A certain beer commercial gives viewers glimpses of the life of “the most interesting man of the world.” If the commercials were to choose a famous singer, a good choice for the most interesting man would be folk singer Glenn Yarbrough, who passed away recently on August 11, 2016 in Nashville at the age of 86. Yarbrough, who was born in Milwaukee on January 12, 1930, had quite an interesting life outside his music career, which included the hit song, “Baby the Rain Must Fall.”
As the New York Times obituary reported, Yarbrough was someone who “found fame and fortune . . . but who walked away from it all for a life at sea.” Yet, there is more to the story.
Yarbrough first turned to music while in college after hearing and meeting Woody Guthrie. The next day, he went and bought a guitar.
During the Korean War, Yarbrough worked as a codebreaker and then went on to entertain troops. After his service, he opened a club in Aspen, Colorado called the Limelite.
During the folk revival of the 1960s, the Limeliters achieved significant success selling records, performing, and in TV appearances. They performed both traditional (“John Henry”) and contemporary (“Charlie, the Midnight Marauder”) numbers.
Below, you may see the Limeliters performing in 1963, starting with “Wabash Cannonball.” Yarbrough is the singer on the right who is playing guitar and has a wonderful tenor voice.
“Baby the Rain Must Fall”
Yarbrough left the group in 1963 with the intent to spend the next decade sailing. But the record company convinced him to continue recording as a solo artist.
In 1965, Yarbrough had his biggest hit with “Baby the Rain Must Fall,” the song from the movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick. The song was written by Elmer Bernstein and Ernie Sheldon.
Below, Yarbrough performs “Baby the Rain Must Fall” on Hollywood Go Go. Before he starts singing, you may hear him talking about his love of the sea.
Other Music in the 1960s
In the mid-1960s, Yarbrough collaborated with poet and songwriter Rod McKuen on several albums, including The Lonely Things: The Love Songs of Rod McKuen (1966). That album featured the song “People Change.”
Yarbrough also sang the title song from the holiday TV special, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966). You may hear his voice toward the end of this commercial for the American-Italian film.
Helping Others . . . and Sailing the Sea
Yarbrough remained restless as he built his successful music career. For example, in the mid 1960s, he became frustrated performing for the well-off people who could afford tickets to his concerts.
So, by the late 1960s, Yarbrough sold many of his possessions — including several fancy cars and real estate holdings. And he started a school in the mountains outside Los Angeles for disadvantaged children, most who were African-American. The school lasted until it had to close for lack of funds in the early 1970s.
By then, Yarbrough returned to the sea for the most part of five years. He rented out his home and traveled with his second wife and their baby aboard a 57-foot sailboat he had helped build.
For the next three decades, Yarbrough spent much of his time at sea. He returned to dry land periodically to make money recording and performing both as a solo artist and at Limeliters reunion concerts.
If you saw the 1977 animated Rankin/Bass television version of The Hobbit, you may remember Yarbrough’s recognizable voice. He sang musical numbers for The Hobbit, including “The Greatest Adventure.” He also recorded songs for The Return of the King (1980).
Until Yarbrough moved to live with his daughter six years ago, he lived on Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara, Mexico. There, he grew fruit and vegetables that he gave to the poor.
Restlessness and Meaning
Although Yarbrough suffered from dementia at the end of his life, he seems to have been one of the most perceptive and grounded entertainers in history. He once commented how success is “meaningless,” where a performer is loved not for his music but for his fame.
Yarbrough’s life seems to have been a constant struggle to give meaning to his restless life. From what we know, he never seemed completely settled, being separated from his fourth wife at the time of his death. But through the various left turns, he constructed a fascinating life.
Yarbrough gave to others in a number of ways. But I hope as he sails the heavens that he realized how much he also gave with his voice.
What is your favorite Glenn Yarbrough song? Leave your two cents in the comments.
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