Mitchell Trio stands the test of time
September 30, 2005
It was not easy to get a handle on the Chad Mitchell Trio, even as they were leading the folk music explosion of the late ’50s and early ’60s.On albums and in the numerous concerts they performed, usually on college campuses, the Chad Mitchell Trio separated itself from such folk contemporaries as Peter, Paul & Mary and the Kingston Trio with its sense of humor. The trio, founded in 1958 by singer Chad Mitchell at Gonzaga University in his Spokane, Wash., hometown, became a hit with college audiences on the strength of such satirical songs as “The John Birch Society” and “Draft Dodger Rag.””What made us slightly different,” said Mike Kobluk, the only member to last through the trio’s entire decade-long existence, “was we did a lot of social and political commentary, especially in the form of satire. And the college kids were thriving on this kind of thing. Wars were going on that were not popular. So if we sang an anti-war song, satire or serious, those thoughts were widely accepted.”Away from the university setting, however – and, as Kobluk remembers it, the Mitchell Trio played every college campus in America between 1958 and 1968 – the trio was cast in another light. Radio stations shied away from anything hinting of controversy, so when the trio would make live radio appearances, they’d show up at the studio to find that half or more of the titles on their albums were blacked out, an indication that these songs were not to be aired. “We were black-lined, rather than blacklisted,” said Kobluk. And in the TV appearances that were crucial to a group’s popularity at the time, the Mitchell Trio was even more constrained in what they could do.”That hurt us on record, because a lot of the songs were not played on radio. They were – quote, unquote – controversial. We did TV, but we weren’t allowed to do the kind of material that made us different,” said Kobluk, a British Columbia native who had attended Gonzaga specifically for its massively popular Men’s Chorus. So to one audience, the Mitchell Trio was on the cutting edge of social relevance; to another, it was a fine-sounding, squeaky clean folk ensemble toeing the corporate line. But it was clear to Kobluk – and Joe Frazier and Mitchell himself, who comprised the trio through most of its early existence – which face was the truest. “Folk music to us was being able to express ideas that we all held, in music. If that meant making a social commentary, then that’s what we were interested in doing. Our group, more than any other, was interested in providing social commentary. And we did a lot of songs by writers who were looking for that kind of outlet.”Among those writers was Bob Dylan. The Mitchell Trio, after two live albums – “Mighty Day On Campus” and “At the Bitter End” – recorded the first version of the little-known folk singer’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” for their first studio album, in 1962. The trio pushed to have the song issued as a single but their record company, puzzled by the ambiguous poetry of the lyrics, refused. Some months later, Peter, Paul & Mary released their version of Dylan’s song, a seminal moment in the folk movement. And the Mitchell Trio was vindicated when the record company capitalized on the attention by changing the name of the entire album from “The Chad Mitchell Trio In Action” to “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Another fact that made the Chad Mitchell Trio a bit of an elusive entity was that Mitchell himself is probably not the singer most closely associated with the group.In 1965, seven years after forming the trio out of the Gonzaga Men’s Chorus, Mitchell parted ways with the group. The solo career that ensued was only a modest success.But Kobluk and Frazier carried on under an agreement with Mitchell that the group would keep the Mitchell Trio name until the last original member – Kobluk – threw in the towel. From 1965 until the group was finally laid to rest in 1968, the Mitchell Trio without Mitchell was more popular than Mitchell himself.The reason for much of the trio’s popularity was an unknown young singer who had been playing a small club in Phoenix. Mike Kirkland, a singer with the folk group the Brothers Four, had recommended that the Mitchell Trio consider John Denver as a replacement for their eponym. As Kobluk recalls, he and Frazier auditioned a huge number of singers for the spot, but finally settled on Denver. “Thank heavens,” said Kobluk, as he and Clare, his wife of 40-something years, drove from their home in Spokane – two blocks away from Mitchell’s – to their lake house over the Canadian border.Denver was a cog in what was already a smooth-running machine. Milt Okun, who would later become producer of much of Denver’s solo material, had a strong say as musical director about just what the trio’s material would be, how the songs would be arranged. Kobluk takes some pride in how much of a unit the Mitchell Trio was at working out songs as a trio, rather than three separate parts that had to be coordinated.”The trio truly was a trio,” said Kobluk. “John Denver stood out in a lot of ways but he also was a member of the group. It didn’t evolve into anything but a group effort.”One of the ways Denver stood out was in his ambition. “When we asked him what is your goal in life, in music, he was unabashed,” recalled Kobluk. “He said he wanted to be bigger than Frank Sinatra.” (At a Las Vegas engagement years later, Kobluk witnessed Denver fight Sinatra to a draw in terms of popularity. The two singers shared a bill, and alternated nights as the closing act.) “He was young and vibrant and exuberant.”Ultimately, Denver did alter somewhat the course of the Mitchell Trio. The group had always performed as three singers, backed by a pair of instrumentalists. (One of those early string players was Jim McGuinn, who would change his name to Roger and achieve fame as leader of folk-rock pioneers the Byrds.) “The only thing that changed was that John Denver was a fabulous guitar player, especially on the 12-string. So we featured John playing,” said Kobluk. Denver also polished his early song-writing skills in the trio, contributing “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” and “For Bobbie” – which would be renamed “For Baby” and become a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary – to the repertoire.
