By Richie Unterberger

The Modern Folk Quartet might be better known for all four members' subsequent achievements in the world of rock than for what they did in folk. Chip Douglas would later join the Turtles on bass, and produce both the Turtles and the Monkees. Jerry Yester would replace Zal Yanovsky in the Lovin' Spoonful; produce the Association, Tim Buckley, and Tom Waits; and make his own albums with his then-wife Judy Henske, as a duo and part of the band Rosebud. Cyrus Faryar would record albums for Elektra Records as a solo artist. And Henry Diltz would become one of the most renowned rock photographers, counting the covers of the Doors' Morrison Hotel and the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album among his many credits.

    Before all that, however, they were a folk foursome, cutting two albums for Warner Brothers in the latter days of the early-'60s folk revival. Four-part harmonies with sophisticated arrangements and a tinge of jazz were their specialty, taking material from both traditional sources and emerging folk-based singer-songwriters. Like many young musicians on the folk circuit, they'd move into folk-rock in the wake of the Beatles' invasion of America, but their Warner Brothers LPs were firmly based in pre-British Invasion acoustic folk sounds.

    The roots of the Modern Folk Quartet extend back to Honolulu in the early 1960s, where Faryar ran the Greensleeves Coffeehouse. It was there that he met Douglas (then working with his own trio) and Diltz, who worked for Cyrus at the establishment. After it shut down Faryar joined Dave Guard and the Whiskeyhill Singers, Guard having just left the phenomenally popular Kingston Trio to form his own group. That band, also including a young Judy Henske, cut just one self-titled album (reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music) before splitting. Faryar returned to Hawaii to find Douglas, Diltz, and Stan White playing as a trio, soon joining up himself before the quartet ended up in Los Angeles by way of San Francisco.

    "We really made our mark at the [L.A. club] the Troubadour on a hootenanny night," remembers Faryar. "The Troubadour was in full swing, everybody was there, it was the most happening place. And it was also happening in the point of view of agents and manager types, who were there looking to harvest talent. So we sang the hootenanny thing, and to our happy joyful surprise, brought the house down." There were management feelers from Benny Shapiro (who'd later play a part in getting the Byrds signed to Columbia and help organize the Monterey Pop Festival before being bought out in its early stages) and Albert Grossman, then riding high as manager of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. They'd end up going with Herbie Cohen, who was starting to build a stable that would ultimately include Frank Zappa, Tim Buckley, Judy Henske, Fred Neil, and Linda Ronstadt & the Stone Poneys. It was around the time they hooked up with Cohen that another big change took place.

    "Stan White went kind of crazy," explains his replacement, Jerry Yester. "Once they got closer and closer to success, he got crazier and crazier, alienated Albert Grossman, and ended up hacking his landlady's mantelpiece in half with a samurai sword when she asked for the rent. So Herbie Cohen fired him. He came back to [Cohen's] Unicorn coffeehouse to kind of straighten Herbie out and was summarily beaten to a pulp by Herbie, thrown out on the street; [he] came back with a motorcycle gang like a week later, and they shuttled them out the door."

    The late White suffered from a then-undiagnosed bipolar condition, and Faryar has more specific memories of the crossing of swords with Grossman: "So we're going to meet Grossman, and Stanley takes it upon himself to lecture Albert Grossman about what an exploiter of souls he was," he laughs. "He laid this whole trip down about managers, how they're the spawn of Satan or something like that. Grossman never called us back. And we're tearing our hair and saying, 'Stanley! What are you doing? You just killed our career!' We're seeing ourselves in lights, on the road with Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. And now we're not seeing something. We're in the toilet."

    Fortunately, they were able to continue without much of a hitch by adding Yester, already a young veteran of the folk scene. In the early 1960s, he'd been part of a duo, the Yester Brothers, with his brother Jim Yester (later in the Association); been in the Inn Group with John Forsha, later to play guitar on albums by Judy Henske and Fred Neil; and been one of the members of the original New Christy Minstrels. At the time Jerry was living next door to Barry McGuire in Laurel Canyon, "and [one-time New Christy Minstrels] Barry and Jackie Miller came up late night and said they'd just been on the Troubadour hoot and heard these guys, and said they were amazing." The early-'60s folk scene was a small interconnected circle, and Yester was already starting to overlap with the MFQ crowd by going out with his future wife Judy Henske, who'd sung with Faryar in the Whiskeyhill Singers. He was a natural match for the group, especially as he, like Douglas, was a skilled arranger as well as a performer. "I think Jerry had in his mind a dream of doing certain things vocally," observes Faryar. "He liked the fact that we were a four-part quartet, and it really rang a bell with him."

