By Richie Unterberger
Gibson and Camp's At the Gate of Horn was one of the most influential folk albums of the early 1960s, striking a chord with many young musicians with its dual harmonies, verve, and irreverent humor. While it might sound tame to some ears forty years later, it should be borne in mind that the early-'60s folk revival often suffered from an overly stiff and serious approach. Gibson and Camp helped demonstrate that it was possible to have fun playing folk music, and, not coincidentally, to be popular and sell some records without selling out.
Bob Gibson was already an established solo singer with more than half a dozen albums to his credit when he hooked up with Bob Camp in the beginning of the 1960s. (Camp would change his name to Hamilton Camp by the time he recorded his debut solo album for Elektra in 1964, and remains known as Hamilton Camp today.) Camp had been spotted in New York by the legendary Albert Grossman, owner of the Gate of Horn, Chicago's leading folk club. Grossman had branched out into artist management, and asked Camp to come to Chicago to sing with Gibson, one of his clients. Camp was singing in a duo with Jimmy Gavin, who suggested that Camp team up with him when Hamilton was still working as an office boy for the Associated Press. Camp confesses he'd never even heard of Gibson, but as Gavin was wanting to go solo anyway, Hamilton accompanied Grossman to Chicago to check things out.
"Bobby had the twelve-string [guitar], which he played like a bloody pianola," recalls Camp. "And I brought harmony." Indeed, as has often been noted elsewhere, Grossman had plans to build a vocal trio around Gibson that included a woman singer. According to Hamilton, "Bobby and I were supposed to be the basis of that. But we kind of cut up rough about being put into a trio with a girl, so he lost interest." It has also been reported that Grossman had notions of putting Gibson, noted folk singer Carolyn Hester, and Ray Boguslav into the trio. In any case, building a threesome around Gibson didn't work out, but Grossman applied the idea very successfully to three of his other clients, who formed Peter, Paul & Mary.
Gibson & Camp were a hit together, attracting standing ovations at their home grounds of the Gate of Horn, and also making a splash at the Newport Folk Festival. In April 1961, Elektra recorded some of their live act, complete with joking between-song banter, for At the Gate of Horn over the course of three sets, believes Camp. The eleven songs (thirteen if you count all three components of the "Civil War Trilogy") were for the most part traditional numbers given new words and musical arrangements by Gibson and Camp. Sometimes these were devised in partnership with each other, sometimes by Gibson alone, and on "First Battalion" by Camp and humorist/songwriter/cartoonist/author Shel Silverstein, who also wrote the liner notes.
At times the alterations to the tunes' traditional sources could be substantial, as with "Two in the Middle." "That's one we adapted, big-time," observes Camp. "I heard it when I was in the army in North Carolina. It was 'Yonder Comes a Sucker.' We kind of took snatches from different tunes and made that song." "Betty and Dupree," he notes, was comprised of variations on "Frankie and Johnny."
Among Camp's favorites on the album are "Old Blue" ("I loved the way we did that tune, we did it pretty much the traditional way, just new harmonies"), and "Saint Claire's Defeat," which they first heard as played by a singer with a banjo prior to expanding it into a different arrangement. "The First Battalion," says Camp, was the first song Silverstein ever wrote: "I had this tune, and I said, see what you can do. He took the tune and came back the next night. It was written on a paper bag. And I scotch-taped it to the mike and introduced it."
Then-contemporary satire poked its head into the proceedings with "Thinking Man," their parody of computers, done to the tune of "John Henry." More durable was the classic traditional song "Wayfaring Stranger," done on disc or in concert by numerous folk and non-folk musicians of the 1960s, from Tim Buckley and Dino Valenti to Dusty Springfield and H.P. Lovecraft. Oddly, the album did not include "Well, Well, Well," which Camp cites as the song that "really knocked 'em out" at their Newport appearance.
The original edition of the LP, adds Camp, contained one song, "Butternut Hill," missing from all subsequent pressings. "We mentioned one of the local performers, named Francis Fay, in what her brother Marty thought was a derogatory remark. And he sued Elektra. Elektra immediately pulled all the copies, and immediately released it, again, without 'Butternut Hill.' She [Fay] was a lounge singer, really great, a fixture; she would play on the other side of town."
Oddly, considering the popularity of both the duo and the LP, Gibson & Camp never recorded for Elektra again. "We only lasted about a year and a half, two years," explains Camp. "I had my family, and traveling got old to me. We were kind of unruly guys; we broke up through drugs and strong drink." Both continued to record and work as solo acts, and indeed Gibson's 1964 Elektra album Where I'm Bound and Camp's mid-1960s solo debut Paths of Victory (also on Elektra) have also been reissued by Collectors' Choice Music. In the mid-1980s, the reunited duo released Live at the Gate of Horn Revisited, which reprised much of the material from their 1961 album. Camp continues to work as a singer and, more frequently, an actor; Gibson, sadly, died in 1996 after more than four decades as a mainstay of the folk scene. [Note: Since this CD was released, Hamilton Camp also passed away, on October 2, 2005.]
Although the kind of folk played by Gibson & Camp in the early 1960s would soon be superseded by folk-rockers and more contemporary singer-songwriters, it made its mark on those very same performers. In the audience during the week Live at the Gate of Horn was recorded was a 19-year-old Roger McGuinn, who three years later would become the leader of the best folk-rock group, the Byrds. Asked to select his desert island disc for MOJO magazine's "Last Night a Record Changed My Life" feature in June 2000, McGuinn picked At the Gate of Horn, elaborating, "Bob Gibson was great all by himself...When Bob Camp hooked up it was something new. His were almost Beatles harmonies, way ahead of their time...[David] Crosby and Gene Clark [fellow founders of the Byrds] had folk backgrounds and would have known music like this. They were certainly familiar with Bob Gibson and his 12-string. So this was an important sound for us." -- Richie Unterberger
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