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Dave Guard and the Whiskeyhill Singers -- an appreciation

Posted by corcoran on Saturday, August 30, 2014

I was a neophyte high-school kid when I discovered the Kingston Trio, around 1960.  Something about their music appealed to me, specifically the 5-string banjo that Dave Guard played.  I also liked Guard’s voice, but it was the banjo that really rang my bell.  So I persuaded my parents to loan me the money to purchase a 5-string banjo, a simple Gretsch folk banjo, for $75.  (Parenthetically, I wish I had held on to that banjo, if only to hang it on the wall.  Several years ago I saw the same model for sale at Emerald City Guitars in Seattle, but I neglected to buy it).  I took lessons from a classical guitarist who dabbled in folk banjo (i.e., Pete Seeger style), and fairly quickly he passed me on to another guy who was a real expert at Seeger style.  Early on I also was captured by the playing of Bob Gibson and Erik Darling, and this grounding in folk banjo prepared me to enter the world of bluegrass banjo, as personified initially by Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith.  But I never lost my interest in Dave Guard, even though I had discovered other banjo players whose prowess far outstripped his, in my opinion.  So when the opportunity came in 1962 to see him and his new group, the Whiskeyhill Singers, at the legendary Gate of Horn, I jumped at the chance.  My friends and I sat in the front row and, as minors, sipped soda pop through the night.  I am sure the management of the club was thrilled with our low bar bill.  At any rate, we saw a dynamite performance by a raucous but musically accomplished group. 

Two memories stand out:  First, Judy Henske’s voice and her stomping on the stage in her high heels.  A plywood panel was positioned where she stood, presumably to protect the stage floor underneath.  And her voice; ah, Judy Henske`s voice – she was a real belter, and she provided incredible energy to the group.  Heresy:  I suspect Janis Joplin wished she had had Henske’s voice.  Second, I remember being surprised when Guard passed the banjo to Cyrus Faryar for the tune Bonnie Ship the Diamond.  This was surprising because at the time we all viewed Guard as the banjo player of the group, and this view persists today.  Now it is possible I am mis-remembering this, after more than 50 years, and it would be good if someone else who saw the group could comment.

The Whiskeyhill Singers were apparently not a great commercial success, and the members went their separate ways in 1962 or 1963. The group was pretty wild, it lacked the slick and more commercial approach of the Kingston Trio, and it included a lot of ribald humor in its songs.  Before the Whiskeyhills disbanded, however, they recorded one album that was released (still available on CD), and reportedly recorded a second album that remains unreleased.  Furthermore, the tracks they recorded for the movie How the West Was Won seem to be unavailable.  Thus all we have is their one eponymous recording, Dave Guard and the Whiskeyhill Singers, on Capitol Records, released on CD by Collectors' Choice Music.  Bummer.

Well, imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that someone had recorded them in concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1962, and the recording, which seems to be from the sound board, is available at the following web site: http://pastdaily.com/2013/05/19/dave-guards-whiskeyhill-singers-live-at-the-hollywood-bowl-1962-past-daily-backstage-weekend-extra/    The concert includes several songs that were not on their album, along with the usual stage patter characteristic of live performances.  One unexpected note is that Judy Henske had left the group before the Hollywood Bowl concert, and she was replaced by Liz Seneff, who also had a powerful voice but was not, in my opinion, in the same league as Judy Henske.  Nonetheless, the recording is well worth a listen if, that is, you are a fan of Dave Guard and the Whiskeyhill Singers.



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