The Modern Folk Quartet

TrackAlbum / Single
Ox DriverThe Modern Folk Quartet (1963)
Love Of A ClownWarner Bros 5481 (A-side)
If All You ThinkWarner Bros 5481 (B-side
This Could Be The NightRare Masters 2 (1976)
Night Time GirlDunhill D-4025 (A-side)
LauraMoonlight Serenade (1985)
Bamboo SaloonBamboo Saloon (1990)
Carol Of the BellsChristmas (1990)
Reach OutWolfgang (1991)
Christmas EveHighway 70 (1995)

MFQ photo 1

MFQ (l to r): Chip Douglas, Cyrus Faryar, Henry Diltz, Jerry Yester

 

 

Contributor: David Pearson

The Modern Folk Quartet (MFQ) are unique in pop music history in so many respects. Their astonishing longevity (55 years on and off and still counting); their total absence of a hit record in all that time; their virtual rebirth in the late 80s on the Japanese market. Plus their individual parallel careers: Henry Diltz as a rock photographer, his name gracing albums by Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt etc. etc.; Chip Douglas as erstwhile Turtles bassist and producer of the Monkees third and fourth albums amongst many others; Cyrus Faryar as solo artiste and producer of the Firesign Theatre; and Jerry Yester, one time Spoonful member and arranger/producer of albums by Tim Buckley, the Association plus others too numerous to mention.

Their recording chronology begins in the hootenanny period of the early sixties, that folk era between Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, when college groups and 6 string banjos were making music on seemingly every campus – the Brothers Four, the Tarriers, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen and, of course, the Kingston Trio, whose Tom Dooley kickstarted the genre.

Into this arena came the Modern Folk Quartet with a brace of fairly typical folk albums for Warner Brothers. Except that in one major way they were different. Most of these groups sang in unison, but the Modern Folk Quartet sang glorious four-part harmonies, lifting the roof off the Troubadour with their rousing rendition of Ox Driver.

They later recorded for Dunhill and worked with Phil Spector on Nilsson’s magnificent This Could Be The Night. It was never released at the time, and Phil’s promises to turn them into a successful band never materialised. Disillusioned they split up and went off on their own individual projects, reuniting from time to time over the next couple of decades.

Then in 1984 a new direction. Diltz had been working with John Stewart, doing background vocals but also photography work on a number of his albums. Stewart had come up with the idea of establishing a new record label that would target music lovers who he felt were being largely neglected by mainstream radio and albums. And so Homecoming Records was formed, and one of the first releases was by the MFQ. The boys had been working on a number of 30s/40s standards, mostly under Chip Douglas’s direction, all arranged for four-part harmonies. They gathered together an album’s worth and so Moonlight Serenade was released.

By now over 20 years had passed since they formed, yet their story was far from over. Quite by chance a Japanese connection led to the discovery of a little fan base over there and a resultant deal with Pony Canyon Records. Over the next few years they recorded a live album, and four studio albums including a collection of Christmas songs, an album of 70s songs carefully chosen for their MFQ links, and Wolfgang in which Mozart’s melodies are sung with original MFQ lyrics. And all of these releases, like Moonlight Serenade, were characterised by their finely honed vocal harmony blend, although the Q now stood for quintet with the addition of Jerry’s brother Jim, rhythm guitarist with the Association.

The best way to sum up the MFQ is to crib from the Moonlight Serenade liner notes: “The interesting thing about the MFQ is their effect on people when they sing and perform … People are warned somehow, and gladdened … They seem a lot like good friends of yours who just happened to sing.”

 

Ox Driver
From their eponymous debut album, this traditional song was given a driving vocal arrangement by Henry Diltz and Chip Douglas. Soon after forming in 1963 they did a spot at the legendary Troubadour in LA. They opened with this song, eight-bars of unison singing, before hitting that powerful four-part harmony, whereupon the crowd went wild. The MFQ had well and truly arrived! You can see them sing this song in the 1963 movie Palm Springs Weekend.

 


The Love Of A Clown / If All You Think
Their first move away from the hootenanny folk style was a wonderful Warner Brothers single. Both sides are simply stunning in their vocal power and harmony. Great songs, both written by Jerry Yester. “Clown” is a real folk-rock gem, ahead of its time, while the B-side again has great harmonies too. Yet the release made not a dent in the US chart.

 

This Could Be The Night
Phil Spector desperately wanted to record a song with the MFQ, and the song chosen was this Harry Nilsson gem, with arrangements by Jack Nitzsche. Recording took place over several months in late 1965 at Spector’s house, often with Beach Boy Brian Wilson listening in on headphones. Yet the final result, much to the MFQ’s disappointment, never saw the light of day at the time – though it would surface some ten years later on a Spector compilation.

