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Louis Gottlieb and his Era
If you, like I did for a decade, play popular music for others in bar or concert, listen up

Hey!

 

If you professionally play popular music for others, in bar or concert, listen up, have a swig of Madeira and consider this: If you have ever sensed the tension between popular entertainment and ancient art and struggled to reconcile them, if you ever wanted to understand precisely what it actually is you do and share that knowledge and utilize it; if you have ever wanted to elevate an evening’s performance into something beyond a drunken goof, then whether you knew him or not - and whether you know it or not - you owe someone that drink and the mandated contemplation.

  

The Folk Era (a term coined by Dr. Louis Gottlieb to cover that period of popular music from the advent of Harry Belafonte, Josh White, the Weavers, through the Kingston Trio and its imitators, to the appearance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan - essentially the decade ending in 1964) produced some of the more interesting and best educated people to grace popular music ever, and their cultural (if not musical) influence was immense, if only admitted by their beneficiaries under torture.

 

Lou Gottlieb was probably the most interesting.  Whatever attractions he had to the Era, the Era certainly provided attractions that endure today, and for which it is owed more respect that it has received.   Note to a friend from Lou Gottlieb:

 

Weird Happenings, Monday, July 8, 96: Having achieved my weight goal of 200 lbs., on June 29, l996, I started experimenting to define a "maintenance' diet. My problem started at a July 4th barbecue when I had three scoops of delicious, spicy salsa dip, then ate a roasted head of garlic drenched in oil and a serving of salad with an oily dressing. I followed that up with yet another large dip into the salsa. When I swallowed that, it was less than a minute before a radioactive tube of cement formed in my upper intestine. Actually it was just below my left rib cage near the center.

 

One minute later I was on the floor. Not completely passed out, but very weak. I lay there for a half-hour and then got up and drove home. I thought it was an attack of hyperglycemia. Wrong diagnosis, except that taking some anti-hyperglycemic pills did make me feel better. Since then I have got steadily weaker.   ….I am bleeding internally. It could be an ulcer or it could be cancer. Doctor is giving me Zantac to stop the bleeding and a whole bunch of blood tests to find out what's wrong. I feel like I'm not long for this planet, and that's okay with me. I'm gonna stick around to see what happens and I'll keep you informed. One thing I have learned -- the intensive care I lavished on my diabetes made me overlook some other symptoms, like maybe I lost the weight too easily. Hasta lluego…………………

 

Three days later……

 

Lou Gottlieb, the wise-cracking, bass fiddle-thumping founder of the Limeliters folk music trio of the 1960s, died yesterday <Thursday July 11, 1996> in a Sebastopol hospital after a brief illness. He was 72.

Best known for his constant jokes between songs, Mr. Gottlieb was also an accomplished singer, a doctor of musicology, a <San Francisco>Chronicle classical music critic (for two weeks) and the owner of a so-called ``hippie ranch'' near Occidental that he once attempted to donate to God, unsuccessfully. He also played in the 1968 movie "I Love You Alice B. Toklas" with Peter Sellers. He grew up in La Crescenta, completed his B.A. at UCLA, then sang with "The Gateway Singers," whom he left to take a Ph.D. in music at U.C. Berkeley in 1958.

``Clean mind, clean body . . . take your pick,'' Mr. Gottlieb would crack, before the group sang one of its best-known tunes, ``Have Some Madeira, M'Dear,'' about what happens when an older man persuades a younger woman to take a sip of wine too many.

Chronicle critic John Wasserman said the Limeliters ``attained a stature equaled perhaps only by the Kingston Trio and the Weavers.'' The trio, which included Glenn Yarbrough and Alex Hassilev, performed from 1959 to 1963, with several reunions later….

The group's biggest hit was ``A Dollar Down'' in 1961, but it was best known for its 16 record albums and its concert performances during the folk music boom of the 1960s, in which Yarborough's vibrant tenor would be offset by Mr. Gottlieb's witty introductions, monologues and one-liners. Among their popular tunes were ``John Henry,'' ``There's a Meeting Here Tonight'' and ``Those Were the Days.''

After the Limeliters broke up to allow Yarbrough to launch a solo career, Mr. Gottlieb bought the 31-acre Morning Star ranch in the woods near Occidental as a retreat to allow him to practice the piano.

Before long, however, the kind- hearted musician invited dozens of down-and-out guests to camp out on the property, to the ire of neighbors who summoned sheriff's deputies and complained of noise, nudity and unsanitary conditions.

