From 1958 until the early 1960’s the most popular music group in the world was The Kingston Trio. They didn’t invent or discover folk music but they did introduce it to a whole generation of guitar and banjo players. Yours truly included. Even Bob Dylan credits them as one of his important influences.
This group, with there matching striped shirts and tight harmonies, had hit after hit and brought their version of traditional ballads into millions of homes, dorm rooms, front porches and coffee houses. A large part of their remarkable success has been credited to the ‘fourth member’ of the group, Frank Werber. It was Frank who discovered them and became their manager, partner and mentor. It was 1957, in SanFrancisco, when he found these three young college grads and molded them into a tight, finely tuned machine. He rehearsed them sometimes eight hours a day. And these were days when they were playing every night at a San Francisco club. Then he took this appealing act to colleges all over the United States creating that venue for many other groups to come. He was also a Father figure protecting them from the excesses that success can bring.
I was passing through Silver City, New Mexico last year and, in a chance conversation, discovered that Werber had retired to a ranch in the Gila Forest outside of town to raise his family. He remained there until he died a few years ago. So when I was returning to New Mexico many months later I was blown away by an unexpected phone call. While in a hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi a woman named Leslie Reynolds called. Her late husband, Nick, had been a member of the Trio and she was heading up an effort called The Kingston Trio Legacy Project. Its goal is to recognize their contribution to folk music through a touring museum exhibit including oral histories, recordings, photographs and lots of interactive displays. She had received my name from a historian friend who suggested that I might be interested in recording some interviews for the project. Since I had been a huge fan and, actually had learned to play guitar and banjo from their records, I was thrilled. And I was headed back to Frank Werber’s last home.
The project took me throughout California where I met dozens of interesting people who had been involved with the Trio. But the true highlight was learning about this remarkable man, Frank Werber. I was most fortunate to get to know three outstanding people. There were two of his children, Chala and Bodie as well as a very close and long time friend of his, Hans Johansen. All three shared much information about Frank and his life.
Frank came to America in the late 1930’s after he and his father escaped from a German concentration camp and got to Belgium where they waited for passage to the United States. Frank’s Mother, sadly, along with millions of other Jews did not make it out alive. Arriving in New York Frank experienced a new kind of cruelty. Here, in the Promised Land, his heavy accent made him the victim of many attacks and harsh treatment. Frank’s solution would turn out to be part of the pattern of success that would be based on striving for perfection. Within six months he had taught himself English with absolutely no trace of an accent. Throughout his adult life people were shocked to learn that English was not his native tongue.
Frank lived with his father, moving to Florida, until he was old enough to enlist in the Navy. On a stop in San Francisco he fell in love with the city and headed there right after he was discharged. He worked for a newspaper as a photographer and eventually obtained a job at a small, and soon to be famous, club called “The Hungry i.” There he quickly rose from jack of all trades to the publicist for this hot entertainment spot. It was while there that he found three rough edged college singers and turned them into the Trio.
His business career was meteoric. Not only did he manage the Trio but he soon took on a whole stable of other performers. He managed touring, publicity, publishing, and even opened the fashionable Trident Restaurant in Sausalito which catered to the likes of people like Mick Jagger. But in the late 1960’s Frank had enough. The Trio disbanded and he sold off most holdings to retire to a ranch outside of tiny Silver City, New Mexico.There he raised his family and seemed to touch everyone in the town. Even today you need to just mention “Frank” and it seems everyone knows whom you are talking about.
There was much more to this man than a successful businessman, more than a mentor and innovator, more than a perfectionist and stickler for detail. When people speak of him today, fifty years later, it is with reverence and respect. He seemed to understand what was really important. And he knew that it wasn’t worth doing if not done well. And he touched people in a very human way.
He lived the American dream from immigrant to business tycoon. But when he ended up in southwestern New Mexico he was, just Frank. I found the same reaction from the dozens of people I interviewed. When his name was mentioned there was a slow wide smile that would appear. Sometimes a damp eye would accompany it.
I never met him but I feel him through the many people he touched. He was, simply, a great man. He was, it seems, bigger than life.
Until next time….