Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Alex Hassilev Dies at 91

The Last Limeliter: It is with great sadness that Abq Jew informs you - if you haven't yet heard -  of the passing of Alex Hassilev, the last surviving original member of The Limeliters.

The Limeliters

The Limeliters
Alex Hassilev (1932-2024), Lou Gottlieb (1923-1996),
and Glenn Yarbrough (1930-2016)

Don't remember The Limeliters? Oy! They were one of the early folk group greats, right up there with The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. Wikipedia reminds us:

The Limeliters are an American folk music group, formed in July 1959 by Lou Gottlieb (bass violin/bass), Alex Hassilev (banjo/baritone), and Glenn Yarbrough (guitar/tenor).
The group was active from 1959 until 1965, and then after a hiatus of sixteen years, Yarbrough, Hassilev, and Gottlieb reunited and began performing again as The Limeliters in reunion tours. 
On a regular basis a continuation of The Limeliters group is still active and performing. 
Gottlieb died in 1996 (aged 72), Yarbrough died in 2016 (aged 86), and Hassilev died in 2024 (aged 91), the last founding member, who had remained active in the group, retired in 2006, leaving the group to carry on without any of the original members.

Yes, Alex Hassilev was the banjo player. To Abq Jew, he was THE banjo player. He was pretty darn good, in the old-time long-neck (banjo) sort of way. And he had a great baritone voice.

Abq Jew looked - and couldn't find many obituaries online for Alex Hassilev. Here's from the Los Angeles Times, one of the few.

Alex Hassilev, last original member of the ’60s folk trio the Limeliters, dies at 91

Alex Hassilev, the singing, songwriting, guitar and banjo virtuoso who was the last surviving original member of 1960s folk trio the Limeliters, died of cancer April 21 at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. He was 91.

Hassilev was the youngest member of the Limeliters, whose other original members were bassist and comic spokesman Lou Gottlieb (1923-1996) and star tenor Glenn Yarbrough (1930-2016). The band was second only to the Kingston Trio in its popularity during the peak years of the American urban folk music boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s.

After becoming a hit act at San Francisco’s fabled hungry i nightclub only two months after their formation in 1959, the Limeliters became an inescapable presence in mass media. They recorded 13 albums, appeared on television and toured as many as 310 days out of the year. Their most enduring album, “Through Children’s Eyes,” was popular among generations of children and their parents.

Hassilev’s powerful chops on banjo and guitar gave the group’s music much of its rhythmic drive, and his expertise in foreign languages — particularly in French, Portuguese and Russian — made it possible to add songs from outside American folk music to the group’s repertoire. Tall, debonair and handsome, Hassilev also was the sex symbol of the trio.

Hassilev was born in Paris on July 11, 1932, to Russian emigré parents Leonide and Tamara Hassilev. Like his colleagues in the Limeliters, he was an only child — and to one another the three musicians were probably the closest thing to brothers they ever had.

The Hassilevs were Jewish and left Paris for New York City in 1939 ahead of the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, and in Manhattan Leonide Hassilev continued his career as a civil engineer specializing in hydroelectric projects. 

Hassilev had showed early brilliance as a child, picking up new languages with ease and eventually speaking six fluently. When he came to America, he found that he was ahead of his classmates.

.   .   .

A chance listening to the Weavers’ recording of “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” on the radio electrified him.

“I thought, goddamn, that’s the greatest thing I ever heard, and it made such an impression on me that it kindled my interest in American folk music,” he said during an interview in 1989. 

“At the time, I didn’t know any songs in English.”

Well, he soon learned.

Here is a taste of what Alex Hassilev, Lou Gottlieb, and Glenn Yarbrough were all about. We'll start with a hard-driving (you should excuse the expression), more-or-less straightforward version of the old folk song about John Henry

An African American freedman, John Henry is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man"—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into a rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel.

But then there was Max Goolis, and the song about him. A union man (but of course), Max Goolis is said to have worked as a "street-sweeping man"—a man who spent his whole career in the gutter, and who is recalled now for his brave battle with an automatic garbage truck.

The Limeliters, may they sing forever in Gan Eden, could never leave well enough alone. As Abq Jew has written (see August 2015's Those Were The Days), the trio took old songs and made them new. 

Or sometimes completely re-engineered them (see "Max Goolis" above.) And please, please, don't get Abq Jew started about Lou Gottlieb ....

Send in the Clowns

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