Back in the limelight
In 1959, Aspen gave birth to The Limeliters. On Saturday, the latest incarnation of the folk trio will return for a one-night engagement at the Wheeler Opera House.Audiences should expect the same blend of tight, harmonic arrangements and humor that made the trio an instant hit when it debuted at Aspen’s Limelite, then a three-room lodge, restaurant and nightclub, more than four decades ago, according to founding member Alex Hassilev, who now shares the stage with Mack Bailey and Andy Corwin.In the early days, the group comprised Hassilev, Glenn Yarbrough and Lou Gottlieb. Yarbrough had purchased the nightclub in Aspen and Hassilev also invested in the venture. “Glenn and I had an interest in creating something we could take to Aspen and put in our nightclub,” Hassilev said. He was 27 years old at the time; now he’s 72.”It seems like just yesterday that we were in Aspen, getting the group together in 1959.”They’ve played Aspen just once since then, performing at the old Aspen Inn in 1973, after the trio had re-formed for a series of annual reunion tours (Yarbrough left the group in 1963 to pursue a solo career).The group will be staying at the now 72-room Limelite Lodge during this weekend’s visit. Dale Paas, whose family bought the lodge after its Limeliter owners sold the property, remembers seeing the original trio as a youngster.”We’re real excited about them coming back,” he said. “It was a very different town back then.”After honing their act at the Limelite during the winter of 1958-59, the group headed for the Hungry i in San Francisco, leaving the likes of the Smothers Brothers, a folk/comedy act, to perform in Aspen in their wake.
They arrived in San Francisco without a name.”The owner of the Hungry i said, ‘I can’t put Gottlieb, Yarbrough and Hassilev on the marquee,'” Hassilev recalled. He dubbed the group The Limeliters on the spur of the moment and it stuck, though it was amended to The Fabulous Limeliters after the trio released “The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters,” one of many albums it would record for RCA during the ’60s.The trio’s RCA debut, “Tonight: In Person,” reached No. 5 on the album charts in 1961, when folk music was a dominant force in popular music. Performers like The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary and Bob Dylan were electrifying the scene along with The Limeliters.It was an exciting time for folk music, but the genre is every bit as relevant and influential today, Hassilev contends. At its core, he said, it addresses the human condition.”Folk music has never had more relevance,” Hassilev said last week in an interview from his home in California. “It is direct. It can pierce your heart and get into your brain very powerfully.”People like Bruce Springsteen – you probably think of him as a rocker, but he’s really just a folk singer. He’ll tell you that himself,” Hassilev said.”Bob Dylan’s songs – when he was starting out, you can’t imagine the impact his songs had. It was fantastic.”There could not be a Midnight Oil had there not been a Dylan. There would not have been an R.E.M. without folk music.”While the makeup of The Limeliters has shifted over the decades (Gottlieb died in 1996), its talent persists, according to Hassilev.”Each time you make a change in personnel, you are reborn,” he said. “Even though the arrangements are the same, there’s a different vibe. The process of re-creating a group is a lot of fun. The whole goal is in the process of getting it right – that’s the fun of it for me.”
Since January, Hassilev has been getting it right with tenor Bailey, hailed by no less than Yarbrough as “the next great singer in folk music,” and bassist Corwin.Along with his band, The Hard Travelers, Bailey has performed with or opened for the likes of Brooks & Dunn, Randy Travis, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the late John Denver. He was in Aspen recently for the John Denver Tribute concerts.Corwin, formerly with The Foremen, is half of the irreverent comedy/folk duo Actual Size and is an accomplished film and television documentary director, writer and editor.The trio’s second live performance together, last March in Paradise, Calif., led to the group’s latest CD, “The Limeliters Live in Paradise.” The recording captures the same spirit that Hassilev remembers from the group’s early days. “It’s just got that vibe. It has that togetherness with the audience.”That audience, however, isn’t limited to the group’s contemporaries from 40-plus years ago, according to Hassilev.”Our old fans have brought their children; now their children are bringing their children,” he said.Corwin, 48, is among that younger generation of listeners.”I can remember being a little kid and my parents listening to The Limeliters, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Lettermen – I grew up hearing it,” he said. By the time Corwin was in his teens, Dylan and Arlo Guthrie were providing his folk inspiration.”Folk music was our soundtrack,” he said. “It’s not like I compartmentalized The Limeliters into music that was heard in 1961.”
Learning the group’s music, though, wasn’t easy.”One of the things that’s a hallmark of The Limeliters are the very sophisticated vocal arrangements,” said Corwin, crediting Gottlieb’s musical brilliance. “I think what we’re doing right now, because the arrangements are so solid, there’s a continuum. The Limeliters today sound very much like the Limeliters of old.”Despite a collection of familiar songs, the trio never had a hit record – the song that forever defines a group.”Had we had that one huge hit, my life would certainly have been very different,” Hassilev admitted. “You know that old joke, how do you make a million dollars in folk music? You start with 2 million.””A Dollar Down” was the group’s sole entrant on the Billboard Top 100, hitting No. 60 on the pop charts in 1961. Hassilev remembers it as the trio’s attempt at a commercial hit record. It was released only as a 45 rpm record and didn’t appear on an album until RCA released a singles compilation.Oddly, perhaps the group’s most widely known song was the Coca-Cola jingle, “Things Go Better With Coke.” A ubiquitous Limeliters tune for three years in the early ’60s, it was as ingrained in the national psyche as the soft drink company’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” would be a decade later. (The Coke song may make it into the group’s play list in Aspen, Hassilev hinted.)The group’s more traditional repertoire ranges from the early “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight,” “Lonesome Traveler,” “The Midnight Special” and “The Hammer Song” to “Generic Up-Tempo Folksong” and “Until We Get It Right,” from the 1999 CD, “Until We Get It Right.”The latter song title, actually about a guy who keeps being reincarnated, might predict how long The Limeliters will keep singing, Hassilev noted wryly.”It feels good to sing songs that have some element of truth – give people something to chew on – and if they can laugh and have fun, we feel like we’ve really accomplished something,” he said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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