In 1967, Mr. Gottlieb was fined $500 for health code violations, and 15 of his guests were arrested and jailed. Three years later, Mr. Gottlieb attempted to legally donate his ranch to God. A judge turned down the request, ruling that God would have to appear in person to accept the gift…..Funeral arrangements have not been made.

 

By the by, I hope, should I die of cancer or some painful horror, I have the good sense and mental acumen to address a few last notes to friends that sort of deflect the fear and loathing around to Gottlieb’s attitude, sort of a ‘well, it looks like the end here, but man, let me tell you how good my last meal was…..’  Here’s a guy with diabetes and cancer and who has just had his ticket punched for the final train ride.  There is no fear, only interest and a radiated concern for the recipient.  He himself was centered and okay.  How can you not like him?

 

Off message.   The Folk Era.  What is its legacy?  What big cultural thingy did the Folk Era provide? 

 

Well, for one thing, the overriding popularity of the guitar, kicking the piano out of its first place spot it had held for centuries.  Yes, yes, everyone claims it had to do with Elvis (except for the real hypocrites and frauds who claim to have been influenced to learn guitar by Leadbelly, that famous ‘worn’ record of Robert Johnson they discovered in the collection of an unnamed Village friend, and those even more obscure....) and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll but the facts are otherwise and born out by the sales figures of the C. M. Martin and Gibson companies, as well as those of other acoustic guitar manufacturers like the cheap but ubiquitous Stella.  They correspond almost exactly to the popularity of those icky, commercial folkies. 

 

For another, entertainment for a living, in the form of folk music, became an attractive and acceptable vocation for the stodgy middle class, safe exotica.  All age groups could tolerate the haunting melodies, close harmonies and mostly unthreatening image of the folkies, white and black.  It was very inclusive music; the Kingston Trio - for example - sang in Hawaiian, Fijian, Watusi, French, Spanish, and English, often on the same album - sometimes very badly,  but the effort was there.  Effort isn't everything, of course, the New Age notwithstanding.  Trio member Dave Guard, in singing Will Holt’s Raspberry, Strawberries on the Sold Out! album, has had his French called into serious question.   It is highly unlikely the chorus of this reflective love song was meant to seduce by singing “The cow is in the great cheese,” but really, who knows about the French, anyway?  Women open like ripe fruit to stranger lines.  I might try it.   

 

Guard faked carefully rehearsed bits as spontaneous humor, and that presentation format became de rigueur for his and the Trio’s many, many imitators.  Guard, however, was always generous and honest in his then enormous fame.  “I’m just doing Lou Gottlieb,” he said to anyone who cared.  They didn’t. 

 

Gottlieb cheerfully looked like a distinguished Jewish music professor which, in fact, he was.  In the 1950’s, those things mattered in mainstream entertainment, because Gottlieb, to become momentarily famous, had to use Yarbrough and Hassilev as his front to do so.  They got together as a trio at Aspen at a club called the Limelite.  It was a route many other groups, including the Eagles, would later follow: get together and get good in Colorado, move back to California and get famous. 

 

The Kingston Trio was the first super group to emerge from California, but there was a huge music scene there in the 1950’s, independent of the rest of the nation, and Lou Gottlieb was a prime mover.  He led The Gateway Singers in San Francisco, who were the local gods of the clubs, and about the only act nationally of mixed race.   His comedy was ripped-off relentlessly by what agents would then (And now?  Do they still?) charmlessly call “less ethnic” performers, although even here he was gracious.  “I never tell anyone who I stole from,” he would laugh.  Hard to say, Lou.  Aside from some insignificant similarities to other jazz and folk performers’ delivery, or comedians like Mort Sahl, Gottlieb stands alone. 

 

He was once clearly if briefly Ed Sullivan’s favorite comedian, and therefore the nation's.

 

He could be risqué, or as he cheerfully announced: “Here comes the smut, Martha….”  No, indeed.  Although reputed to be a lady’s man of passing interest, Gottlieb’s on stage gags, for all the buildup to a lascivious punch line, were charming and rather bland by even 1960’s shock meters.  He did a song about an actual starlet, Vikki Duggan, who wore a dress cut ‘so low in the back…..it revealed a new cleavage.    Well, I was ecstatic…..”  Then: “Vikki turn your back on me, come on darlin’ just for me….Cause there is something so appealing, that your eyes are not revealing…..”  After concluding Ms. Dugan was more attractive “going the other way-hay!”  Gottlieb might lead the Limeliters into the uncharted waters of Freud accessing the old West gunfighters, or the bellybuttons of Salvation Army flag bearers, or Max Goolis, the Street Sweepin’ Man.  He could sing about getting a vasectomy, or lead crowds of people in silly songs totally dependent upon his interaction with the Audience, like Hey Lili.    

