By Garrin Hertel
Above, from left to right: Chad Mitchell, Joe Fraser, and Mike Kobluk are the Chad Mitchell Trio. Photos courtesy of the Kobluk Family Archives.
Find a podcast of the Hot Club of Spokane Show, which aired on KEWU in Spokane, WA with Chad Mitchell, and “Three Songs for a World-Weary World” online here. Chad recorded these three songs with Hot Club of Spokane throughout 2017, and proceeds from the tracks will go to support the Pawsitive Dog Prison Training Program in Spokane.
The Bob Crosby Show was just nuts,” Chad Mitchell remembers.
When the Chad Mitchell Trio performed their first show with newly recruited bandmate, Joe Frazier, it was on stage at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas as part of the Bob Crosby Show in December of 1960. In addition to learning new material with their new singer, the show host, Bob Crosby (Bing’s little brother), asked the trio to join him in each show’s finale with a song and dance number.
“It was the little fishies song, or something. Then Bob said to us, ‘I’ll bring you boys on, and then after you sing a few songs, I’ll get up, and ask ‘Do you have an encore?’ And then you say, ‘Yes, we bow.’ We’ll all come out at the end of the show and sing the [Three Little Fishies], and we’ll do this dance.’”
Chad Mitchell and Mike Kobluk, two of the founding members of the trio, didn’t dance. “We were just sort of nonplussed at all of that – the schedule, the dialogue, and especially the dancing,” recalled Chad.
Mike Kobluk added, “God bless Joe.”
Joe Frazier and his wife performed on Broadway before he auditioned for the Chad Mitchell Trio in 1960. So even though he was fairly familiar with Bob Crosby’s Vegas-style act, and even though he could dance, he said, “I’m sorry Mr. Crosby, but I don’t dance.”
“He saved us,” Chad and Mike said almost in unison, through a burst of laughter. And for that four-week run of shows with Bob Crosby, the Chad Mitchell Trio performed their music, their way.
Prior to hiring Joe, for one week in autumn of 1960, Tom Paxton auditioned with the Chad Mitchell Trio, to replace recently departed (and founding) member, Mike Pugh. Paxton didn’t make the cut, and instead, the group chose Joe Frazier as their third. But in 1964, Paxton released “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” on his second album “Ramblin’ Boy.”
If there’s a song to be the soundtrack of Chad Mitchell and Mike Kobluk’s memories of the Trio and their journey from Gonzaga to national success, it’s this one. The group originally recorded the song in 1964, and released it on their album “Slightly Irreverent,” and then again in the 1980s on their reunion album, “Mighty Day.”
Paxton’s song paints a good picture of the folk music ethos. Dusty roads, destinations unknown, strangers, friends, memories, and a little friendly advice at the end about gratitude. The song is as much about doubts as it is about faith, and a sense of shared emotions tied to trying to figure life out. “I have traveled across this land, just a-doin’ the best I can. Tryin’ to find what I was meant to do,” Paxton wrote, and the Chad Mitchell Trio sang, no doubt with memories of their own worries and adventures in mind.
Dusty roads and destinations unknown, in particular, characterized the fateful cross-country journey in the summer of 1959 that would show three Gonzaga University students “what they were meant to do.” At least, for a while. The Chad Mitchell Trio held together for about ten years in various configurations until each member left the group to do other things.
But before the fateful cross-country trip, they were typical 1950s clean-cut kids from the Northwest. Chad Mitchell was born in Portland, Oregon, but moved to Spokane when he was in grade school. His father had grown up in Spokane, and played hockey with one of the Simchuks. In Portland, Chad’s father was a foreman at a shipyard that built Liberty Ships during World War II. Mike Kobluk came from Trail, British Columbia. He sang in the church choir and in a high school quartet called “The Pastels.” His father was a barber in Trail for 44 years. Mike Pugh was from Pasco, Washington. They all met at Gonzaga University, in the Glee Club, which was the primary reason each of them chose Gonzaga.
“At that time, the Glee Club had a similar effect for Gonzaga as their basketball team does today,” Mike Kobluk remembers. “In 1952, the Gonzaga Men’s Glee Club won the Fred Waring National Competition for College and University Choruses, a very prestigious national honor.”
