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Emerging from New York City's vital folk music scene, the Tarriers achieved nationwide success during a transitional period in American entertainment. With their 1956 record of "The Banana Boat Song," Alan Arkin, Bob Carey and Erik Darling became the first folk trio to place a hit single on the Billboard pop charts. However, they should have accomplished more than they did. They had everything going for them: talent, charisma and ambition. The only problem was that they were ahead of their time. Mainstream American audiences simply didn't know what to make of three young folksingers accompanying themselves on guitars and a five-string banjo. The Kingston Trio and the emerging college concert circuit would change all that, but that would be another two years in the future.
The catalyst behind the Tarriers was Erik Darling. After moving to New York City in 1950, the teenager became involved with the folk musicians who gathered each Sunday in lower Manhattan's Washington Square. In early 1953 he met Bob Carey, an 18-year-old Brooklyn College student who closely patterned his style, repertoire and even persona on that of his idol, Josh White. Carey briefly attracted national attention that year after winning a top prize on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, singing "Apples, Peaches and Cherries," which White popularized in 1947. Before he could capitalize on this success, Carey was drafted.
Just before Carey entered the army, he and Darling made their first recordings together. Stinson Records was repackaging old Asch folk and jazz 78s onto 10" LPs, and the owners approached banjo player Roger Sprung about cutting new sides to flesh out an anthology of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly masters. Sprung recruited Carey and Darling, and the ad hoc trio worked out four songs, including the Washington Square favorite "Tom Dooley." Cut directly to acetate in the basement studio of a New Jersey home, Darling, Carey and Sprung's efforts were an unheralded benchmark in the evolving urban folk music revival. Released on Folksay, Vol. 2 in the summer of 1953, they were the first significant recordings by a contemporary folk group. Two of the group's songs, "Tom Dooley" and "Bay of Mexico," appeared five years later on the Kingston Trio's debut album for Capitol Records. Kingston Trio leader Dave Guard candidly admitted to New Lost City Ramblers' John Cohen that his source for their version of "Tom Dooley" was the Folksay album. "It had that little stop in it, 'Hang down your head, Tom - stop - Dooley,' which had never been a part of the song before the Stinson recording," Sprung later told Darling.
In 1955 Darling began auditioning Washington Square regulars for a new group, the Tunetellers, hoping to emulate the success of the popular folk music pioneers the Weavers. Darling, Carl Carlton, Al Wood and Ray Yavneh were the initial members. When Carey returned from army service in Germany, Darling convinced him to join them.
The Tunetellers auditioned for Al "Jazzbo" Collins, who felt the group had commercial potential. The legendary jazz disk jockey offered to approach some entertainment brokers he knew. Encouraged by Collins' response, the group booked the Circle in the Square Theatre for an evening concert showcasing the act. The evening proved disastrous, Darling recalled. Neither Collins nor any of his promised contacts showed up, and whatever momentum the Tunetellers created quickly dissipated. Yavneh left, and Wood quit coming to rehearsals.
Undaunted by this setback, the Tunetellers regrouped under a new name, The Tarriers, after the old vaudeville work song "Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill." Carlton thought the group would benefit from adding another member and suggested Alan Arkin, a friend of his living on the West Coast. Arkin, who earlier made a 10" solo album for Elektra Records, contributed a breezy, flowing style that perfectly complemented the quartet's sound. "Alan brought a strong jazz sense in terms of the harmonic structure and a certain drive," Darling remembered.
When the quartet felt confident enough to acquire a manager, they approached Pete Kameron, who had earlier managed the Weavers and now handled the Modern Jazz Quartet. Although reluctant to take on another client, Kameron listened to the group and offered insights about entertaining audiences. "He was the one who told us how to program a show and that sort of thing," Darling said.
Kameron also arranged auditions with major record labels, but none seemed interested. "When we failed all the auditions, we realized that one member of the group wasn't making it gel, and that was Carl Carlton," Darling explained. To avoid hurt feelings, the quartet broke up. Arkin, Carey and Darling then regrouped as a trio and the first rehearsal proved to be a revelation. "Without the fourth person, it sounded remarkably better," Darling admitted.
