Albert Grossman had sent me to the West Coast to do some booking chores. I met Maryanne Polar, the promoter for college concerts in the area, at her house in Berkeley. We made the arrangements for Lehrer to play there the following summer. After we talked I had the rest of the evening to myself, so I went to the Hungry i to hear a group I had heard about. I sat down at a table near the back of the room to listen.
I’d just lit my second cigarette when a small black woman emerged from the wings and walked to the microphone at center stage. Three white fellows, carrying guitars, followed and arranged themselves behind her. They launched into “Putting on the Style,” and then they did a version of the old gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.” They closed the set with a literate, sarcastic little song about “Dr. Freud.” I was their fan before the set closed. I had never heard anything like it. These four people could sing up a storm, they were smart, they were funny, and they looked absolutely incredible. When they took a break and went backstage I got up and followed.
They were called the Gateway Singers. They had a regular gig at the Hungry i, but somehow they hadn‘t been able to get much further. Their first manager had been Abner Greschler, the man who had discovered Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and had brought British films to American television. He was one of the legendary Hollywood sharks, but he was a courtly man, meaning that after you shook hands with him you would usually wait until he left the room before you counted your fingers.
Greschler would only have managed an act like this one if he saw instant money. He never got it, because they never made it, but he tried hard. Somehow, in spite of it all, they had not broken big. There had to be a reason. They acknowledged that they had made some mistakes. Before their first album, Greschler had got them contract offers from Decca and Capitol, two of the more aggressive record labels in the business. Decca had won a reputation by recording the Weavers, the legendary folk group that hit big with “Goodnight Irene” in 1950, but by this time the company’s arteries had hardened and it was content to rest on its catalogue. Capitol was still a hungry, hustling outfit without a lot of big names. The Gateway Singers went with Decca. The Kingston Trio chose Capitol.
I didn’t care. I told them they were the most exciting thing I’d seen. I thought they would be offended if I told them their act was more commercial than most folksingers, but I said so anyway. Elmer Lee Thomas, the lead singer, nodded. “lt’s meant to be slick,“ she said. “Yes, we’re more commercial than most folk groups, but we’re also more provocative. Just our being together is a statement.”