Chad was on a partial Glee Club scholarship.
Years before, Chad Mitchell formed a quartet at Lewis and Clark High School (class of 1955). To rehearse, the group listened to 45s of the Four Lads, except they set their turntable at 33, slowing down the recordings so that they could pick out the harmonies.
After appearing at convocations and lodges, the group scored a regular television appearance on a local station, although their show aired opposite the Friday Night Fights.
“A singer at the Monkey Room wanted back up singers for the television program, and so they got us from LC, and she let us sing a few songs on our own, too,” Chad recalls, and then he chuckles when he shares the name of his group: “We were called the Men About Town.”
The singer had a romantic relationship with a television producer, and he offered the quartet $10 per week each. After the third week, Chad asked for a raise of $5 each, and coincidentally, the romance between the producer and the singer from the Monkey Room died, and so did the Men About Town’s television contract. “He said no to the raise. ‘You’re fired,’ was his response I think.”
Even though Chad enrolled in college to pursue a degree in engineering and an eventual career outside of music, college itself seemed to have other ideas. As a freshman at Stanford, he saw a banjo-playing folk singer performing at a campus event. The student turned out to be Dave Guard, who started the Kingston Trio.
Then, after transferring to the University of Washington, Chad began singing with a small group of students who planned to intensify their music-making the next quarter. But Chad didn’t continue at UW. Those students formed the Mark Five, who later became The Brothers Four.
It was about this time that Chad’s mother clued him in to a partial scholarship opportunity to be in the Glee Club at Gonzaga University, where he could earn a degree – pre-med in her mind – and participate in music.
At Gonzaga, the Glee Club flourished under the instruction of Lyle Moore, who was “an incredible perfectionist” according to Chad, and someone who, “whipped the students into incredible shape, even though many of them had very little musical training,” according to Mike Kobluk.
Moore started at Gonzaga in 1932, and “taught his students both the joy of the fine arts and the importance of hard work and discipline,” as described in the application for the scholarship offered to students today in his name. The Glee Club, under his direction, often logged more than 5,000 miles annually, touring and performing around the country.
Kobluk, Mitchell, and Pugh met in the Glee Club in 1957. Students on music scholarship would often perform during ad lib sessions, which were added performances following Glee Club concerts where particular students could be highlighted, including classical and jazz performances. In these sessions, Chad would often sing folk-type songs in a duo with another student, and Mike performed as a member of the Glee Club’s Men’s Quartet.
The Trio itself didn’t begin performing together until the Winter Carnival of 1958, which was an annual event at Gonzaga where a variety of groups would perform.
A lay priest, by the name of Reinard Beaver, took notice of the Trio, and offered to book them at local Rotary Club events and the like. Because of his efforts, they earned a week at the Early Birds Club in the basement of the Davenport Hotel.
Before the summer of 1959, Fr. Beaver invited the Trio to tag along with him on a cross-country trip to New York, where he would be taking army chaplain courses at Ft. Slocum. “The government was paying his travel expenses, and he could choose to fly or drive. So he chose to drive, and that way, our travel expenses would be paid, too,” recalled Mike Kobluk.
“He just thought we could focus on the local market in New York, and pick up some extra money. We thought we would just go for the summer – none of us intended to stay, or pursue a career in music,” Chad added.
Fr. Beaver had a special talent for promoting the Trio, and Art McGinn, local journalist, once wrote that he, “could promote a teakettle into the Boston Symphony.” But Fr. Beaver was entirely disappointed one night in Toledo, Ohio when the group stopped to see if they could sing for a meal at a local nightclub.
Chad tells the story: “Fr. Beaver went to a phone booth, and picked out the night club with the biggest advertisement in the yellow pages. He told us to wait in the car, and he dressed up in his military chaplain uniform, and went in to this place to see if he could get us booked. He’d say, ‘I’ve got three kids headed to New York to be on the Ed Sullivan Show….’ He was gone for nearly half an hour, and we were just thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ Well, the bar owner had told him that he only hired union entertainment. It was the first time he had ever been turned down on that trip. We had played all along the way, and we were a few hundred dollars in the black because of it. But that night, it didn’t work, and Fr. Beaver was pretty down about it. He suggested we get a burger, and maybe just drive the rest of the way to New York that night. Then suddenly, the bar owner comes running out, yelling, ‘I need your group! I need your group! It’s the leader of the group I hired. He fell off a barstool and injured his head.’ Fr. Beaver turned and said to us, ‘God takes care of His own,’ and then said to the bar owner, ‘You know, the Trio’s performance fee just went up.’”