 

Night Time Girl
Following the disappointment over Spector’s failure to release This Could Be The Night the MFQ recorded for Lou Adler’s Dunhill Records. Night Time Girl is an atmospheric raga-rock piece by Al Kooper, original vocalist with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Though it did crawl up to #102 in the US chart the band were beginning to lose traction and motivation, and would go their own ways shortly after.

 

Laura
Moonlight Serenade, released in 1985, contained a fine bunch of 40s/50s standards songs like Stella By Starlight, As Time Goes By and September Song. Here, Cyrus Faryar’s rich baritone introduces this period-evoking song from the classic Gene Tierney movie.

 

Bamboo Saloon
In the late 1980s the MFQ discovered, to their astonishment, a real fanbase in Japan. Their early folk albums were revered and there were copycat clone groups. A deal with Pony Canyon Records led to an album of 13 songs, including Sister Golden Hair (a hit for America in the 70s) and Steve Goodman’s classic City Of New Orleans. The title track was written by Steve Carey and the Association’s Jules Alexander. And by this time the MFQ had been augmented to a quintet by the addition of ex-Association rhythm guitarist Jim Yester, brother of Jerry.

 

Carol Of The Bells
Nobody could accuse the MFQ of being samey. Their next album was Christmas, a beautiful selection of festive songs and carols, with in-house arrangements that really allowed the guy’s wonderful vocal harmony style to shine through. Carol Of The Bells is a perfect example of that sound. Gavan Daws writes “The ringing of bells is one of the classic sounds of Christmas, and here the melody evokes chimes and echos resounding throughout the world.”

 

Reach Out
Another dramatic style change, this time Wolfgang, in which the MFQ tell us “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a master of musical composition, has given us hundreds of pieces of timeless music – music that will live on in hearts and minds for all time to come. Contained in this recording are some of these musical masterpieces with lyric that the music has inspired.” This piece opens the collection and is taken from his Symphony No.33 (Minuet) – words and production by Chip.

 

Christmas Eve
In 1995, the MFQ reunited for what to date is their last album of songs, Highway 70. The general theme is the 1970s and songs linked to artistes that over the years our 4 boys have been involved with, whether as friends or on their records. Henry played banjo on America’s Don’t Cross The River (as well as doing the photography), while Cyrus recorded with Mama Cass on her Dream A Little Dream Of Me, so both songs are included here. Jerry had worked with Japanese songwriter and musician Tats Yamashita back in the 70s so Christmas Eve, one of his songs, is chosen to close the album. A perfect example of the harmonic blend, the goodtime feeling and the sheer artistry and style that is the MFQ.

 

MFQ photo 3

 

The MFQ sing Jo Mapes’ Come On In on “Shindig” in 1965, later recorded by The Association on their 1968 album “Birthday”

 

John Stewart’s Road To Freedom on the eponymous first album (1963)

 

Shel Silverstein/Jim Friedman song from 2nd album “Changes” (1964)

 

MFQ photo 2

 

Official MFQ Website

The Modern Folk Quartet at Discogs

Henry Diltz official website

Chip Douglas (The Douglas Archives)

Jerry Yester (AllMusic)

Richie Unterberger on Cyrus Faryar

The Modern Folk Quartet biography (AllMusic)

David Pearson has lived all his life in Glasgow. Married with two sons, he was an English teacher for 40 years. Since retiring in 2011 he has written a number of items for a range of publications, including 55 Life, Northern Echo, Record Collector and Shindig (including a longer piece on MFQ in the October 2011 issue). He is a lover of 60s/70s pop, especially anything with a strong harmony sound.

TopperPost #916

4 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Nov 9, 2020

    Any band with well played banjos is all right by me. I thoroughly enjoyed going through this selection. Thanks!

  2. Alex Lifson
    Nov 9, 2020

    Thanks for the pleasant education on a group I have heard of but never heard, Must give them a listen now.

  3. Colin Duncan
    Nov 18, 2020

    I had heard of the Modern Folk Quartet, but knew little of them. I have really enjoyed listening to The Love of a Clown, This Could Be The Night, Night Time Girl and Laura, quite a range of musical genres, all done very well. I look forward to further exploring their music. Thanks very much, David.

  4. Ilkka Jauramo
    Nov 20, 2020

    Dramatic changes in style, indeed! I enjoyed ‘Bamboo Saloon’. The virtual rebirth in the late 80s on the Japanese market is interesting. There are many Nordic artists and bands with fans in Japan (Hanoi Rocks from Finland, for instance). But why? Is it only because they are European?

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