THE FABULOUS GATEWAY SINGERS
Gateway Singers History
Whereas they became known to the world in 1957 through their first LP, “Puttin' on the Style,” the Gateway Singers were actually founded over three years earlier by someone who was not on that album at all.
He was Jim Wood, who originally collaborated with Jerry Walter and (the not yet legendary) Lou Gottlieb to put together music for a pilot TV western. Although they were unable to meet the tight deadline, the three musicians decided to stick together and form a vocal trio.
That moment in history was the Big Bang of the modern folk era.
Besides the idea of doing something exciting with folk music, one of their earliest decisions was to expand into a quartet, and they knew exactly what they wanted - a female voice which was rich, strong and elastic to execute the challenging arrangements Lou Gottlieb was developing. There were numerous experimentations. Even the renowned blues and folk singer Barbara Dane sang with the gentlemen, and considered joining.
However, when the voice of Elmerlee Thomas was brought into the mix, it was rather akin to when Glenn Miller heard that unique something in a memorable rehearsal, and there was instant acknowledgment on all sides that the Gateway Singers sound had been established.
And as long as she was a part of the ensemble, it was maintained through a number of personnel changes. Jim Wood departed the quartet to embark on a solo career at the end of 1955, and was replaced by Travis Edmonson who graduated from The Gateway Singers in 1958 to become part of a beloved act on the folk scene (Bud & Travis). MarkRichards then took his spot on guitar. Earlier that year, Lou Gottlieb had exited to pick up his PhD in musicology from the University of California before later forming The Limeliters. His bass was replaced by a guitar in the hands of Ernie Sheldon who remained with The Gateway Singers until summer 1959, to be replaced by Adam Fredericks.
The thoroughly modern approach of The Gateway Singers had a popular appeal which inevitably landed them the opening spot in San Francisco's about-to-become legendary hungry i, where they further sharpened their punchy show, which ranged from the reverent to the riotous, never failing to dazzle, even when that flame was turned down to a subtle glow for a moment of tender feeling.
But most of the time, it was a soaring sound which rocked the room, one molded and shaped by the radiant voice of Elmerlee Thomas, around whom the often intricate vocal arrangements were built.
Or as Stan Wilson succinctly expressed it, “she was the glue which held the act together. She was their gemstone, but at the same time, incredibly, a liability to their success in the dark ages that the fifties were.
It could be said that another of their `innovations' was their racial mix, but the fifties were not yet ready for an integrated group, and this proved a boulder in their path again and again at numerous venues. When booked to perform on the top national TV variety program (“The Ed Sullivan Show”), their appearance was cancelled at the last minute when the network refused to put on a racially mixed group. But The Gateway Singers were never daunted by such prejudice, and opened many doors ajar for other black artists. It was a part of their mission.
In addition to “Puttin' On The Style” and “At The Hungry I,” The Gateway Singers recorded four other outstanding LPs, released on the prestige labels Decca, Warner Bros. And MGM: “in Hi Fi,” “on the Lot,” “Wagons West” and “Down in the Valley.”
This `new' folk music went beyond the “Oh Susanna” and “Old Folks at Home” which people knew by heart from schooldays, and was infused with story songs that were arranged for maximum entertainment.
The Gateway Singers enjoyed over a half dozen years of stylish success. In 1960 Elmerlee Thomas left, to be replaced by another female singer. The group disbanded a short while later in January 1961 for the remaining members to follow other pursuits.
Whatever the permutation, the Gateway sound was always one of ultimate richness, often emulated, but never quite equaled.
And you won't want to miss
Experience your own hungry i reunion with the wonderful DVD featuring commentary by Enrico Banducci and performances by The Kingston Trio, Limeliters, Mort Sahl, jonathan Winters, Stan Wilson + rare Lenny Bruce footage. Just click the icon to order direct from Amazon!
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