The Trio performed that night, and they were fed and paid, and the bar owner wanted to have them stay for a week, offering to pay them $1,200 for an extended engagement. Instead, they carried on to New York, but the episode helped build their confidence. “If we can get hired all the way to New York, we’re going to be doing really well once we get there,” Mike Kobluk recalled of their mindset at the time.
But it was not that easy.
The trio auditioned at the most prestigious clubs in New York, and they were turned away at all of them, mainly because they didn’t have any new material. They were good, but they were performing music that had been over-done. After a week of rejections, and with four college-aged kids – Dennis Collins, who accompanied them on guitar, went on the trip as well – living in one hotel room, Fr. Beaver began to get anxious. His focus was on his chaplain training, and meanwhile, he had four young adults in New York City with nothing to do.
Fortunately, through a cousin, he found an agent to listen to the Trio. The agent was none other than Bertha Case, who was representing Nina Simone at the time. And almost simultaneously, the industry had an awakening. The year before, The Kingston Trio had their first hit with “Tom Dooley,” which was thought to be an aberration, and which the industry classified as country music. Then, in January 1959, The Kingston Trio released their first album, “The Hungry i,” which went went gold, and suddenly, every label was seeking folk acts. “Fortunately, we could sing well, and we were acceptable because we wore sport coats and ties,” Chad remembers.
By the time Fr. Beaver’s chaplain training was completed, and the summer was winding down, the Chad Mitchell Trio was settling into their first recording contract. They were scheduled to perform for a week on Arthur Godfrey’s Radio Show, and soon to be on the Pat Boone television show. Harry Belafonte invited the Trio to perform with him at Carnegie Hall. So Fr. Beaver drove back to Spokane on dusty roads alone. Yet, the destinations unknown were still on the horizon for the Chad Mitchell Trio.
The Trio did return to Spokane, but not until the spring of 1960, when they opened for the Andrews Sisters at the Sports Show, a five-day annual event at the Spokane Coliseum. That summer, Kobluk and Pugh took time off while Mitchell honored his Air National Guard duty, and by the end of the summer, Mike Pugh had decided not to continue with the Trio so that he could go back to school. That’s when Kobluk and Mitchell went back to New York City where they auditioned 150 singers to take Pugh’s place, with Tom Paxton taking second place to Joe Frazier.
They also found a new, young accompanist named Jim McGuinn. After three years with the Trio, Jim left on his own, changed his name to Roger, formed The Byrds, and today, he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As the 1960s unfolded, so, too, did The Chad Mitchell Trio mature and awaken to the social and political struggles of the era. At the end of their first year, they had performed at Carnegie Hall with Harry Belafonte, a major influence in their lives and music. Both Chad and Mike credit their musical director, Milt Okun, for developing and enhancing their performances. The later addition of Frank Fried as their manager further advanced a cohesive sense of musical identity. In creative sessions, the group explored humor, satire, new music, and the social issues of the period.
“That was the most fun,” remembers Chad. “We worked hard on every song trying to figure out how to do each one so that we could convey the most meaning.”
From 1960 to 1965, the Chad Mitchell Trio performed on the Bell Telephone Hour, the Hootenanny Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, and again at Carnegie Hall, except this time, as the headliner. They performed at the White House, and they toured with Bob Newhart.
Sometimes, their elevated social consciousness conflicted with the television etiquette of the day. When Burt Shevelove, producer of the Bell Telephone Hour, asked the trio what they wanted to perform on the show, they immediately suggested “Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
“He loved it,” remembers Mike Kobluk, “but he said it could never go on the air. ‘No way this could go on National TV,’ he said. But each time we were back on the show, he would have us give a private concert for the crew, and we’d perform that song.”
Shevelove also produced the Dinah Shore Show, where the trio performed with a young star fresh off an off-Broadway tour: Barbra Streisand. It was her first national television appearance.
