By Richie Unterberger

During the 1960s folk revival, plenty of singers drew upon a wide range of traditional material for their base repertoire, taken from old folk song collections or learned first-hand from other performers. Kathy & Carol's sole album, released by Elektra in mid-1965, drank deeply from that well, also blending in tunes by the Carter Family and fellow Elektra artist Mark Spoelstra. What made it stand out most from similar releases of the time were the pair's extraordinary close, high, and haunting harmonies. Unfortunately, relatively few listeners of subsequent decades have had the opportunity to hear them, the album slipping out of print and becoming one of the rarest mid-'60s Elektra releases.

    Kathy Larisch and Carol McComb -- both of whom sang and played guitar and autoharp -- began singing together in their high school years in Vista, California, about 40 miles north of San Diego. As esteemed folklorist (and New Lost City Ramblers multi-instrumentalist) John Cohen's liner notes on the original LP pointed out, Joan Baez was a major early influence on the duo. McComb also cites folk musician Michael Cooney (for whom Kathy & Carol often opened) as an influence on her guitar style, and names Gene Autry, Pete Seeger, and Peggy Seeger as other early favorites. The two worked the Southern Californian folk circuit, opening for the likes of the New Los City Ramblers, Bill Monroe, Taj Mahal, and Phil Ochs, often at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. It was through Cooney that they met Mark Spoelstra, whom Carol recalls introducing them to Elektra producer Paul Rothchild.

    The key step in getting them onto the Elektra roster, however, took place when they drove up to the Berkeley Folk Festival in mid-1964, where Baez -- whom the pair had previously met -- ran into them after they played at the Bear's Lair on the Berkeley campus. Baez recommended them to a passing Rothchild, who invited them to do a demo session in Burbank on the way back to San Diego. Soon Elektra president Jac Holzman confirmed that the label wanted to cut an album with them, and Larisch and McComb went back into the studio with Rothchild around late 1964 or early 1965 for the sessions that resulted in Kathy & Carol.

    A total of 23 songs were cut live-to-four-track in three days of recording, though only a dozen were selected for the album, leaving eleven still-unreleased outtakes in the can. The tunes on the LP were not wholly representative of the full extent of their repertoire, which some might be surprised to hear also included covers of old rock'n'roll songs like the Coasters' "Searchin'" and Everly Brothers oldies, as well as country numbers by the likes of Merle Haggard. The record, however, emphasized their traditional folk ballads, culled from dedicated research, though both were determined to interpret the material their own way.

    "We would hear somebody like Bonnie Dobson or Joan Baez or Judy Collins do a song, and we would decide that we would want to do that song," explains McComb. "This is one way it would work. But we never wanted to do anybody else's versions of the song. So we'd go down to the San Diego library and we would find ourselves the best set of words we could, and we'd copy out various different melodies out of the songbooks. Our music writing skills and reading skills were a little limited, actually. I since discovered after going over some of those original melodies that we transcribed, that we actually got them wrong!," she laughs.

    "But we would put together the best melody we could find with the best lyrics we could find, and that would be the Kathy & Carol version. We just didn't want to do it like anybody else did it. I think it was unusual given our age and lack of experiences, to have had that attitude so early. But we couldn't figure out why anybody would want to just go out there and re-create the wheel."

    Adds Larisch, "I do think those sort of haunting ballads were very, very dear to us. It allowed us to use our voices on harmonies in a way that was the most thrilling to us. We used to exchange melody and harmony lines, flop a fair amount in our songs, because partially [of] our ranges, and partially just because we liked a certain line more. Sometimes people found it, I think, kind of disconcerting to listen to us, because a voice wouldn't proceed on a natural course. We'd flop, and our voices were close enough that they couldn't quite tell whether we were holding on to our line or switching. I remember Curt Bouterse, a San Diego musician, writing a piece where he talks about that in some depth: that our harmonies reminded him more of sort of Eastern harmonies, Balkan or something, the kind of intervals we used, and the way we would use our voices."

