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Chad Mitchell trio: reminder of passage of youth's icons

Perhaps the most compelling reminder of time's passage is the passage of the icons of youth. So it was when I learned recently of the death more than a year ago of Joe Frazier, part of the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Spokane-spawned folk group that I had followed closely since they were in college at Gonzaga University.

So if the Chad Mitchell Trio isn't a name that rings a bell for you, this would be a good time to leave this column and go on to other things. If the Chad Mitchell Trio is familiar, read on.

Chad, Mike Kobluk and Mike Pugh (soon replaced by Frazier) were three years older than me when they headed for New York in the summer of 1959 to, as the Jesuit priest who guided the university singing group of which they were a part advised them, find out if they had the talent to make it.

They did, thanks in part to being picked up by Harry Belafonte, who oversaw development of several groups of young entertainers. I watched the group in numerous TV entertainment programs, ranging from frequent stops on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Bell Telephone Hour to Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, the Steve Allen Show, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Hootenany and listened to their records that often waxed irreverent in ways that eluded other folk groups.

There was a sense of a personal bond at first because Chad had run the 440 in high school and I broke his record in the state high school meet.

But it became a more personal bond a decade ago when, learning that Chad had returned to Spokane, I searched his telephone number in the hope of doing an interview with him. But what to say when I called his number?

When I called, young woman, who turned out to be his teenage daughter, answered. I asked "is Chad there?"

When he came on the line, I explained who I was, but knowing he'd be little impressed to be talking to the publisher of a business newspaper in Seattle, I quickly said: "I broke your 440 record in high school."

"Oh, what was your time?"

"I ran 50.6," I said.

"Cool, what was mine?"

"You ran 51 flat."

"Crummy time, but that was my junior year. When I was a senior, I was getting beaten regularly by another guy on the team and the coach said 'I don't need two quarter milers, so Chad, you're going to run then 880.'"

"Good thing for me. I won the state championship in the 880 that year," he said.

At that point we had bonded, so we set up an interview on my next Spokane visit.

During our interview at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Chad shared the recollection that the Chad Mitchell Trio had been offered first rights to do Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" as a single. But their producer turned it down with the explanation that "no song with 'death' in it has ever made it into the top 50," Mitchell told me. They soon parted company with that producer after the song became a major hit for Peter, Paul and Mary. It was the closest the trio came to a number-one hit.

It had been exactly 40 years, at the time of our interview, since Chad had departed his eponymous trio in 1965, and in the interview he discussed that departure with remarkable candor. "I left the group because it was time. A trio, three, is the worst possible number. It's always two against one. And there eventually came to be the question of 'why are we the Chad Mitchell Trio?' In fact the name Chad Mitchell Trio turned out to be a mistake. The last couple of albums we were just the Mitchell Trio."

"But we're adults now. And we're close friends," he said. In fact, he then lived near Kobluk, the deep-voiced member of the group who did many of the solos, including Four Strong Winds and the group's perhaps-best-remembered Marvelous Toy.

The search for Mitchell's replacement when he left the trio turned up a young singer named John Deutschendorf, who was later to become John Denver.

"Denver was a charmer," Mitchell recalled. "We had a lot of integrity in what we tried to do and Denver learned being meaningful from the trio."

The Chad Mitchell Trio never had a million-selling record, but over the first half of a decade that became the turbulent '60s, the trio used national-television appearances and college-campus performances to become among that era's best-known folk singers.

Several years after our 2005 interview, the group decided to return to the performance circuit, giving me an opportunity to do a column on them focused on the fact that they were helping redefine the meaning of encore.

I wrote: "For the trio members, encore means performing again, years later. In fact, a half-century on since that summer of 1959 when they headed by car for New York to seek their fortune. The trio is slated for a performance what will mark the 50th anniversary celebration in the city where they got their start as collegians."

The trio found themselves before audiences a half dozen or more times in each of the next several years, and as Chad explained: "Our producers are the ones who wanted us to do the one in Spokane again because the first time, they figured people wouldn't think we were any good after all these years. But it turned out we were all pleased with the reception."

The fact was that to the audience, they were excellent. Since they had all turned 70, they had clearly aged, but not unappealingly. Their voices had lost a little, but not a lot. And their enthusiasm was every bit as charged as when many in the audience of their era saw them lo those 50 years earlier.

One of their last perfomances was a Los Angeles fund raiser a few years ago for the Big Bear Lake Episcopal church where Frazier had been vicar for years.

Poignantly, the trio had scheduled a performance last November and, despite Frazier's death a few months earlier at age 77, they went ahead with the final performance with Ron Greenstein, who had played bass for the trio since 2009 and had been filling in for Joe on vocals since 2011, joining Chad and Mike for the last concert.

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