At a live performance in the Camellia House Dining Room in the Drake Hotel in Chicago, a guest heckled the band, yelling out, “What’s wrong with Ross Barnett?” when the band was performing, “Alma Mater,” an anti-war/anti-racism song, that satirically exclaims, “God Bless thee Ross Barnett.” (Ross Barnett was governor of Mississippi, and he supported racial segregation.)
The guest was also throwing coins on the stage as the trio performed. After the show, Joe Frazier returned to the stage, picked up the coins, and gave them back to the guest, and suggested that perhaps the coins would be better used to pay for an education. A series of mild altercations followed, and resulted in the guest’s and Joe’s arrests, as well as two weeks of paid time off for Chad and Mike.
Situations like these were few, if not unique. But the reasons for such outbursts, including the group’s satirical edge, may have kept the Chad Mitchell Trio from performing more regularly in the south.
That is, until they were invited by Harry Belafonte to participate in the “Stars for Freedom” concert in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Here, again, like the Tom Paxton song, the Chad Mitchell Trio had, “traveled across this land, just a-doin’ the best they can. Tryin’ to find what they were meant to do.”
The concert was just one part of the organized activities associated with the third march, beginning on March 21, 1965, from Selma to Montgomery, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mike Kobluk remembers the eerie atmosphere as they got off the plane in Alabama. A loudspeaker directed newcomers: “Would the outside agitators go to a bus outside the baggage claim.”
“From the airport to the hotel, every sign that could possibly direct an outsider to a destination had been covered by butcher paper. Someone had gone out of their way to make sure strangers had trouble finding their way,” Mike recalled. “We were in our 20s. Harry Belafonte gathered all the entertainers together, and said, ‘I prefer that you don’t leave the hotel. If you need to go somewhere, go in a group.’”
On the third evening of the march, on March 24, the “Stars for Freedom” concert was held in St. Jude, Alabama in a muddy field, where protestors were inspired by performances by Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joan Baez, Nina Simone, and of course, The Chad Mitchell Trio.
Mike Kobluk was not able to participate in the march to the capitol the next day, because he had to travel to Canada to renew his work visa as a Canadian citizen. But Chad and Joe were among the thousands who turned out to march from St. Jude to the capitol building, where Dr. King gave his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech.
As much as the trio had been singing about political and social issues of the era, Chad remembers his own revelations as he marched that day.
“My idea was that we were going to show these southerners. But as we were marching, there was no yelling. I didn’t see an angry mob. I put myself in their shoes as I walked. Dead silence. It was like they were being invaded. At that moment, I had compassion for both sides, even if I didn’t agree with their beliefs. It was not at all what I expected.”
Tom Paxton’s song about dusty roads and destinations unknown became relevant not just for the audience, but for the singer, too: “And the faces that I see are as worried as can be. Looks like they’ve been wonderin’, too.”
And so it was with the Chad Mitchell Trio, which began as a group of clean-cut kids from Gonzaga University with no real plans to become musicians, or entertainers, or social commentators.
They traveled all across America, entertaining college campuses and large audiences. They performed regularly on national television. The State Department sent them on a South American tour.
They sang Tom Paxton’s song: “It’s a long and a dusty road. It’s a hard and a heavy load and the folks we meet ain’t always kind. Some are bad and some are good. Some have done the best they could. Some have tried to ease our troubling mind.”
Chad Mitchell left the group in 1965. John Denver stepped in to replace him, and the group was renamed the Mitchell Trio. Mike Kobluk left later on, in 1968. Mike and his wife Clare settled in Spokane, where for Expo ‘74, as Director of Performing and Visual Arts, he had the responsibility of booking and directing six months of world-class entertainment at an event that arguably changed Spokane forever. Joe went on to become an Episcopal priest. Sadly, Joe passed away in 2014.
Chad and Mike both live in Spokane today, just a few blocks apart.
And if you’re wondering if you might have liked to “ramble” around the country with them on these adventures, “If you see us passin’ by, and you sit and you wonder why, and you wish that you were a rambler, too,” Chad and Mike might suggest that you: “Nail your shoes to the kitchen floor, lace ‘em up, bar the door, and thank the stars for the roof that’s over you.”
But then again, when it comes to their own ramblin’, they probably wouldn’t change a thing.