The Limeliters: A Personal Appreciation

By John Clair Ferris

The Limeliters personified my adolescent dream: I wanted to grow up to look like Alex Hassilev, sing like Glenn Yarbrough and tell jokes like Lou Gottlieb. However, I look more like Glenn Yarbrough, sing like Lou Gottlieb and tell jokes like Alex Hassilev.

My relationship with the Limeliters began on the rebound. I had become a Kingston Trio loyalist the first time I heard Tom Dooley on the radio; in an instant I outgrew rock and haven't had much use for it since. Bob Shane, "the cute one," was the favorite of my friends but Dave Guard was the brains of the outfit and the object of my pre-pubescent penchant for idol worship. I was crushed when he bowed out of the group in 1961. John Stewart proved to be a uniquely talented singer/songwriter but I was unwilling to accept him as Dave's replacement. I needed new heroes.

The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters entered our home as one of the free albums offered as enticement to join the RCA Victor Record Club. From the assertive strumming of acoustic guitars in the opening measures of Western Wind, I was hooked. The group harmonies were incredible. On the second refrain of Curima they were even better. My parents were concerned that the salacious content (mild by today's standards) of Vikki Duggan would fill my impressionable mind with impure thoughts. Mom and dad needn't have worried: they were already there.

In those days my disposable wealth consisted of a weekly allowance of $1.00 so the purchase of an LP represented about a month's income. Even so, within two years, I had acquired a complete collection of Limeliters albums. The "live" recordings tended to be my favorites, benefiting from on the spot spontaneity and Lou's between-song patter - sharp, sly, and unabashedly intellectual. But it was a studio album, Makin a Joyful Noise, that fed my growing religious inclination at least as much as Vikki aroused my adolescent sexuality.

Though the Limeliters had in Glenn Yarbrough the most outstanding and distinctive tenor voice ever to caress a ballad, the trio's appeal to me was the synergetic sense that the whole was even greater than the sum of its parts. What a sound they could produce together. What a blend! Therefore even the loss of the lead singer did not seriously diminish their artistic integrity. Ernie Sheldon may not have been in Glenn's league but the Limeliters still sounded like the Limeliters. Unfortunately the personnel change corresponded to the launching of the "British Invasion" and though it would be another decade before Rolling Stone Magazine officially (and prematurely) declared folk "dead," the commercial appeal of acoustic music had been severely compromised. After fulfilling their contractual obligations to RCA Victor, the Limeliters quietly dissolved.

I was in college when Time to Gather Seeds came out, marking the original trio's first collaboration in five years. I had grown in the interim and so, happy to say, had my musical heroes. Lou's deepening interest in classical music paralleled my own. Alex provided in his chilling anti-war song, 100 Men, ammunition I invoked before my draft board in my request for conscientious objector status.

Five more years passed before the original Limeliters again amalgamated for a 1973 reunion tour that included making a live album in Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Now married and a seminary student in nearby Evanston, I attended that concert with Deb, seeing for the first time in person these three singers who somehow seemed like old friends. When, near the end of the program, Glenn broke into Friend of Jesus, I was again struck by the coincidental similarities in our separate journeys.

Anticipating the reunion album's release, I frequented record shops for the next year. At last a listing appeared in the Schwann Catalogue. But the record company was in bankruptcy and no retail store could order it. I searched cut-out bins and resale shops for eight years and was doing so more out of habit than hope when I came across a sealed copy of Stax STS-5513 in Washington D.C. -- where I happened to be chaperoning a youth seminar. Having dreamed of such a discovery more than once, I caught myself thinking, "Oh darn, this is where I always wake up."

In 1988 Deb and I saw Alex, Lou and Red Grammer as part of a folk omnibus at the Meadow Brook Music Festival near Detroit. Maybe they were having an off night, but it seemed to us that this particular manifestation didn't "click." They seemed tired, the material stale.

We were pleasantly surprised, therefore, by the renewed sense of energy and purpose exhibited by Alex, Lou and Rick Dougherty at Milwaukee's Irish Fest in 1992. This time our daughter Sonya, son Jeremy and future son-in-law Paul were with us. As in 1973 we heard promises from the stage of a soon to be released recording. Global Carnival rivals Reunion for the dubious distinction of being the most poorly distributed Limeliters album of all-time. It is also one of my favorites. I have performed "Until We Get It Right," the hilarious reincarnation spoof, in living rooms and church basements to the delight of friends and congregations I have pastored.

Word of Lou Gottlieb's death in 1996 seemed to herald final closure for an act that had already demonstrated remarkable longevity. But life and the Limeliters go on.

So on February 13th, we will be at the Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan to see Alex, Rick, and Bill Zorn. Every time we have seen the Limeliters in person it has been a slightly different lineup - and we will have seen every permutation except Alex, Lou and Ernie. We also plan to purchase their new CD, Until we Get It Right, (The title suggests a partial reincarnation of Global Carnival.) I grew up with the Limeliters and it appears that I will grow old with them.

One more thing, Sonya will be attending this concert five months pregnant with our first grandchild. We anticipate the implanting of a pre-natal memory and will welcome a third generation Limeliters fan in June.

© 2000 by John Clair Ferris. Contributed to Tribute to the Limeliters website February 19, 2000.

Last update: February 19, 2000