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Dr. Gottlieb, I Presume?

gone ten years, forgotten at his death, Gottlieb - the uptight professor/Hippie Guru - is still a national treasure

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 12, 2006.

Ten years ago this week, one of the more influential people in American entertainment in his day died, his fame long gone, his influence so watered down by generations of successive imitators that unless you were around when he was in his prime, you’d never notice it. His name was Dr. Louis Gottlieb, a stand-up comedian of no great success and singer of no particular enchantment but with an actual PhD in Music, and so influential that his best comedy bits, now all worn clichés, are rarely attached to his name. He was an amazingly funny and insightful man even to someone like me who met him only twice in superficial circumstance.

He became regionally famous in the middle 1950’s when he formed a nightclub act, a folk group called the Gateway Singers, which had some terrific talents like Travis Edmonson and Emerly Thomas. Repeat: this was the 1950’s, and although the Gateway Singers had dazzled and thrilled their middle class audience of post Korean War Californians, and although Ed Sullivan was so impressed he brought them to New York to perform on his show, a big deal in pre-707 America, the great CBS of Ed Murrow had absolute heart failure when Sullivan’s producers saw the act and forbade its appearance. You see, Thomas, a black woman, was singing with three white men.

America couldn’t be expected to watch or listen to something like that. After all, they couldn’t even employ the all-white Weavers singing their commie chants about decent wages for decent work. It was exotic enough that Gottlieb was probably Jewish, but nobody would want to watch him sing with a black woman, whatever those Bohemian weirdos in California did. I doubt the Gateways were surprised, because they knew all about prejudice. When they worked clubs in Lake Tahoe, none of the beauty salons would allow Thomas in, so she had to fly back to San Francisco to get her hair done. This was in the sophisticated and tolerant north. Let’s not chat about the South…… The Gateways posed a serious threat to America under supposed Jewish Mastermind Gottlieb. It was not his last.

Gottlieb knew how to arrange voices, and when he left the Gateways, he got his doctorate in Music by his paper on French masses of the Middle Ages, which suggested an income future of zero, so he returned to entertainment and finally found his niche in the folk boom with The Limeliters, a folk trio that spawned Glenn Yarborough. At their best, the Limeliters were cutting edge and a great vocal group, and their live recordings still work for me a half century later.

During those years, Gottlieb perfected the role of group host by talking between the songs as if he were a clueless professor with recondite and/or supposedly suggestive humor with a foot in an adjacent reality. He was hysterical. His routines are clichés today, because during those years when folk music ruled radio, all acts tried religiously to be like Gottlieb between songs as they tried to sound exactly like Harry Belafonte during them. No exaggeration. It is very hard to imagine such huge influence in those very, very restricted and suppressive times of national post traumatic stress.

After near death in a plane crash here in Colorado, Gottlieb quit the road and when the Limeliters called it a career, Gottlieb switched gears and became what he’d always actually been: a real Hippy. He bought Morningstar Ranch and opened it up to the homeless young wandering the nation in the late 1960’s, while he himself appeared in movies and reviewed classical music for major newspapers. His thirty acres became what was called The Digger Farm, and after all the police raids for drugs and sex and black women singing with white men, Gottlieb deeded the farm over to God. Not to a church. God. This nonplussed the legal minds in Governor Reagan’s California, who were uncertain how to tax God, or serve him/her papers, or any of that. While the hypocrites groaned with their favorite postures - religion and tax exemption - at odds, a woman from the East Coast solved their muddle. She had been ruled hurt in an accident by an act of God. Fortunately, this guy God now had siezable property in California. She sued to get it. Well, you can just imagine. It went to the Supreme Court. As a result God now cannot officially own land in this, his chosen nation.

Son of a Roman Catholic mother and a secular Zionist father, Gottlieb always cheerfully considered himself the hyphen in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and probably ended up a Buddhist. If you ever get a chance to listen to his work with the folkies or read any of his monographs and numerous subjects, do so. He had the gift of making people feel as smart as he was, and happier for having met him. That’s a major gift, rare now as then, and it’s worth a listen to receive it. If you like to sing with others, Gottlieb’s arrangements are a must hear. Gone ten years this week, and he should be remembered and enjoyed.

Just sayin’.