Extended summer bookings in New York's Catskill Mountains enabled the band to polish and pace its performances. When the Tarriers returned to New York City, longtime folk music enthusiast Art D'Lugoff was impressed with the trio's professional sheen, which stood in sharp contrast to the loose-knit groups heard in Washington Square. He brought them to Philip Rose, a music publisher who also operated a small independent label, Glory Records. Rose shared D'Lugoff's enthusiasm for the Tarriers and signed them to a one-year contract.
Before they could record as a trio, Rose asked Arkin, Carey and Darling to back up Brooklyn balladeer Vince Martin on "Cindy, Oh Cindy," a song penned by Robert Nemeroff and Art D'Lugoff's brother, Burt. Unenthusiastic about this prospect yet eager to make a record, the trio reluctantly agreed. While rehearsing the song, Darling recognized its melody as "Pay Me My Money Down," a Jamaican rouser in the Weavers' repertoire. The trio instinctively placed Nemeroff and D'Lugoff's new lyrics over the tune's original Jamaican rhythm and brought the arrangement to life. "Cindy, Oh Cindy" became an enormous hit, peaking at No. 9 on Billboard's pop chart and spawning a successful RCA Victor cover by Eddie Fisher.
After working a few engagements with Martin to support the hit, Arkin, Carey and Darling recalled the incompatibility problems that led to Carl Carlton's departure. "We found ourselves singing with yet another singer who could not relate to our rhythmical style," Darling remembered. The trio told Art D'Lugoff they wanted to build their reputation on their own abilities - not as Vince Martin's backup band.
Rose agreed to let the three Tarriers record on their own, and booked a Manhattan studio in late fall 1956 to produce a single. The highlight of the session was "The Banana Boat Song," a fusion of two Jamaican folk songs that Darling first heard Bob Gibson perform in Washington Square. Released in November 1956, it became Glory Records' second national hit, rising to No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart. Again, RCA Victor quickly capitalized on that success, belatedly releasing a single of "Day-O" from Harry Belafonte's best-selling Calypso album.
In early 1957 the band recorded additional material for an LP, The Tarriers, which was released that April. Rose culled two singles from those sessions, "Those Brown Eyes" and "Pretty Boy," but neither one provided that much-needed follow-up hit. A fourth single, "Quinto," was released in September 1957, but it also failed to chart.
By he time the Tarriers' contract came due for renewal that fall, Rose's primary interests had shifted. Acquiring an option on Lorraine Hansberry's play, A Raisin in the Sun, Rose spent much of his time securing investors for a Broadway production starring Sidney Poitier. Reluctant to invest additional funds into recording and promoting the Tarriers after three unsuccessful singles, Rose let the group's contract lapse.
If American record buyers seemed indifferent to the Tarriers' music, the group found receptive audiences overseas. The trio launched a winter 1957 European tour with an extended booking at the Olympia Theater in Paris, following a successful run there by Edith Piaf. A French label recorded one of the Tarriers' sets, which was released on a 10" LP. The live recordings preserved the Tarriers at their peak. "However, it was here, in Paris, that Alan informed us that he needed to leave the group and pursue his acting," Darling recalled.
After completing the tour with stops in Germany, Switzerland and England, the trio returned to New York and an uncertain future. Carey and Darling opted to keep the Tarriers going by recruiting Clarence Cooper, a Virginia native deeply rooted in gospel music. With Cooper on board, the Tarriers' music became far more intense than it had been with Arkin. Despite its power and beauty, the Tarriers' uncompromising new sound (captured on the 1959 United Artists album Hard Traveling) failed to find a mainstream audience.
During an engagement at The Back Room on New York's Sixth Avenue, Darling was contacted by Fred Hellerman of the Weavers. Pete Seeger had just resigned from the group, and suggested Darling as a suitable replacement. With a Vanguard session looming ahead, Hellerman invited him to participate in the Weavers' next rehearsal. Sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, Darling quickly accepted.
Throughout 1959 Darling juggled his schedule to accommodate singing with both groups, but as the Weavers' bookings increased, conflicts became inevitable. When Art D'Lugoff booked the Tarriers and Leon Bibb for a two-week Village Gate engagement starting December 8th, Darling was already committed to perform with the Weavers. Carey and Cooper played the first night of the booking as a duo, but Bibb suggested they could at least look like a trio if they hired a young Juilliard student, Eric Weissberg, to play bass. Weissberg's versatility on numerous musical instruments impressed Carey and Cooper, and they invited him to join the band. Though Weissberg's dry baritone couldn't have been more different from Darling's unique tenor, the Tarriers' vocal blend remained essentially intact. The new lineup later recorded a superb album for Atlantic Records, Tell the World About This.
