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© Malcolm J. Turnbull
 [Formerly published in
Trad & Now, #26, 2008]l]

In 1958 a recently-formed singing threesome recorded an old Appalachian bad man ballad – and effectively changed the course of musical history. While scholars rightly point to the groundbreaking impact of predecessors like Burl Ives, The Weavers or Harry Belafonte, there is general agreement that the smash success of ‘Tom Dooley’ and its immediate successors marked the start of the great U.S.-led folk fad.

   The Kingston Trio would go on to inspire or spawn a host of disciples and imitators. There were the inevitable boy-girl duos, family acts, Weavers-style quartets, big ensembles, PP&M homages, etc., but it was the male trio – relentlessly clean-cut, frequently campus-based, determinedly commercial and ‘crowd-pleasing’ in repertoire and orientation – which remains the most readily identifiable stereotype of the great 60s folk boom. The Kingston Trio reigned supreme but enjoyed particularly healthy competition from robust contenders like The Journeymen, the Chad Mitchell Trio, The Travellers Three and (at a more mature level) The Limeliters. For many a starry-eyed young folk fan the Ivy League trios were the boy bands of the era.

Just as the Australian chapter of the folk revival produced its quota of world-weary young blues singers, intense folk-poets, boy and girl collectives and piercing Baez-style sopranos, so it produced a not insubstantial array of collegiate trios which offered audiences in coffee lounges, hotels, Leagues Clubs, radio and TV an easy-listening (and usually non-controversial) mix of folk standards and stand-up comedy. This article recalls some of the more high profile such acts.

Arguably best-remembered is Western Australian trio The Twiliters which brought together three classmates from Perth’s Christian Brothers College, Jim Maguire. Kerry White and Hans Stampfer. 

Kerry and Hans were still at school [recalls Jim Maguire]. I had just dropped out of  Medicine at the University of WA and I was working as a psychiatric nurse. We originally set out  to form a quartet singing pop songs. Then we heard The Kingston Trio … that was a ‘flash of light in the sky’. Our first gig was the Senior School’s Christmas function … To fit in with my shift work, we used to rehearse at 4.30 in the morning at Hans’ mum’s or in the boiler room of the mental hospital … Then we chanced upon a little coffee shop, the Quitapena, in Hay Street … Perth was just emerging out of the beatnik era. The eastern states had already moved on. [For a while] we used to hang around with bongo drums.  

The Twiliters were resident act at the Quitapena (“the first actual coffee lounge in Perth, a very cosy place” with a seating capacity of 30-40)  – off and on – for two years. Encouraged by DJ Keith McGowan, the boys won a regular spot on a local TV teen show Club 17, and played a round of country dances and hootenanny stomps.

At one show in Bundaberg, the police stopped the show because we sang a satire on the Profumo affair, ‘Profumo went a-courtin’. We toured country towns with Kevin Shegog …  We had our first taste of ‘something bigger’ when we were invited to appear on The Country & Western Hour in Adelaide.  It was a thrill for young working class kids to stay in motels. Around then The Beatles arrived in Australia and The Twiliters received full Beatles treatment at a rock dance. They screamed at anything that was out of town. Later I remember playing at a rock concert in Fremantle where the locals preferred The Twiliters to Johnny Young! …

   At the end of 1964 we left Perth with 20 pounds between us. Hans hurt his hand and I was forced to pick up some basic guitar chords on the train to Adelaide where we were due to play on The C&W Hour again.  (I already knew the banjo). I remember a non-stop party after playing a coffee lounge in Adelaide. We took part in a tour called FOLK 65 with promises to be paid at the end. Robyn Smith [Archer] was part of the tour but she had to be sent home because of asthma. At Mt Gambier we played a hall where, if more than 1000 people turned up, it was necessary to engage a fireman. As it turned out, only the fireman turned up. …Then we moved on to Melbourne and we were introduced to Traynors … We played table to table at Capers, at night spots like the Peppermint Lounge and on Kommotion. Then [at the start of 1965] Hans was accepted back into Medical School at the University of WA. He went back to Perth leaving us the ‘good guitar’.

With an enviable amount of work in the offing, White and Maguire elected to replace Stampfer. The new recruit was Greg Ferris, a Chemical Engineering drop-out, 12 string guitar whiz and former musical partner of Dick McKay. (Dubbing themselves The Travellers, Ferris and McKay had been grounded in the infant Hobart folk scene – sometimes performing with Patsy Biscoe – before hitchhiking and ‘singing for their supper’  around New Zealand then across to – and throughout – WA).  “Greg fitted in really well. He played a different style to Hans and the group quickly established a new spirit “. The Twiliters quickly relocated to Sydney. “We recognised that to survive we were going to have to make it commercially. The club circuit taught us how to construct a good set, how to move audiences”. Within 6 months of Ferris’ arrival, the trio was being dubbed ‘Australia’s foremost folk group’. The Twiliters  attained a peak of popularity in 1968 when they supported Marlene Dietrich at the Adelaide Festival of Arts and on tour, and followed up the success with a well-received ABC TV series Good Grief It’s the Twiliters.

Recordings by The Twits (as the trio was dubbed, usually affectionately) indicate the strong influence in style and repertoire of American group The Journeymen. (The Journeymen combined Dick Weissman, Scott McKenzie who would score solo fame with the flower power anthem ‘San Francisco’, and John Phillips who went on to form The Mamas & The Papas). Journeymen favourites like ‘Wagoner’s Lad’, ‘Me and My Uncle’, ‘Bethlehem’, ‘Chilly Winds’, ‘Dark as a Dungeon’, ‘In the Evening’ and Phillips’ post-folk ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’ were covered unashamedly – and effectively – on 2 albums, The Twiliters in Concert and Great Day with the Twiliters for RCA, as well as a handful of singles and a couple of EP tie-ins with the TV show. Other highlights include stirring versions of ‘The Ox Driver’ and ‘Albury Ram’, Adelaide writer Phil Sawyer’s  poignant ‘Thanks for the Hand to Hold’, and the whimsical ‘Creamsleeves’. The trio disbanded at the end of their TV series (partly because Maguire had returned to University). An offer of a tour of the Top End and American bases the following year brought them back together, disastrously as it turned out because of Ferris’ mood changes and obvious health problems. He was flown back from Malaysia to Sydney where he died (in January 1970) of a previously undiagnosed brain tumour. (Today, ex-Twiliters Stampfer and Maguire both practice as psychiatrists, in Perth and Sydney respectively. Kerry White died – too young – in the early 1990s). Notwithstanding the sadness of its conclusion, Maguire (in an interview a couple of years ago) recalled the trio with enormous affection:

We had a lot of fun … We weren’t too caught up in the technicality of the music . Each of us was complementary. Kerry was head and shoulders above us as a singer. He was very good at organising the harmonies. Greg worked out the guitar arrangements . My role was being the talking head … Everyone felt they were contributing … We loved being on the road … We were little affected by folk scene debates … My favourites of our recordings are ‘Chilly Winds’ with its Byrds-style arrangement, ‘Great Day’, and Kerry’s wonderful vocals on ‘In the Evening’ and ‘The Wanderer’. I’m also pleased with ‘Shades of Grey’. 


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