Remembering Glenn Yarbrough, 1930-2016
Special to The Aspen Times
Glenn Yarbrough, who owned The Limelight in Aspen in the early ’60s and made his national mark on the world with the 1964 pop hit “Baby, the Rain Must Fall,” died last week in Nashville, Tennessee, at 86.
Yarbrough had numerous hits with folk combo The Limeliters, who took their name from Aspen’s since-renamed Limelight Lodge, where Judi Collins, the Smothers Brothers and other A-listers of the time passed through.
But from 1970 on, Yarbrough turned his back on the music business. He wished instead to sail the world, having bought his first boat in the early ’60s and subsequently building his own 50-foot craft, The Jubilee, which he used to sail to Hawaii and other far-off destinations accompanied by his then-wife and his young daughter. Over the following decades, he returned to dry land only when the money ran low and it was time to make another record, tour and head back out to sea. He did this until time and medical issues forever silenced his signature high, sweet tenor, first as a result of surgery in 2010 and finally, last week, as a result of complications of dementia. Yarbrough passed away at home, holding the hand of his daughter, Holly, who had cared for him for the final six years.
The Glenn Yarbrough I knew belonged to a different era, though, and a difference place. I first set eyes on him when he stepped into the living room of the suite he was occupying at the Mayflower Hotel in Manhattan, New York, in the spring of 1996, his hand extended.
As a shy young songwriter, accompanied by Holly for that first meeting, I pretended not to notice his attire, and I accepted his baseball-glove-sized hand.
He pointed an index finger at me and shouted, “Go to Nashville!”
He may not have shouted, actually — but he was a big man with a big voice, and when he spoke or sang, you listened. Holly had given him my demo tape some weeks before, you see, and Glenn had listened to it and had made up his mind where I belonged. I had only been playing my songs around New York City for a little less than a year, but hearing Glenn Yarbrough yell at me like that was the proverbial “Go west, young man!”
I thanked Glenn and immediately made plans to move from Manhattan to Nashville, lining up a one-bedroom just outside Music City.
In 2005, I was minding my own business when I got an email from Glenn asking for some extra lyrics to one of the songs on the demo tape Holly had given him; “Takin’ My Own Sweet Time.” I was glad to oblige and sent the added words, and not long after I received in the mail, “Heaven Help Us,” Glenn’s final solo album. There was my song, with Glenn’s pure tenor all over it.
I didn’t make any money off it, nor did he — not much, anyway — but at the time it was enough to have someone like that take an interest in my music, and it helped me buck up every time I faced a yapping crowd or beer-soaked dive where every songwriter is obliged to perform their music and either grow a spine of titanium or pack it in.
Glenn had packed it in — but partially. He freely admitted to me, at one point, his hate for the music business. “Hate” — that was the word he used. What was powerful about that statement was that it hadn’t come from a bitter musician, someone who struggled their whole lives, jealous of others with more success. He had made enough money with his voice to whisk him from an ordinary life to the top of the charts and its subsequent bounty of houses, Rolls Royces and all the trappings of fame — but quickly saw through to the bottom of that illusory world, its temporary nature, its phoniness, and he chucked it all to sail around the world in order to see life not as a coddled star but as a man. Like Frank Sinatra, only a lot more gently, Glenn Yarbrough did it his way.
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