 

His signature song was “Have Some Madera, My Dear?”  This was the anthem of every dirty old man in Hollywood for years, and has never been done better than by Gottlieb.  He oozed lascivious evil in trying to seduce a young co-ed with that revolting drink.     

 

Gottlieb composed hundreds of comedy bits, along with now classic throwaway lines like “due to a steadily diminishing number of requests....”  I give only one example of his distinct style.  One bit he did with the Limeliters discussed how annoying it was to hear them – and any guitar player - tune up, and the alleged solution was stated to have him talk to the audience (he played the bass fiddle) while they did, thus overriding one annoying noise  “...with yet another.”  A note passed to him supposedly suggested that the audience would rather hear the guitars being tuned.  “Well, that was massive trauma.  I rushed home tearfully.  Leapt into bed.   Assumed the pre-natal position, and turned the electric blanket up to nine.”  You’ve heard variations of that a million times.

 

The reason you don’t laugh is because these are now all clichés, uproariously funny only in the context of the time.  His influence was huge on performers and general public, if often third hand; everybody tried to sound like him between songs as relentlessly as they tried to sound like Harry Belafonte during the songs, a distracted and ribald professor teaching a class of bright students.  He was one of the few comedians who elevated the audience with their humor rather than intimidating them, even while being risqué. That is a great gift, to make everyone feel as witty as you are.

 

In later years he discovered a writer in the 1600s had mentioned, with a tone of long suffering, that any lutist of seventy years of age had spent sixty tuning the damned thing.   He put it in the act, glaring balefully at his cohorts tightening their strings in huddled concentration.  Gottlieb was different.

 

But his genius was in harmony.  The Limeliters sound like nothing else before or since.  Unlike other folk groups, each chorus had such rich and diverse vocal interplay that songs seemed to move from climax to climax.  Even old chestnuts like “If I had a Hammer” and “John Henry” are rendered alive, pulsating, and exciting as hell in their throats.  It helped, of course, to have incredible and actual tenors like Glenn Yarbrough rather than straining baritones or, dare I say, women whose voices did not blend into the whole.  Alex Hassilev is a bass baritone, and Gottlieb was a high baritone/low tenor with huge range but nothing, as he put it, to call attention to himself.   If you listen to the Limeliters, you’ll note that Gottlieb’s voice is all over the map providing rich, three part vocalizations that bridged the often huge divide between Yarbrough and Hassilev and melded the sound to the words with the impetus of the songs. 

 

Their competitors were not as good.   The Brothers Four often sang in unison and were undistinguishable from the Glee Club mentality that spawned them.  The Kingston Trio were good and powerful singers but lazy on arrangements.  The Chad Mitchell Trio were the best singers, and had their arrangements done by Milt Okun but…..they didn’t play any instruments and had a backing band.  They were often awkward on stage and did not have a soothing patter; which is to say, they weren’t very funny when not intentionally so in song and relied on convoluted routines till John Denver joined them, replacing Mitchell.  Peter, Paul, and Mary were often good but Mary Travers’ voice got more brazen as the years passed, and it was an acquired taste, which millions did.  Also, the genial Paul Stookey was a failed comic, and his introductions sometimes revealed why.  Okun did their arrangements as well, I believe.   Other folk groups like the New Christy Minstrels I pass over as different in kind.

 

The Limeliters today still use Gottlieb’s arrangements, and they obviously keep their ear peeled to how he might do new material.   The sound is still his.  That is no offense to the new group, which is very good.

 

It is worth asking, I would suppose, why Gottlieb spent such time arranging three parts for songs that – face it – were not going to be recalled as indicative of the age.  It is impossible to explain or discuss this until you listen to the Limeliters’ versions of tunes others did, and hear how intricate and precise they were.  Very.  It’s hard to find Gottlieb’s voice in the mix, such was the blend.  Sometimes Yarbrough is not on the melody, and the fact that attention is devoted to his harmony rather than the melody made it more impressive when the volume of the melodic part bore in.   This required an incredibly imaginative ear as well as an appreciation for the song being done.  John Henry is often done as a desultory ballad.  Gottlieb heard it differently, and once you hear the Limeliter’s arrangement of what is a cliché, and feel the hair on the back of your neck rise at the finale, you know he was right.  If you love to sing, you’d have loved being a Limeliter.  But why’d he do it?