Both Darling and Arkin reached new professional heights during 1963. Leaving the Weavers in June 1962, Darling formed a new trio, the Rooftop Singers, with his friend Bill Svanoe and jazz singer Lynne Taylor. In early 1963 the group charted a driving No. 1 pop hit, "Walk Right In," and spawned a national mania for twelve-string guitars. Meanwhile, Arkin was the toast of Broadway. His critically acclaimed performance in Carl Reiner's semi-autobiographical play, Enter Laughing, garnered a Tony award. Arkin eventually parlayed this stage success into a movie career, starting with his role in the 1967 hit comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.
In the meantime, the Tarriers continued building a reputation within popular folk music circles. A Decca recording contract and a residency at New York's The Bitter End provided some stability and recognition, but Carey's growing unreliability threatened to unravel Cooper's and Weissberg's efforts. "Bob was having problems at home and stuff, and he wasn't showing up for rehearsals," Weissberg remembered. Weissberg suggested hiring an old friend, Marshall Brickman, to play bass and serve as the group's front man. Though the Tarriers officially would be a quartet, Cooper and Weissberg actually saw Brickman as someone who could help them carry a show should Carey fail to show for a booking.
Carey's deepening personal problems inevitably led to his dismissal from the group in the summer of 1963. "Bob was getting worse and worse," Weissberg said. "I mean he was just not showing up and was really doing some weird stuff. And so we just had to cut him loose. He was the last remaining original Tarrier, and he had to be let go because he wasn't cutting it, you know, which is unfortunate."
Launching a solo career, Carey recorded a few live tracks for Pete Kameron's FM label and a studio album for 20th Century Fox. He briefly fronted a seven-member folk chorus, the Tiffany Singers, which recorded for Roulette Records. But when the folk music boom suddenly wound down, his performing career evaporated. Carey took a job with The Howie Richmond Organization, a music publisher located near New York's Columbus Circle. "It lasted a couple or three years, I guess," Weissberg said. "And then it becomes cloudy what happened to him, although it's tragic."
Darling remembers meeting Carey by chance on a New York street in the seventies and was disturbed by his gaunt appearance. Weissberg believes alcoholism fueled Carey's decline, but Harold Leventhal, who briefly managed the group, blames drug abuse. Darling is convinced that Carey's low self-esteem and lack of interest in solving personal problems accelerated his deterioration. Sometime between 1975 and 1980 - nobody knows exactly when - Carey's body was found on a Central Park West park bench. "It's really too bad it ended that way for him," Weissberg reflected. "He wasn't a bad guy."
The Tarriers temporarily disbanded in April 1964 when Weissberg left to fulfill a six-month National Guard obligation. Brickman joined John and Michelle Phillips' short-lived "The New Journeymen," then quit performing to write for Candid Camera and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Cooper had surgery to repair a congenital heart condition and spent the summer regaining his health. When Weissberg returned in September, Cooper felt well enough to resume performing. They reformed the group with Al Dana replacing Brickman. This final edition of the Tarriers joined Judy Collins for a summer 1965 tour of Poland and Russia set up by Harold Leventhal. "We bummed around Europe for a few weeks and then came back," Weissberg recalled. "Then I guess we did a few more gigs, you know, but the folk thing was really dying out, and I was really getting hot in the studio scene. So we just decided that this was enough."
Of the surviving original Tarriers, Darling left music around 1980 to work as a therapist, first in Los Angeles and later in Santa Fe, N.M. He resumed performing in the mid-'90s, releasing two albums on Folk Era. Arkin remains one of America's busiest and best-known character actors, logging memorable roles on stage, screen and television.
Each variant ensemble of the Tarriers created superb, timeless music that merits reissue in this digital age. But the Alan Arkin, Bob Carey and Erik Darling trio truly deserves special attention. Unlike the Weavers, whose early records were coated with a lush pop veneer, the original Tarriers brought folk music to the American Hit Parade on its own uncompromised terms. Its success helped pave the way for the Easy Riders, the Kingston Trio and many other acts to follow.