By Richie Unterberger
Harmonizing male folk combos, in trios and quartets, were booming in the early 1960s in the wake of the phenomenal success of the Kingston Trio. Elektra Records, then emerging as one of the most prominent American independent folk-oriented labels, made its first move into the territory with the Limeliters, whose self-titled LP gave the company its first Top Forty album. Although the Limeliters would make most of their early-'60s chart LPs for RCA, Elektra soon came up with another folk threesome, the Travelers 3. Appropriately enough, the trio recorded three longplayers for the label, starting with The Travelers 3.
The group got together in Eugene, Oregon, where Charlie Oyama (banjo, guitar, ukelele) and Pete Apo (guitar, ukelele, drum) had moved from Hawaii to attend the University of Oregon (though Charlie and Pete had met before they came to the university, through Pete's brother). Teaming up with Dick Shirley (bass, guitar, and plastic toy flute), they went back to Hawaii to do a long residency at the Shell Bar (famous for its use in the 1959-63 TV detective series Hawaiian Eye), in fact becoming the first folk act to work there.
It was in Los Angeles, however, that Elektra boss Jac Holzman heard the group -- Oyama thinks it was at the Troubadour, the club that would do so much to showcase folk, and later folk-rock, in the 1960s. Charlie also remembers talk of interest from Capitol and RCA, and says that the owner of the Crescendo club on Sunset Strip was also interested in the trio for his own label, GNP/Crescendo. They ended up going with Elektra and recording their self-titled debut in Los Angeles, with Holzman producing. "They were fun to record in the studio," enthuses Jac. "They came prepared; everybody was double-checked and rehearsed before we ever went into the studio."
Holzman admits that in some ways the Travelers 3's approach was similar to the format established by the Kingston Trio, but "with a little bit more body than the Kingston Trio. I always felt the Kingston Trio were a little on the thin side." They were also in keeping with the wholesome image sported by many of the folk acts of the era, which in Holzman's estimation included Elektra artists "the Limeliters, and probably Bob Gibson and Bob Camp. [Frequent Elektra producer] Paul Rothchild once referred to us as having the sports jacket-and-tie folk singers, which I always thought was kind of an apt description. The Travelers Three were fun. The Travelers Three could play Vegas, and they loved playing Vegas. There's something about Hawaiians -- Hawaiians love Vegas. If they could live anywhere on the mainland, they'd all move to Vegas. I don't know why."
The twelve songs selected for The Travelers 3 were largely their own arrangements of folk tunes, including well-traveled numbers like "Sinner Man," "Hush-A-Bye," "Good Morning Captain," "Land of Oden," and "Bowling Green." Oyama confirms that the tunes were representative of the group's repertoire at the time. "I cannot remember who made the selections, but by the time we recorded this album, we were already doing most of the songs that were recorded on our second album," he notes. "We worked very hard on our vocal harmonies and precision -- 'tightness' -- and always were able to reproduce live what we recorded. Other than our varied background and cultures, we may not have been doing anything so original...but we were trying to do it 'better than the others.'"
Interestingly, Holzman does not recall the presence of two Hawaiians in the group attracting much notice, even at a time when so much American popular culture, and much of the commercial folk scene, was so lily-white. "Nobody paid any attention," he says. "It didn't seem unusual to me, any more than when [future Elektra group] Love was the first interracial [rock] band, more or less. People have mentioned it to me later. I never noticed. I'd never been much aware, except in the press, of that kind of stuff. It just meant nothing to us."
Of the tracks on The Travelers 3, Oyama's favorites are "'Hush-A-Bye' for the vocal arrangement; 'Well Well Well' for dynamics; 'Sinner Man' for its power; 'Land of Oden' for its simplicity, and Dick's unbelievable (cheap, plastic) pennywhistle (which probably cost less than that). 'Hi Jolly' was such a fun song for me on the banjo." Although most of the material originated in traditional folk sources, the group did cover a recent composition, "Well Well Well," by fellow Elektra folkies Bob Gibson and Bob Camp [later known as Hamilton Camp]. Gibson had done the song on his 1961 album Yes I See, and it would also be covered by Peter, Paul & Mary, the Seekers, the Highwaymen, and the Brothers Four. "We played some of the same venues, and have tons of mutual friends, but never did meet them," says Oyama of Gibson and Camp. "We thought theirs was the hottest album we heard at the time!"
Funnily enough, some of the strongest memories to linger from the Elektra-Travelers 3 association have little to do with the albums, or even with music. "Jac [Holzman] is one of the most interesting people I've ever met," observes Oyama. "Example: we were working the Dunes Hotel in Vegas when it was time to record the album. Our only dealings with Jac was with a manager and/or an attorney present, and then we had almost nothing to do but listen. Jac had just bought a single-engine plane, so he flew into Vegas to fly us back to L.A. We knew when he was coming, so we're looking for him and spot him in the casino with a large, 'portable' recording machine that he is carrying around, and he's recording 'sounds': slot machines, gaming tables...everything. OK...this is how our recording experience starts.
"Then we fly to L.A., and as we approach, there is fog over the city, Jac is talking to the tower, goes to instruments for a landing, we can sense his anxiety, so it goes completely quiet in the cockpit (white knuckles and sweat), and all we can see is fog. Suddenly, we break out of the fog, and the runway is directly in front of us. Jac pulls the plane out of the pattern, and informs us that we're not landing at LAX. We're landing at Santa Monica, but he had to try the instrument landing because he had NEVER done it! You gotta love him! After that, taking directions from him was a pleasure!" For his part, here's one of Holzman's strongest memories of the trio: "They loved to go to an all-you-can-eat place and clean it out."
The Travelers 3 went on to record a couple more albums for Elektra, after which they moved to Capitol. They added drummer Mike Botts to the lineup in 1965, with Dick Francis getting replaced in 1966 by bassist Joe Lamanno. They're still doing music today, as in Charlie's words, "Pete and I are back to our roots: Hawaiian music and culture, and their resurgence. We have done two Hawaiian CDs as Na Kama Hele, which is Hawaiian for the Travelers; Mike Botts and Joe Lamanno are on the Hawaiian CDs with us. Dick Shirley went back to Oregon to play lumberjack again, doing woodworking and playing guitar and singing as a single around the Portland area. We have remained close all these years. You can check out the CDs on our website, www.nakamahele.com, or at www.CDBaby.com." -- Richie Unterberger
Unterberger , 2000-2010
unless otherwise specified.
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