While Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory have produced countless numbers of influential musicians, composers, arrangers and producers, New England’s other prestigious academic institutions have produced more than their fair share including entertainment icon Rudy Vallée (Yale), famed composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (Harvard), The Charles River Valley Boys (Harvard, Yale and MIT), Newport Folk Festival founder George Wein (Boston University) and renowned producer-songwriter Jim Rooney (Amherst and Harvard).
And within that charmingly eclectic, well-educated assembly are the Highwaymen, a folk quintet formed at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1958. Much more of a clean-cut hootenanny group like the Kingston Trio than consciousness-raising folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Rush, the band recorded several hit songs – including a #1 single in 1961 that continues to be sung in choirs and around campfires today – and played a key role in the folk-revival movement with their ever-collegial style, nonconfrontational balladry and harmonic finesse.
Originally called the Clansmen, the group was spearheaded by Dave Fisher, an ethnomusicology major who had sung lead in the doo-wop quintet the Academics, which formed at Hillhouse High School in New Haven and whose single “Too Good to be True” was the #1 song in Connecticut in 1957 but didn’t chart nationally. Just two weeks after arriving at Wesleyan in September 1958, Fisher brought together four other freshman he’d met at a fraternity party – Providence native Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels, and guitarist Steve Trott – and the quintet started doing shows on-campus and playing local gigs while approaching labels unsuccessfully.
In late 1958, producer Ken Greengrass, the group’s new manager, encouraged them to make a demo tape of all their songs – including a rendition of the African-American spiritual “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” that they’d begun performing live – and change their name to avoid potential accusations of racism. They chose the Highwaymen after the romantic narrative “The Highwayman” by English poet Alfred Noyes, first published in 1906 in Scotland.
In 1959, Greengrass’ strategy paid off when the Highwaymen signed with United Artists and recorded their eponymous debut album with producer Don Costa, a Boston native who had produced records for Paul Anka and would produce Frank Sinatra’s classic Sinatra and Strings in 1962. In May 1960, the group debuted at the Indian Neck Folk Music Festival in Branford, Connecticut, along with 19-year old Bob Dylan, but when UA released their LP in September, it sold dismally, as did the single, a rousing singalong called “Santiano,” and its soon-to-be-famous B-side “Michael,” the simplified title of the band’s rendition of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”
The Highwaymen’s apparent demise was thwarted, though, in large part due to the persistence of Edward “Big Ed” Dinello, an independent record distributor from Connecticut who saw potential in “Michael” and persuaded fellow distributors to promote it and local disc jockeys to spin it regularly. By July 1961, the track was a hit across New England and in September – exactly one year after its release – it reached #1 in the Billboard Hot 100, #1 in the UK and #4 in Germany. In October, the group’s virtually forgotten debut album went to #42 in the Billboard 200 helped by the band’s rendition of Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” making the Highwaymen major recording stars while still in their senior year at Wesleyan.
In late 1961, UA released the band’s second album, Standing Room Only, which included their rendition of the ballad “The Gypsy Rover,” which reached #12 in the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, and a sublimely harmonized rendition of the little-known Lead Belly song “Cotton Fields” that reached #3 and which the Beach Boys recorded for their 1969 album 20/20 and Creedence Clearwater Revival included on their debut LP that same year.
In early 1962 – when the band appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and recorded its third album, Encore – the group’s next singles failed to chart and a long period of lineup changes began, beginning with Steve Trott leaving, replaced by former Cumberland Three member Gil Robbins, and Burnett departing to spend one year in the military, which left the band a quartet until his return in late 1963.
In late 1962, UA released the group’s fourth album, March On, Brothers, which sold poorly and failed to produce a charting single, but the group landed a regular gig at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village and made New York their new home base. In November 1962, the Highwaymen appeared on The Tonight Show with its new host, Johnny Carson, and in 1963 they recorded the live album Hootenanny with the Highwaymen, followed by the studio LP One More Time, which included the first covers of Buffy St. Marie’s “Universal Soldier” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” written by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger. In October 1963 they played a show at Kresge Auditorium on the MIT campus which was released in 2009 as The Cambridge Tapes.
In early 1964, the group recorded another live LP, Homecoming!, on the Wesleyan campus and that summer they recorded their final UA album, The Spirit and the Flesh. In 1965, ABC-Paramount released their next two albums, The Highwaymen on a New Road and Stop! Look! & Listen! and in April 1967 they group played at The American Festival of Music at the Commonwealth Armory in Boston with Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, the Jefferson Airplane, and The Mothers of Invention.
Throughout the 1970s, several iterations of the Highwaymen reunited and in 1974 Fisher, Trott and Daniels appeared at The Great Folk Festival, broadcast on ABC. After Daniels passed away in 1975, the surviving members played two concerts at Wesleyan in 1987, recorded for their self-released LP 25th Reunion Concert, which includes their rendition of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.” After that, the band performed semi-regularly, including on a 1990 double bill with country supergroup the Highwaymen – Willy Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash – as part of a legal settlement over rights to the name “Highwaymen.”
In the early 2000s, until Fisher died in 2010 followed by Burnett in 2011, the band performed about a dozen shows per year and recorded their final studio album The Water Of Life: A Celtic Collection (2004) on the Varèse Sarabande label and self-released two live LPs, In Concert (2002) and When the Village Was Green (2007), the latter recorded at the Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland, Rhode Island. The original lineup appeared onstage together for the last time in August 2009 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at The Guthrie Center, founded by Arlo Guthrie in 1991.
(by D.S. Monahan – May 2022)