    The Modern Folk Quartet's self-titled 1963 debut album was produced by Jim Dickson, a major mover and shaker on the '60s folk and folk-rock scene. Though most famous as the co-manager and artistic mentor of the early Byrds, prior to the Byrds' formation he'd been doing his part to help modernize folk music with production for the Dillards, Dino Valenti, and Hamilton Camp, where he'd add a greater rhythmic swing and countermelodic bass presence than was usually heard on acoustic folk recordings of the time. Indeed one of the session men he favored, bass Red Mitchell, plays on The Modern Folk Quartet, which even includes some light drums here and there. As Yester explains, "Chip was just new to the bass, he took it on because no one else played bass. Herbie thought, 'Well, he hasn't been doing it that long, let's get Red Mitchell,' who was like a giant of the bass, and Red did a great job. But Chip turned out to be one of the best bass players I've ever known."

    As to how Dickson ended up producing the LP, Jerry continues, "Herbie was in with some jazz people and those studios, World Pacific Studios [where Dickson would soon extensively rehearse and record demos with the infant Byrds], did a lot of that kind of stuff. He got some kind of rate or something with Dickson, because we were working at the Troubadour and went there after work every night and sang. It took about a week, I think, to do the album. That was a lot of time back in those days. The Christy Minstrels album that I was on took two three-hour sessions."

    "Jim was a wonderful man," offers Faryar. "He knew his stuff, he was very low-key. He did not interpose himself between the artist and the product. He guided gently from the sidelines, and that's what a producer should do. Very much the artist's friend."

    In Cyrus's estimation, the repertoire of songs chosen for the album "was half performance material, and a certain percentage of material which we studied and generated for the album, [and] incorporated into our act. It was just on the cusp of that time when the A&R men told you what to wear, what to think, how to sing it. But because folk music was a little bit individualized, we were able to basically define our own playlist." The dozen tracks did include a few adaptations of traditional tunes, such as their live favorite "Ox Driver," which Faryar says "was a big powerhouse for us." Adds Yester, "The first time I heard 'The Ox Driver Song,' it just sliced my brain in half. I thought, that's the best thing I've ever heard, the use of voices."

    But there were also a good number of covers of contemporary folk singer-songwriters, including Bob Gibson ("Yes I See") and John Stewart ("Road to Freedom"). The group had been friendly for some time with Stewart, who had replaced Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio, and according to Yester, "it was between Chip and John Stewart as to who was gonna replace Dave Guard. So they flew him over, but John was a little more experienced and was a really good writer, so he had the edge on Chip. Henry knew John Stewart too; he's been very close with John for years. So I think John approached us about the song. I think that may have been, actually, the first thing we worked up after I joined." Furthering the Kingston Trio connection was a cover of Ervin Drake's "It Was a Very Good Year," which the Kingston Trio had recorded a couple of years previously, and which Frank Sinatra would make into a hit in 1966, as Faryar laughs: "It always was kind of a personal amusement to me, and an entertainment, that that became such a hit for Sinatra. But who better else, you know, than this, like, wrinkled warrior? I mean, you can listen to Frank and believe it. Four young guys, you're thinking, what?"

    Also of note was what may have been the first released cover of a Dino Valenti song, "Pennies" (credited to Valenti's birth name, Chester Powers). A friend of the MFQ, Valenti would become most famous as the author of "Get Together," covered by many artists, including Jefferson Airplane and the Youngbloods, who had a Top Five single with it in 1969. Another song on the album, "Sassafras," was recommended to Yester "by Dick Rosmini, who was very influential on the sidelines. He was an amazing 12-string guitar player, fingerpicker, and banjo player, had a great sense of material, and a wonderful singing voice." What's more, a song Rosmini recommended that Jerry show Judy Henske, "High Flying Bird," became a proto-folk-rock classic when Henske recorded it on her second album in 1963. Rosmini, Valenti, and more covers of blooming singer-songwriters would all figure into the Modern Folk Quartet's next album, Changes -- a story continued on the liner notes to that album, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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