By 1968, Kobluk was ready for another life. He returned to Gonzaga to finish his degree, then took a series of jobs in Spokane as alumni director for his alma mater, as supervisor of the entertainment for the Expo ’74 World’s Fair in Spokane and, for 29 years, as manager of Spokane’s various performing arts facilities. The trio carried on as the short-lived Denver-Boise-Johnson Trio, with Michael Johnson, before Denver went off to his prominent solo career. Mitchell abandoned his singing career to work in real estate in Spokane.Oddly, the two people most closely identified with the Chad Mitchell Trio, Mitchell and Denver, barely knew each other. As Mitchell recalls, he only met the late Aspenite twice, and never once saw him perform. Still, through recordings and TV appearances, Denver left a strong impression on Mitchell.”Obviously I followed John’s career. How could you miss it?” said Mitchell by phone. “I’ve often thought, if I wanted to do something more successfully in the world of music, I’d have wanted to emulate his career. I’d want to do what he did with his celebrity. He did quite wonderful things with what he became. Purists would criticize him for not being a folk artist. But he touched people, influenced people with his social and political bent.”When Kobluk put down the Mitchell Trio, he thought it was for good and forever. The group went 17 years without appearing. But they resurfaced for a 1985 reunion gig, with Mitchell himself joining Kobluk and Frazier. Since then they have played handfuls of gigs here and there, including a filmed reunion in 1987 that also included Denver. This year, the trio’s four appearances included one at the World Folk Music Association convention in Washington, D.C., and one this week in Aspen. The Chad Mitchell Trio will be the featured guest at the eighth annual Musical Tribute to John Denver concert Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Wheeler Opera House. The trio will be backed by Paul Prestopino, David Ander and Bob Hefferan, all of whom played with the trio in its heyday. Mike Taylor, who co-wrote “Sunshine on My Shoulder” and “Rocky Mountain High” with Denver, will appear at both shows, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7-8. Both shows are fund-raisers for Challenge Aspen.Mitchell questions just how relevant some of the trio’s old material can be four-plus decades later. Topical songs like “John Birch Society,” and “The Barry Boys,” a barb aimed at right-wing presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, aren’t going to go over these days. “Draft Dodger Rag,” however, has continuing pertinence.”The problem we face is that a lot of it was political and social satire,” said Mitchell. “So that becomes an issue in this time period.”But Kobluk and Mitchell agree that the Mitchell Trio can still be musically sound. And Kobluk goes further, suggesting that audiences can still feel something in the consciousness of the art, even if the topicality has faded away.”To listen to those 12 albums now – which I didn’t do for a long time – and hear the artistry that was being chronicled, it seems pretty significant. The arrangements, the good singing were influential,” said Kobluk. “We had some influence on the young people, who heard our political and social satire. Hopefully we caused some of those people to think about what was going on in our government, socially, about things like black people being turned away at the door of the University of Mississippi.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com