History of The Limeliters
The Limeliters was and remains a popular folk music group, formed in July 1959 by Lou Gottlieb (bass violin/bass), Alex Hassilev (banjo/baritone), and Glenn Yarbrough (guitar/tenor). The group is better known for entertaining concerts and complete albums rather than "singles." The group was especially active from 1959 until 1965, and then after a hiatus of sixteen years, Yarbrough, Hassilev, and Gottlieb reunited and began performing and recording again as The Limeliters in reunion tours. Despite a change of performers, a continuation of The Limeliters group is still active and performing; its past and current members often intersect historically with other popular folk music groups as well, such as the Kingston Trio and the New Christy Minstrels.
Gottlieb, fresh from obtaining his PhD in musicology, was in the audience when Alex Hassilev and Glenn Yarbrough appeared on stage to sing a duet together. Gottlieb, who was then working as an arranger for The Kingston Trio, originally thought that "these two guys" could help him make some demos for the Trio.
Soon, they packed up and headed to Aspen, Colorado, to work at a club called "The Limelite," which Yarbrough and Hassilev had purchased after singing there during the previous ski season. After a short period of perfecting their act, they set off for the "hungry i" in San Francisco, which at the time was the California nerve center for the mushrooming contemporary folk movement. The owner had just had a group with three long names strung together and was not about to put "Yarbrough, Hassilev, and Gottlieb" up on the marquee. But the group had not yet decided on a name. They chose "The Limeliters".
Their success was immediate. Only two days after their professional debut, the group received offers from three recording companies. In early 1960 they released their first album on Elektra. Soon after they signed with RCA Victor and a string of best-selling albums followed.
Never having a true chart-topping hit record, they were well known for their repertoire of rousing songs including such as "There's a Meetin' Here Tonight," "City of New Orleans," "A Dollar Down" (their only charting single, peaking at #60 in 1961), "Have Some Madeira M'Dear", "Lonesome Traveler," "Wabash Cannonball," "Whiskey in the Jar," and many others which are performed on their more than 25 record albums and in their concerts.
The Limeliters' album Tonight: In Person reached number 5 on Billboard in 1961, and was on the U.S. charts for 74 weeks. The reissue in 1961 of their earlier Elektra album made the top 40 and spent 18 weeks on the charts. Their third release, The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters, made the top ten in the same year, charting for 36 weeks. Another album with staying power was one of folk songs for children of all ages, Through Children's Eyes. It remained charted for 29 weeks and peaked at #25.
The group maintained a hectic workload during their peak of popularity. In addition to the numerous recordings, they made numerous television appearances, and their personal appearances totaled more than 300 performances a year. For three years, The Limeliters were the musical representatives for Coca-Cola. Their rendition of the jingle, "Things Go Better with Coke" became a national hit. The group also did commercial work for L&M cigarettes. At the height of their popularity, in 1963 and 1964 they contributed to Forest Fire Prevention with Smokey the Bear with a song, "The Crying Trees."
In 1963 they sang the opening theme, "Love in the Country," for the horribly misogynistic John Wayne film McLintock!.
The group's career nearly came to an end when they suffered a plane crash in Provo, Utah while on tour.
Ups and Downs
The Group Perseveres
Yarbrough left the group in 1963. Gottlieb and Hassilev continued the Limeliters but only as a recording act, recruiting former Gateway Singers tenor Ernie Sheldon (r.n. Ernest Lieberman) as Yarbrough's replacement. Sheldon wrote the lyrics for what became Yarbrough's biggest solo hit, "Baby the Rain Must Fall."
When the trio's RCA Victor contract expired in 1965, Gottlieb and Hassilev formally retired the act. By then Yarbrough was a successful soloist on records and in concert. Hassilev became a producer with his own recording studio and pressing plant, while Gottlieb headed the Morningstar Commune on a ranch he purchased near San Francisco.
The group re-formed briefly in 1968 to record an album for Warner Bros. Records.
In 1973 they reunited with Yarbrough and did reunion concerts for four months a year until 1977. Stax Records released a reunion recording in 1974, and in 1976 the group released two concert albums on their own Brass Dolphin Records. These were so successful that in 1981, Hassilev and Gottlieb decided to reform the group and to get back into the mainstream of entertainment. With the addition of tenor Red Grammer and John David they again began performing and recording several excellent albums.
A 1988 Detroit Free Press story about the Limeliters reveals how the group sometimes dissatisfied both "folk purists" and those who wanted more folk-rock-pop. Limeliter Alex Hassilev told the Detroit Free Press, "We certainly never consciously set out to pop-ify anything. We just sang folk songs the way we wanted to sing them."
The paper went on to explain: "And having been around, on and off, since 1959, a funny thing has happened to the Limeliters: They've gained a measure of espectability in the folk community. As Hassilev points out, 'Back in the '60s we never did any folk festivals; nobody ever asked us.' In 1988 they finally did one -- the well-regarded Kerrville (Tex.) Folk Festival. 'They loved us,' said Hassilev. 'We loved it.'
'From 1977 to 1980 we didn't work,' Hassilev said. Then they discovered tenor and songwriter Grammer "'nd decided he was so good it drew us out retirement.'
The current Limeliters repertoire is a mixture of old and new, Hassilev said. 'Needless to say, when you go back as far as we do, the audience won't let us forget a lot of the old ones, 'Have Some Madeira, M'Dear,' 'There's a Meetin' Here Tonight.' . . . We also do a variety of folk or folk-like songs that are more contemporary.' There are, says Hassilev, "only two places for an act that's been around as long as ours to go -- you either become living legends or you get out of the business. Have we become living legends? To a slight extent, but not as much as I would like it to be. I think there's somewhat more respect for what we do. The folk community always looked askance at the Limeliters. I never quite understood that. In my opinion the Limeliters were always a lot more straightforward than sometimes the critics felt we were. We were interested in making good music. We still are.'"
After eight productive years, Grammer left the group to pursue a solo career as a children's artist. In 1990, he was replaced by another tenor, Rick Dougherty, whose wide-ranging musical background and bright stage presence brought another fresh dimension to the group. Rick currently performs with the Folk Legacy Trio, after several years with the Kingston Trio.
Lou Gottlieb died in 1996 (age 72), and Glenn Yarbrough died in 2016 (age 86). Alex Hassilev (born 1932), the last founding member, remained a leader of the group, until he retired in 2006. Nonetheless, the group still carries on with much of the same signature sound (using Lou Gottlieb's arrangements) with a new set of members.
Gottlieb's death in 1996 saw his high baritone part taken up by a former Kingston Trio member, Bill Zorn.
In 2003, Zorn and Dougherty left the group to join The Kingston Trio (until 2017) and in early 2004, tenor Mack Bailey and comedian baritone Andy Corwin joined the group. Gaylan Taylor joined the group in 2006; he performed with The Limeliters until August 2018, when he was replaced by Steve Brooks. In 2012, Don Marovich joined up with the Limeliters. In 2019, Don left to join The Kingston Trio. The most recent addition is C. Daniel Boling who joined in 2019. Recently, former Limeliter Rick Dougherty has also performed with them on stage.
The band is still touring and recording as recently as 2022!
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