The year 1961 produced a variety of number one hits typical of the pre-Beatles era. They ranged from the easy listening of Bert Kaempfert and Lawrence Welk (“Wonderland By Night” and “Calcutta”), to the dance tune of Chubby Checker (“Pony Time”), to the doo-wop of The Marcels (“Blue Moon”), to the rock ‘n roll of Del Shannon (“Runaway”). Add in Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, plus the number one song of the year, “Tossin’ And Turnin” by Bobby Lewis, and you have a lot of different sounds and styles.
The trend continued when a folk song made a rare appearance at the top of the Billboard’s Pop Singles Chart, September 4, 1961. That track, “Michael” by The Highwaymen, would remain in that position for two weeks.
“Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” was an African-American spiritual that became popular during the American Civil War. During the 1950s, folk artists Pete Seeger and The Weavers recorded the song and performed it regularly in concert. It was The Highwaymen, however, who produced the most memorable version.
The group was formed during 1958 by five freshmen at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. They had to have been one of the most educated bands ever to reach number one: Bob Burnett (Harvard Law), Steve Butts (Ph.D. Columbia in Chinese Politics), Steve Trott (Harvard Law), Chan Daniels (Harvard Business), and lead singer Dave Fisher (a plain over Wesleyan graduate who would become a career musician, session player, and songwriter) released eight albums and charted five singles before breaking up in 1964.
The Highwaymen were a classic folk group and an important part of the late 1950s and early 1960s folk revival. Their harmonies on traditional folk tunes made the music more palatable to a pop audience and helped folk music crossover into the mainstream.
Their cover of “Michael Row The Boat Ashore,” which they shortened to just “Michael,” was their crowning commercial achievement as it sold over one million copies in The United States and topped the singles charts in both the USA and Great Britain. Their peppy version of the old standard remains the definitive version.
The group, minus Daniels (who passed away during 1975), re-formed in 1987 for their 25th college reunion. This led to them playing 10-15 concerts a year until Fisher’s death during 2010.
The Highwaymen were an influential folk group who managed to produce one of the better selling folk singles in music history. A half century ago this week, they were on top of the music world.