    Both McComb and Larisch found Rothchild pleasant and supportive in the studio, and Carol remembers that in the stereo version, "They mixed us so that my guitar was on Kathy's [vocal] side, and Kathy's guitar was on my side, so they'd get kind of a stereo spread. Other than that, it was totally straightforward." Both Kathy and Carol are keen to note, though, that the high pitches of their voices on the LP aren't necessarily an accurate reflection of how they actually sounded. "Paul added what he called 'brilliance,' which we call making it sound too high," says Larisch. "I think we sounded maybe a little fuller than the album sounds." McComb agrees, adding that "Wondrous Love" is an exception that actually "sounds like the way we sounded."

    The album was released shortly before the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where Kathy & Carol performed Richard Farina's "A Swallow Song," a composition he'd specifically sent them to do (McComb thinks it might been relayed via Joan Baez's manager, Manny Greenhill). The 20-year-olds also had a ringside view of the stage for Bob Dylan's famous electric rock set at Newport that year, and took advantage of the trip back East to play a few gigs, including some at Cambridge's fabled Club 47, where lines stretched around the block. It was one of the few times they played outside of California; other than that Eastern swing in the summer of '65, McComb only remembers traveling outside the state for gigs in Tucson, Arizona (where a young Linda Ronstadt opened for them) and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

    For reasons that do not remain entirely clear nearly 40 years later, however, the live Newport version of "A Swallow Song" (eventually issued on the CD compilation Folk Music at Newport Part 1) would be the only other Kathy & Carol track ever released. Though the passage of several decades has made the timeline uncertain, both Larisch and McComb remember that after the LP, Rothchild and Elektra wanted to record material that would have used electric rock backing, as well as some of the original songs they were starting to write (at the company's suggestion). "We came up with some really interesting combinations," recalls McComb. "They sounded sort of like Renaissance chord changes with contemporary lyrics. Some of them were sort of country-ish. They wanted to hook us up with some rock'n'roll band. They never did reveal who that band was going to be, but it was definitely a band that was already engaged with Elektra. I think they had kind of a Marianne Faithfull idea for us: kind of more delicate voices with rock'n'roll voices. I remember Paul saying he thought that would be very commercial, a very appealing combination; I think it was his idea." Larisch also reveals, interestingly, that Elektra wanted them to record a single around late 1965, and wanted her specifically to be in a movie with Mimi Farina that the company was thinking of making, though nothing came of it.

    The duo did get as far as making two-track home demos of some of the material, and playing some of the songs they were working on to Chris Hillman of the Byrds (whom they had known in the early 1960s in San Diego, when Hillman played bluegrass in the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers) for his reaction. But Rothchild was jailed on marijuana-related charges for about half a year around the beginning of 1966, and not only did the album never got beyond the discussion stage, but Kathy & Carol never recorded for Elektra again. Some subsequent recording for the small Folk-Legacy label didn't result in a release, in part because the label was reluctant to let them step outside the traditional folk world with their new original material and some of the country songs they were covering (though they were continuing to add traditional material to their repertoire as well).

    They also did some sessions produced by Larry Murray (of the country-folk-rock group Hearts & Flowers, and whom, like Hillman, they knew from when he was in the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers) that didn't find release. It's also possible that Capitol and/or Capitol producer Nik Venet (who produced Hearts & Flowers) was interested in working with Kathy & Carol. McComb remembers meeting Venet around this period, and Larisch says that Linda Ronstadt invited them into the studio (probably at Capitol), using Ronstadt's band the Stone Poneys (also produced by Venet) as backup. McComb also recalls some stuff being cut with members of Poco, including pedal steel guitarist Rusty Young. But nothing got released, and Kathy and Carol -- who never did play with electric instruments or other musicians on stage, though they used electric bass on their Elektra demos -- went separate ways by the end of the '60s, when Larisch decided to pursue a master of fine arts degree in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    Carol McComb has continued to be an active performer and recording artist to the present day, playing and touring with Mimi Farina in the early '70s; releasing several solo albums; scoring films; touring and recording with the Gryphon Quintet; and authoring a country and blues guitar instruction book (for more information on her work, check her website, Kathy Larisch retired from professional music, and is now associate professor at California College of the Arts, though she and Carol have sung together informally on occasion. It's a shame that a large chunk of their career together is undocumented on record, but this CD reissue of Kathy & Carol at least restores to wide availability their only album, long one of the most coveted rarities in the Elektra folk catalog. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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