Glenn Yarbrough, Folk Singer With the Limeliters, Dies at 86
By MARGALIT FOX AUG. 12, 2016
From left, Alex Hassilev, Lou Gottlieb and Glenn Yarbrough of the Limeliters in the early 1960s.
Via Everett Collection
Glenn Yarbrough, a folk singer who at midcentury found fame and fortune with the popular trio the Limeliters but who walked away from it all for a life at sea, died on Thursday at his daughter’s home in Nashville. He was 86.
The cause was complications of dementia, his daughter, Holly Yarbrough Burnett, said.
Founded in 1959, the Limeliters — comprising Mr. Yarbrough on vocals and guitar, Alex Hassilev on vocals and banjo and Lou Gottlieb on vocals and bass — was a contemporary folk group in the tradition of the Kingston Trio.
Known for their burnished tight harmonies, sophisticated if nontraditional arrangements and witty onstage banter, the Limeliters were wildly successful. Amid the folk revival of the 1960s, they appeared often on television and in live performance, sold records by the hundreds of thousands and became millionaires in the bargain.
By all critical accounts, Mr. Yarbrough’s silvery lyric tenor — a voice whose lightness belied his stocky appearance — was the group’s acoustic linchpin, soaring memorably in traditional tunes including “John Henry” and contemporary numbers like “Charlie, the Midnight Marauder,” about a hapless suburbanite who one night mistakenly enters the wrong house.
Reviewing a 1961 concert by the Limeliters at Town Hall in Manhattan, Robert Shelton wrote in The New York Times, “Mr. Yarbrough’s fine lyric voice had body, warmth and a lush vibrato that made ‘Lass From the Low Country,’ ‘When I First Came to This Land’ and ‘Zhankoye’ touching.” He added: “Mr. Yarbrough is a top-flight vocalist.”
In 1963, Mr. Yarbrough, restless, left the Limeliters, and the group disbanded. An ardent sailor, he intended to spend the next decade at sea but was persuaded by his record label, RCA Victor, to record solo albums instead.
He made a string of them, toured for some years as a solo act and had a hit single with “Baby the Rain Must Fall,” the title song of the 1965 film starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick.
In the mid-1960s Mr. Yarbrough began a collaboration with the poet and songwriter Rod McKuen that resulted in several albums, among them “The Lonely Things” and “Glenn Yarbrough Sings the Rod McKuen Songbook.”
But for Mr. Yarbrough, success brought myriad discontents.
“I did a show last year at the Fairmont in San Francisco and there was a big cover charge,” he told the journalist David Lamb during this period. (Mr. Lamb recounted the exchange in his 1993 book, “A Sense of Place: Listening to Americans.”) Mr. Yarbrough continued:
“The only people who could afford it were people already so embroiled in money that they’re already dead inside. I looked out at them and they’re just sitting there and they’re not even living people anymore. It just doesn’t give me a good feeling working for those people.”
By the late 1960s Mr. Yarbrough had sold his Rolls-Royce, his Porsche, his Bentley and his two Ferraris along with, Mr. Lamb reported, his house in New Zealand, his banana plantation in Jamaica and an apartment building he owned in Beverly Hills, Calif. With the proceeds, he established a school for disadvantaged children, most of them African-American, in the mountains outside Los Angeles.
“I’ve always wanted to teach,” Mr. Yarbrough told The Sunday Examiner & Chronicle of San Francisco in 1966. “I got into entertainment by accident. The idea for the school actually came to me when I was sailing to Hawaii. I got to thinking about why I was still doing something I didn’t want to do very much, and about what I could do to make it meaningful.”
The school endured until the early 1970s, when it closed for lack of funds. Mr. Yarbrough rented his home in the Hollywood Hills to the comedian Marty Feldman and, with his second wife, the former Annie Graves, and baby Holly, took to sea aboard the Jubilee, the 57-foot sailboat he had helped build. He did not return for the better part of five years.
Glenn Robertson Yarbrough was born in Milwaukee on Jan. 12, 1930. His parents, Bruce Yarbrough and the former Elizabeth Robertson, were social workers who had met while training at Hull House, the settlement house in Chicago.
While the elder Mr. Yarbrough traveled the country from one social-work post to another during the Depression, Glenn and his mother lived in New York. There, he helped support the family through his work as a boy soprano in the choir of Grace Church, the historic Episcopal church in Manhattan.
As a youth, Glenn attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., where he studied pre-Socratic philosophy. (His roommate, Jac Holzman, would become a founder, in 1950, of Elektra Records, which early on recorded Mr. Yarbrough singly and the Limeliters collectively.)
One day in the early 1950s, Woody Guthrie came to St. John’s, an event that for the young Mr. Yarbrough proved transformative.
“I never liked the pop songs of the day; I always thought it was real stupid stuff — ‘moon, June, spoon,’” Mr. Yarbrough told The Los Angeles Times in 1996. “So I went to this Woody Guthrie concert, and I was just overwhelmed — everything he sang was real. I was just a shy kid, but I walked up to him afterward with tears in my eyes and told him how much I loved what he had done. The very next day I went out and bought a guitar, and that was that.”
After Army service during the Korean War, where he performed with entertainment units in Korea and Japan, Mr. Yarbrough embarked on a solo career, playing the coffeehouse circuit. He became an owner of the Limelite, an Aspen, Colo., nightclub from which the singing group would take its name.
In mid-1959, Mr. Yarbrough and Mr. Hassilev, performing with Theodore Bikel at Cosmo Alley, a Los Angeles club, were introduced to Mr. Gottlieb, and the Limeliters were born. The group made its debut at the Hungry i, the storied San Francisco nightclub, later that year.
Throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Mr. Yarbrough spent much of his time at sea, traversing many of the world’s oceans. He returned to land periodically, when his finances were at ebb tide, appearing as a soloist, performing in Limeliters reunion tours and making many records.
He sang the musical numbers for the 1977 animated television film “The Hobbit,” with characters voiced by luminaries including Orson Bean, Richard Boone, John Huston and Otto Preminger. In the 1990s and afterward, Mr. Yarbrough toured in a one-man Christmas show, “The Forgotten Carols,” with book, music and lyrics by Michael McLean.
Before moving to his daughter’s home six years ago, Mr. Yarbrough lived, during his dry-land periods, on Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara, Mexico, where he grew fruit and vegetables to give to the poor.
Mr. Yarbrough’s first marriage, to Peggy Goodhart, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Ms. Graves, and his third, to Laurie Ann Poole. At his death, he was separated from his fourth wife, Kathleen Pommer.
Besides his daughter Ms. Burnett, his survivors include two children from his first marriage, Stephany Yarbrough and Sean Yarbrough; two stepdaughters, Brooke and Heather, from his marriage to Ms. Poole; a grandson; and a great-grandson.
With Ms. Burnett, also a singer, Mr. Yarbrough recorded several albums, including “Family Portrait” and “No One Is Alone.”
Mr. Gottlieb, of the Limeliters, died in 1996. Mr. Hassilev, who juggled a long career as a musician, record producer and actor, lives in California.
Even when the Limeliters were at the height of their acclaim — or perhaps especially then — Mr. Yarbrough had deep misgivings about his unexpected calling.
“The only thing success has taught me is that success is meaningless,” he told The Saturday Evening Post in 1961. “An audience is like a lynch mob. Three years ago they were walking out on me. Now that they know we’ve been on the Sullivan show, they come and cheer.”