 

He could have been bored with tonic, relative minor, subdominant, dominant progressions.  He was into jazz, and perhaps wanted to give the variations on a theme routine to vocal folk songs.  He wrote his doctoral thesis on 15th Century French songs, and maybe found inspiration there.  Or maybe in Thomas Tallis, the great choir master of Henry VIII.  This sounds bizarre, but if you listen to Tallis’ Lamentations of Jeremiah[1], you hear …….well, sometimes it does remind me of the Limeliters in a strange way.  Of course, Tallis had a hundred voices singing forty parts and Gottlieb had three and three but…….well……listen.   I wanted to talk to him about that if I ever had the chance.  I got the chance and blew it.

 

In 1993 I hired the Limeliters (absent Yarbrough or his eventual excellent if less enthusiastic replacement Red Grammar, but with a strong operatic tenor called Rick Dougherty) at the Boulder Theater, and we broke even on their concert and children’s show the next day, which was unexpectedly good. 

 

Trying to work my way into it, in my usual ham-fisted manner, after hearing Gottlieb describe his love for jazz (he was a fun jazz pianist and singer as well as a bass player), I asked him how, if that was the case, he ended up in folk music back then.  Was it simply the money?  He looked directly at me.  Yes, he said, with no expression, conveying no conviction.  I cringe to this day at my stupidity, my rudeness.

 

After he moved to what became The Digger Farm, he underwent either a religious conversion (I surmise; I never heard him address it, but he apparently was a Christian/Buddhist of sorts) or a tax rebellion or both and in the late 1960’s deeded the entire Farm (Morningstar Ranch) over to God.   Not to a church, mind you.  To God.  This non-plussed the legal minds in Governor Reagan’s California, who were uncertain how to tax God, or serve him/her papers, or any of that.  While the hypocrites groaned with their favorite postures - religion and tax exemption - at odds, a woman from the East Coast solved their muddle.  She had been ruled hurt in an accident by an act of God.  Fortunately, this guy God now had seizable property in California.  She sued to get it.   Well, you can just imagine. 

 

It went to the United States Supreme Court.  Now, as a result, God officially cannot own property (as opposed to his church, of course.....) in the United States, that nation particularly under him because he cannot be served legal papers in person.  (Next time you watch “Oh God” with George Burns and John Denver, think about what might have inspired it…)   Lou Gottlieb - without intending any such thing - underlined a grotesque hypocrisy of Christian America.  Although…..you know?  I wonder.  

 

I have heard many different stories about all this, but in the late 1970’s my wife and I went to see the Limeliters during a reunion tour at a club in Denver, at the end of which they sat on the stage and answered questions about their lives and music.  Lou visibly cringed and mumbled when asked about Morningstar Ranch, something he had obviously and truly loved.   I don’t know if he got to keep it, but he still apparently operated out of there.  The pain of it all was still a hurt years later, even in 1992 when I had them at The Boulder Theater.  I never heard him laugh about it.  There is a book or four in there, somewhere, in that interesting mind and life of Lou Gottlieb.

 

He studied music with Schoenberg which, if you do not know, is like studying physics with Neil Bohrs or Albert Einstein.  He wrote learned treatise on the ‘folk destination’ of certain popular songs, and worked very hard on getting not just actual three-part harmony (much harder than you'd think), but the most effective three-part harmony from his group’s voices, which were distinct; odd, in fact.  He wrote learned articles, stirring gospel tunes (“Good News”) and hysterical parodies.  He was one of those people who changed an audience in a thousand different, subtle ways.   He also gave the very distinct impression that the nature of his occupation was something of a puzzle, a gift, and a burden for him.  He thought about it in societal terms.  He seemed to think - or made me think he thought - that it was an important job, for unclear reasons, but for more than warm and fuzzy feel-good clichés.   I do not know if he ever composed the question to his own liking; I do not think he ever heard the right answer.  Meeting him only twice, I liked, admired, and respected him highly, and I was crushed to discover I had been so out of touch with the profession of musical performance I had missed his death by a year and a half.  

 

Off message again……  Well….

 

So look.  Let me try this again.  If you professionally play popular music for others, in bar or concert, listen up, have a swig of Madeira in his honor and consider this: If you have ever sensed the tension between popular entertainment and ancient art and struggled to reconcile them, if you ever wanted to understand precisely what it actually is you do and share that knowledge and utilize it, if you have ever wanted to elevate an evening’s performance into something beyond a drunken goof, then whether you knew him or not - and whether you know it or not - you owe him that drink and the mandated contemplation - at least.  

 

And more, I assure you.  That’s for you to discover.   The music is there; give a listen.



[1] I started drinking too early that day, apparently; it’s Spem in Alium with the forty parts.  Lamentations is really impressive, but it isn’t like Spem in Alium.


 
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