January 19, 2008 – John Coburn Stewart was born September 5th 1939 in San Diego, California, Stewart was the son of horse trainer John S. Stewart and spent his childhood and adolescence in southern California, living mostly in the cities of Pasadena and Claremont.
He graduated in 1957 from High School, which at the time was a coeducational school. He demonstrated an early talent for music, learning the guitar and banjo. He composed his first song, “Shrunken Head Boogie,” when he was ten years old. In an interview in Michael Oberman’s Music makers column (The Washington, DC Star Newspaper) on Oct. 30, 1971, Stewart said, “I bought a ukelele when I was in Pasadena. I would listen to Sons of the Pioneers records. Tex Ritter really turned me on to music. ‘I Love My Rooster’ was Top Ten as far as I was concerned.”
He formed a school garage band known as “Johnny Stewart and the Furies.” Influenced by the icons of the day, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, the Furies toured southern California colleges and coffee houses, releasing one single, “Rockin’ Anna,” which was a minor, regional hit.
Following the breakup of the Furies and a short time as a member of The Woodsmen, Stewart teamed up with Gil Robbins (father of actor Tim Robbins) and John Montgomery to form The Cumberland Three, a group patterned after, and heavily influenced by, the increasingly popular Kingston Trio. The major accomplishment of The Cumberland Three was a two-LP set of Songs from the Civil War, with the albums containing a compilation of songs from the Confederacy and the Union, respectively. In all, the Cumberland Three released three albums, after which Stewart left the group to join the Kingston Trio, replacing Trio founder Dave Guard in 1961.
The Kingston Trio had emerged from the relatively crowded San Francisco folk music culture in 1957, using a mixture of calypso, pop, and folk styles, along with several forms of comedy, in their act. Relying on new pop-oriented arrangements of folk music classics as well as some original compositions, the Trio earned their first gold record with “Tom Dooley”, and thereby launched a major revival in folk music that would lead to and influence the careers of Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, & Mary, and John Denver, among others. The group had become one of the best-known and best-selling acts on the folk music scene, and were enjoying a lucrative recording and touring contract with Capitol Records, having ten albums under their collective belts, when Dave Guard departed the group in 1961 to explore other musical directions. Stewart was selected by the remaining members Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane as Guard’s successor, bringing with him his respected skills as a musician, composer, and performer.
Reynolds, Shane, and Stewart would record a dozen albums together, taking the music of the Trio into new directions, including more original material, and performing covers of songs by relative newcomers Tom Paxton, Mason Williams and Gordon Lightfoot.
The pop-folk era began to wane as the music of groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones increasingly dominated the charts, and in 1967 the members of the Kingston Trio decided to disband.
Stewart continued to write songs and record for Capitol, while touring as a solo act. It was during this time that he composed the hit “Daydream Believer” for The Monkees, which was a hit for Anne Murray as well, and the closest Stewart came to writing a “standard”. He later toured with Robert F. Kennedy’s ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign and met and married fellow folk singer Buffy Ford (with whom he remained until his death), and began recording a string of albums. These include his signature album, California Bloodlines, as well as Willard, Cannons In The Rain, and Wingless Angels.
Though usually successful with critics and a core group of fans, Stewart’s albums were not considered commercial successes. He left Capitol after only two solo releases and was signed by Warner Bros. Records, where he also recorded just two albums before moving on to RCA Records. There he recorded three LPs (including a live performance album, The Phoenix Concerts).
Stewart followed his release from RCA with a contract at the Robert Stigwood organization, the same organization that serviced the recording contracts for Eric Clapton, the Bee Gees, as well as several other disco performers. It was at RSO Records that Stewart enjoyed his most commercially successful years as a solo artist.
Teaming with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham (then in Fleetwood Mac), Stewart recorded and released Bombs Away Dream Babies, which included the #5 hit, “Gold,” in 1979. Two other tracks from the album, “Midnight Wind” and “Lost Her in the Sun”, would also hit the Top 40.
The follow-up album, Dream Babies Go Hollywood, proved to be a commercial disappointment, and shortly thereafter Stewart dropped from the pop charts, though he continued to perform right up to the time of his death.
Stewart’s later and most significant success was as a songwriter. Several of his songs were recorded by a number of popular acts, including Nanci Griffith (“Sweet Dreams Will Come”), Rosanne Cash (“Runaway Train”, “Dance with the Tiger”), Joan Baez (“Strange Rivers”). He also continued to record new material, producing CDs on his own “Neon Dreams” label in between commercial releases. They usually coincided with one of his tours. His last album was The Day the River Sang in 2006.
Over his last years, Stewart teamed up with former Kingston Trio member Nick Reynolds to offer fans the ultimate Trio Fantasy: performing for and with Stewart and Reynolds. In 2005 and 2006 Bob Shane attended and performed a few songs with Stewart and Reynolds at the Trio Fantasy Camp, which is held annually in Scottsdale, Arizona.
He died from a massive stroke or brain aneurysm at age 68 on January19, 2008.