groups in a field that was rapidly filling up with male and mixed male/female vocal groups. Part of the secret of their success, both on-stage and on their albums, was that they presented a careful mix of topical songs and humor, and some of the latter, although also at times topical (their recording of "The John Birch Society" remains a very funny song, as well as the probable inspiration for Bob Dylan's formerly banned "Talking John Birch Society Blues"), was also sometimes just goofy. They were perceived properly as funny and irreverent, but not "dangerous," and sensible rather than radical, attributes that may have helped get them picked as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the Kennedy White House and sent on a tour of South America, where more politically oriented folk groups were passed over. Of course, this same "irreverence" made the trio an anathema to the more radical political elements that soon overtook folk music and later folk-rock as well. But in 1962, it worked very well, and no one questioned their relevance or that of their records. Additionally, the group's singing, especially with the presence of Frazier in the lineup, was impeccable, more solid in some ways than that of the Kingston Trio. They could handle blues ("Alberta") and inspirational numbers with equal aplomb, and project soaring harmonies with seemingly little effort.
The first real problems for the Chad Mitchell Trio came up over Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Dylan was still virtually unknown when the trio had discovered the song in 1962, courtesy of a demo passed to them by Milt Okun, who, in turn, had gotten it from Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. They were eager to record it, but their producer at Kapp didn't want them to do the song, either as a single, as they proposed, or even as a track on their forthcoming new album, The Chad Mitchell Trio in Action. The dispute blew up in the faces of all concerned when "Blowin' in the Wind," as recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary (also protégés of Okun), became a number two single and suddenly established them as the best-known folk trio of the early '60s — their accompanying album, and most of their subsequent records, routinely sold in the hundreds of thousands and millions, while the Chad Mitchell Trio were left in the shadows, part of a commercial backwater. To make matters worse, Kapp Records, seeking to rectify its mistake, hastily re-pressed and re-released the In Action album in 1963 with the title Blowin' in the Wind. The damage had been done, however, not only to the group's commercial fortunes, but also to its relationship with its producer and its label.
Ironically, more than a year after this debacle, the newly organized duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, trying to make it as part of the folk boom, thought enough of two songs from the Chad Mitchell Trio's At the Bitter End album, Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp's "You Can Tell the World" and Ed McCurdy's "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," to stick them on as the opening songs of their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. That album and those two songs did little to change the face of popular music at the time; more than year after that, however, one of the other songs off the album, Paul Simon's "The Sounds of Silence," was redubbed with electric instruments into a Byrds soundalike track and topped the U.S. charts, opening the superstar careers of Simon & Garfunkel and seeing to it that their covers of Chad Mitchell Trio songs would be heard by millions of listeners over the next few decades. A change in labels to Mercury Records during 1965 failed to settle matters, as the new people in charge of their recording career saw the era waning for folk trios, and wanted instead to push Chad Mitchell as a solo act. The disputes between Mitchell, Frazier, and Kobluk worsened, caused by the obvious advantage that Mitchell had in terms of name recognition, and a change in name to the Mitchell Trio didn't help very much.
By then, the commercial moment truly had passed — Dylan had gone electric, and with him rock had co-opted the biggest part of the folk audience; the chance for big record sales was over, although the group kept recording for another two years. Mitchell left the group in 1965, to be replaced by a young John Denver, while the ensemble itself was rechristened the Mitchell Trio. Frazier left two years later, and Kobluk exited a year after that — Denver kept a trio together with new members David Boise and Mike Johnson, under the name of Denver, Boise & Johnson, until his own solo career began in 1969 on RCA, courtesy of Milt Okun's efforts.
In the years since, the original members of the classic Chad Mitchell Trio — Mitchell, Frazier, and Kobluk — have occasionally gotten back together to play for audiences who remember the best days of the early-'60s folk revival. The group's recordings for Kapp, Colpix, and Mercury were reissued at various times, primarily the latter material, with the intent of capitalizing on John Denver's success during the '70s. Denver has also participated in some of those reunions.