Of all the groups from the early 1960s that could have made it and didn't, the Journeymen are the one that elicits the greatest passion among scholars and listeners. They had the voices and the instrumental virtuosity, and were even ahead of the curve in that they had the songwriting -- which was to figure ever-larger in the folk boom as it progressed -- and were even signed to a major label, Capitol Records, yet somehow, despite a lot of hard work and performances, and good television exposure, they never succeeded. The group's foundations went back to the boyhood friendship between John Phillips and Scott McKenzie -- they'd been singing together since the early 1950s, as parts of groups such as the Abstracts and the Smoothies, their sound and music advancing with the times until the advent of the folk revival in the closing years of the 1950s. The Alexandria, Virginia-born Phillips had found a creative outlet in music and would soon manifest a dazzling talent as an arranger and songwriter; McKenzie, born Phil Blondheim, had a brilliantly expressive voice and already showed some ability as a songwriter. The third man in the trio was Dick Weissman, a singer, songwriter, and virtuoso banjo-man, originally from Philadelphia, who was versed in music at a level that Phillips and McKenzie couldn't get near.

They got off to a roaring start. Formed in the first weeks of 1961, they'd made it to Gerde's Folk City -- the Greenwich Village Mecca for folksingers -- just a couple of weeks later, on the same bill with Bob Dylan, Lightnin' Hopkins, and the Clancy Brothers, earning themselves a five-month extended engagement. And their manager was none other than Frank Werber, the manager of the Kingston Trio, who was one of the most influential and powerful figures in the folk revival (at least until Albert Grossman eclipsed him with such clients as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul Mary). They were signed to Capitol Records early that spring and the following month they cut their debut LP. Werber had initially thought to keep the Journeymen around as potential replacements for the Kingston Trio -- one of whose co-founders, Dave Guard, was in the process of exiting in the first days of 1961; and, once he knew the other two members would keep going, he intended to move Phillips into the Kingston Trio. But Phillips chose to keep working with his friends, and John Stewart of the Cumberland Three eventually took that spot in the Kingston Trio.

The Journeymen impressed all of their peers with their combination of good vocals and excellent arrangements, coupled with serious instrumental virtuosity. As was the case in Liverpool with the Beatles, very few groups combined those attributes. Their sound was further refined when McKenzie was forced to undergo a throat operation -- always a risky move for a singer, obviously -- that ended up lightening the tone and texture of his voice. One single, Don't Turn Around, recorded in Hollywood in early 1962, managed to chart locally in a handful of cities, and a second LP followed that year, cut live at The Padded Cell in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The group was making all the right moves, musically and professionally -- they were almost the successors to the Kingston Trio, lacing their folk music with humor, all carefully worked out, but with an important difference; where the Kingston Trio never really touched on politics, the Journeymen engaged in piercing, topical humor, which gave their act an edge that was decidedly early '60s rather than late 1950s.

Still, they never quite got out of the Kingston Trio's shadow. By the end of 1962, the group had seemingly run out of options, having exhausted all of the best gigs they were likely to get in the foreseeable future, and with Capitol losing interest. Additionally, Scott McKenzie began to manifest a deteriorating mental condition -- borne of a shyness that he'd never dealt with, which ultimately overwhelmed him as a performer -- accusing the other two members of conspiring against him and even of trying to poison him. They went on, muddling through despite McKenzie's bouts of paranoia -- when they were on-stage, it all worked, whatever happened at any other time during the day -- and were rescued by a fresh round of airplay for one song, River Come Down, on one radio station. Fortunately, that station was WNEW in New York City, and that salvaged the group's relationship with their booking agent, and allowed them to pick up work doing jingles (authored by Phillips) for Schlitz beer in Chicago. While not the work they'd intended to be doing, it was enough to carry them into the year 1963.

The group's final year together was a gradual dissolution of whatever unity they'd retained as a performing unit. McKenzie's condition deteriorated further, along with his relationship with his longtime friend Phillips. Dick Weissman, who had better things to do with his life, was the intermediary between the two, playing a role that Eric Clapton would later play between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in Cream, none of which would have been so bad if there had been as much at stake as Cream later had. But by early 1964, folk music was passé, supplanted by amplified guitars and a huge, rhythm guitar-driven sound from England. Further, Phillips had become deeply involved in a passionate romance with Michelle Gilliam, which (if that were possible) only became more complicated when they were married in 1963. Amid the changes, and the unavoidable fact that all three members had other issues, career or personal (or both) on their respective trays, the Journeymen went out of existence in early 1964. Phillips would reactivate the name, after a fashion, briefly as the New Journeymen with his wife Michelle and banjo player Marshall Brickman filling out the other two slots, but they never pretended to have the built-in promise of the earlier group -- although its mix of male and female voices and early efforts at songwriting ended up serving as a rudimentary template for the Mamas the Papas. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

JOURNEYMEN - Black Girl (1961)
The Journeymen - 500 miles [Original Version] (1961)
Journeymen boxers: the men who fight to lose
The Journeymen - Gilgara Mountain
The New Journeymen - Coming Attraction (1964) - Rare
The Journeymen: "If Lovin' You Is Black"
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