It’s been many decades since Rich Shirley of Wallowa was a professional musician, but this weekend he’ll be performing again many of the songs he played as a member of a nationally known folk group, Travelers 3, back in the early 1960s.
“It wasn’t my idea,” he said of the fact that the Hootenanny & Shoo-fly Pie Social benefit for Wallowa Valley Music Alliance will also honor him.
Though he ended up leaving the Travelers, selling his stand-up bass and becoming a carpenter for many years, he’s found himself back playing music regularly since moving to Wallowa County about eight years ago to the house he and wife Trilby had purchased several years before.
“I was very surprised at the range of the talent here,” he said.
He started playing with some local musicians – he said that the late fiddler Charlie Trump was one of the first – and then with the likes of Henry Kinsley, Al Bell and Bill Knox and Carolyn Lochert, to name just a few. He has played with a number of groups, including “The Hard Top Ramblers”, “BC and the Mos’ly Blues Band” and “Yella Dog.”
He’s already had a chance to play with many of the 18 or so musicians who are taking part in the hootenanny fundraiser.
Shirley, 83, who moved to Portland when he was six months old, considers himself a native Oregonian, though he spent several years in Hawaii and California as a Travelers 3 member before eventually returning to Oregon.
He remembers playing harmonica and modifying a toy whistle to make it sound better as a child, and then singing as a student at Grant High School and then as a young man in Eugene, but didn’t become a professional musician until he was 29. At that time he was working in a sawmill, supporting a family.
“I’d developed a fondness for Burl Ives and some of the folk singers,” Shirley remembered. He started singing in little theaters and local clubs in the Eugene area, and a jazz quartet asked him to sing with their group.
Shirley “fooled around” with a stand-up bass and “I fell in love with it,” he said. He remembers playing on a borrowed bass for three days (“my fingers were all bloody”) and then joining the musicians’ union to be able to play a real gig as a bass player, albeit a very inexperienced one. That was in 1959.
He’d be called occasionally to play at a night club or dance hall, and he’d have to borrow a bass. He had his real break when he played nights for two weeks (working days at the sawmill) with a very good jazz pianist. He earned $500, which he spent to buy his own bass.
Later he met two young men from Hawaii, Charlie Oyama who played banjo and Pete Apo, a guitar player, and they asked him to perform with them at a University of Oregon luau.
That was the beginning of a musical collaboration that took the trio first on a USO tour to military bases in Japan, Korea, Guam and other countries as the stage band, for $7 a day, and then eventually to Hawaii where they auditioned for the Shell Bar (made famous by the TV series “Hawaiian Eye”). They performed the only six songs they knew and were offered $1,000 a week for a six-month residency (later reduced to $500 when Pete temporarily lost his voice.) They spent the next month in a practice room increasing their repertoire to 40 songs.
The group became the Travelers 3, a name Shirley said they obviously hadn’t spent much time thinking about. “We needed a name, and once we had it, we were stuck with it,” he said.
The trio ended up in Hollywood with a manager and all the trappings of a very successful musical group. They were known for their strong vocal harmonies, weaving unison and harmony parts together for a rich vocal blend.
The Travelers 3 was the second group to be signed to Elektra Records, after the Limeliters, and cut a total of four albums, three for Elektra and one for Capital Records. They performed on such television shows as Hootenanny and played at casinos in Reno and Las Vegas.
Shirley feels that the Travelers 3 early in their career saved the legendary Troubadour club from “dying on the vine” when they were hired for $85 a week. He said after awhile people were standing around the corner to hear the Travelers. “That’s when we first got a toehold in Hollywood,” Shirley said.
One anecdote he likes to relate is performing a two-week gig at a hot small club named the Blue Angel and sharing the bill with two then-unknowns – comedian Jackie Mason and singer Barbra Streisand.
Shirley said that he left the Travelers 3 after five or six years “because I felt we were weren’t growing” and then ended up leaving the music business to go back to working with his hands. He recalls selling his bass for $100 and a Martin guitar for $35.
Shirley became a carpenter, first working in California, and then moving back to Oregon, living and working in Salem, Aurora and other Willamette Valley cities. He was long divorced when he met his wife Trilby in Aurora; they’ve been together 26 years.
The former musician had fond memories of a summer working on a ranch with his best friend near Cove in Union County when he was 15, and brought Trilby up to see the area.
They went on to Wallowa, where neither of them had ever been, and ended up putting all their money down on an old house. Shirley said it was “the cusp of the millennium” and they thought it would be a safe place to retreat to if necessary.
Eventually, still living on the west side of the state most of the time, they decided to make a permanent move to Wallowa, especially after Trilby applied for and got a job at the Wallowa County Center for Wellness, where she is now office manager.
Trilby will join her husband and other musicians at the 4 p.m. Sunday Hootenanny at the Odd Fellows Hall in Enterprise, singing and playing percussion.
Shirley picked up another bass, which was in pieces, to play for a barn dance back in the Willamette Valley, and it has been kept very busy since the move to Wallowa County.
“I hope we pack them in,” said Rich Shirley about this weekend’s musical gathering.