Wednesday, July 05, 2023

Alan Arkin, folk singer (and more), 1934-2023

Alan Arkin, who died last Thursday at 89, was blessed with many talents. Before his career as an actor began in earnest he played guitar and sang as part of a folk group called the Tarriers, who were formed from a group of musicians who would gather in Washington Square Park in the mid 1950s to play and to share songs. You can read more about the Tarriers and about my encounter with Erik Darling, who had been a member of the group, here 

A big break came for the Tarriers when Art D'Lugoff, music promoter and owner of the Village Gate cabaret, asked them to back Vince Martin on "Cindy, Oh Cindy."  (You can read about my duet with Vince, which came courtesy of Rick Danko, here.) The song was co-written by Robert Nemiroff and D'Lugoff's brother, Burt, under the pseudonyms Robert Barron and Burt Long. The record was released in 1956 and reached the top ten in the pop chart that year. It was quickly covered by Eddie Fisher, whose version also charted. In my memory, I associate the song with Boy Scout camp in the summer of 1957. Here's the Martin/Tarriers version, with Arkin on guitar and harmony vocals:

The Tarriers followed "Cindy" on their own in early 1957 with "The Banana Boat Song" which made it to number four on the pop chart. Almost contemporaneously, Harry Belafonte released "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)" which charted at number five, but is better remembered than the Tarriers' version today. Here's the Tarriers' version:


Note that the record label lists the authors of the song as "Arkin-Carey-Darling." Bob Carey, who along with Arkin and Darling made up the Tarriers, was Black. I had assumed that he was the lead vocalist on "Banana Boat," but in this interview he said it was Arkin.

Carey also said that the Tarriers, with the lineup of himself, Arkin, and Darling, did a version of "Tom Dooley" that predated the hit version by the Kingston Trio. On this, Carey had the lead vocal

Alan Arkin left the Tarriers in 1958 to pursue his acting career. I have little to add to all that has been written about that, other than to mention that I especially enjoyed his portrayal of the anti-hero Yossarian in Catch-22 (1970), directed by Mike Nichols.and based on the 1961 novel by Joseph Heller.

Arkin excelled as a director as well as as an actor. He directed another "dark comedy," Little Murders, by Jules Feiffer, first as an award winning off Broadway stage production, then as a 1971 movie in which he also played a role as an hysterical policeman. I used Little Murders as the opening theme in my 2008 attempt to answer the question, "What is Art?"

Alan Arkin brought his keen mind and artistic sense to whatever he did. He will be sorely missed.