Comin' Back Country

The Limeliters Try to Crack Sophisticated Market

by Greg Davy

Reprinted from Santa Monica Evening Outlook, January 25, 1985, with permission of the author.

There was a time when the Limeliters didn't have to worry much about where they would play next.

In the early 1960's, when folk music hit its peak, college students were flocking to coffee houses and auditoriums to hear the fresh, irreverent sounds of snappy-looking, lively youngsters like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. Lou Gottlieb, Alex Hassilev and Glenn Yarbrough were right there with them, beating the kids at their own game with lively, intelligent and entertaining music coupled with their own zany brand of wit and charm. Their special blend of humor and song prompted Time magazine to write, "If the button-down, scrubbed-looking Kingston Trio are the undergraduates of big-time U.S. folk singing, "the Limeliters are the faculty."

Twenty years have passed, tastes have changed, and the faculty is going back to school.

The once well-beaten path to the Limeliters' door has become overgrown with weeds, and though the trio still sings together with two of its original members (Gottlieb and Hassilev), the Limeliters are now trying to fight their way through a thicket of pop music and changing musical trends and attitudes.

After some mid-70's reunions, the portly Yarbrough has apparently left the group for good, making way for what Gottlieb refers to as a "slightly more svelte model" in Robert "Red" Grammar, who possesses a lyric tenor voice with startlingly Yarbrough-like quality. Hassilev works from his West Hollywood home as record producer and public relations man, trying fervently to figure out how the Limeliters can corner a piece of the '80's action.

Gottlieb (more frequently known as Dr. Louis Gottlieb, his doctorate in musicology) shuttles between Sonoma county and Los Angeles, splitting his time between the quiet ranch life and recording demo tapes with his cohorts. Grammar can be found making a name for himself in Nashville, where country is king and competition is brutal.

When the trio comes together in Los Angeles, they face a problem: How to crack a market of sophisticated listeners used to metallic sounds and almost daily musical innovation. As the Limeliters' producer, Hassilev must keep a critical ear on what the group sounds like and what, in his view, will work commercially.

A portable cassette stereo system constantly plays in Hassilev's dining room, surrounded by ashtrays crowded with cigarette butts and bits and pieces of music scrawled on random sheets of paper. Though the cigarettes and some age have put a rough edge on Hassilev's resonance, he and his teammates can still belt out a lofty tune - though much of the music has changed from the old days.

"With the Limeliters, there's a need to go a different route on records," Hassilev said. "We're definitely taking on a country sound. In county music, we stand a real chance. We could do pop music,but it wouldn't work. The image is wrong."

Are the Limeliters singing any folk music?

"Not a lot," said Gottlieb.

"Just what are they doing?

"Trying to make a living." Lou Gottlieb never was one to mince words. "If you announce you're singing folk music today, you might as well be announcing that you have AIDS. Nobody will come anywhere near you. Folk music is dead as far as commercial is concerned."

Enter Red Grammer. "the minute I heard four measures of his voice, I knew he was the one," Gottlieb said, then anticipated a question: "Can Red sing country music? Yes, he can."

Hassilev punched up a recent demo tape and played a handful of songs featuring the Limeliters' new country sound. Grammer's was the lead voice in all the songs, proving that he indeed can sing country music. "The three of us together create some ensemble problems we haven't gotten through," Gottlieb said.

That's where Hassilev is hard at work, trying to find just the right blend that he knows will sell with a demanding public. He is the first to admit that he is extremely critical and unwilling to settle for anything short of spectacular.

"For Lou, originality is more important than anything. I don't subscribe to that view," Hassilev said. "For me, it has to be as good or better than anything on the outside. I am cursed with a streak of criticism of my own work as well as anyone else's."

But the Limeliters hope through all the hard work and fine tuning is an opportunity for them to start a new career. They'd like nothing better than to see new Limeliters album of contemporary country music on the shelves soon. Meanwhile, they do benefits, any concert dates they can get, and occasional Las Vegas showrooms: ("You're an animated part of the decor there," Gottlieb noted. "It usually goes well -- I hope for much more time there.")

Tomorrow, they will bring their trademark opener "there's A Meetin' Here Tonight" to McCabe's Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., in Santa Monica for two shows at 8 and 10:30 p.m. in a rare club appearance. For fans of old, it will be a chance to relive a few of the good old days, and hear that unmistakable sound in a new form.

For the uninitiated, the Limeliters hope, it will be a pleasant departure from what they're used to in 1985 - something they'll want to tell their friends about.

Last update: April 5, 1998