In Memory of Jerry Burgan, Co-Founder of We Five

He was The Keeper of the Flame when the world first went electric, and helped usher in the Folk-Rock revolution

We Five. Jerry Burgan is on the right, playing acoustic guitar. Mike Stewart is the first on the left,
next to Bob Jones, Beverly Bivens, and Pete Fullerton on bass, .

He was the “Keeper of the Flame” of We Five, the band he founded with Michael Stewart in 1964. They were soldiers in the folk-rock revolution, one of the first bands ever to have a hit in the new hybrid. It was the merger of the spirit and consciousness of folk music, the songs of the people, with the expansive energy and electricity of rock and roll. Jerry Burgan was there from the start, and the only member of the band to be on every album they made. A humble, warm-hearted man, he was a good friend to many around the world and here in the Angeleno music community. He died on March 30. 

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It was in September, 1965 that the first single of their band was released, “You Were On My Mind.” Written by Sylvia Fricker of Ian and Sylvia, it came just after The Byrds’ folk-rock rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” emerged as a folk-rock hit. Dylan himself had “gone electric” on “Like A Rolling Stone,” which was on the charts at the same time. All three songs were big hits that embodied this mixture of the old world – with its ancient songs of the generations sung in harmony to acoustic guitars and banjos – and the new expansive consciousness which blossomed then in popular song. Folk-Rock changed the face and spirit of popular song.

Jerry Burgan grew up in San Francisco, where he and Mike Stewart started singing together as kids, in the school choir. Mike was learning to play banjo, a gift from his big brother John Stewart, the great songwriter who was in the Kingston Trio before going solo and writing songs like “Daydream Believer,” a hit for The Monkees. Mike teamed up with Jerry – who had a guitar and could play it – and they eventually created We Five.

In an expansive interview with Gary James, Jerry remembered the origins of his band and its ascension as a folk-rock force of nature. In his characteristically humble style, he attributes much of their success to Michael Stewart. Here’s Jerry on We Five, in his own words:

The group was really Michael’s brainchild from the start. I’d known him in 5th grade. His brother John gave him a banjo when we were in 8th grade. I was the only guy he knew that had a guitar. He wanted to have a Folk group that required a guitar. I got elected and so Michael and I started singing together in the Summer of 1959. 

As long as I’ve known Michael, he’s a brilliant guy. He’s a funny guy. Very quickly it was clear that he had a sense of arranging that was unique. He could visualize things that others couldn’t necessarily hear.  Having a group that was more than just “Kingston Trio me too” was very much part of Michael. he  recognized very early on the advantages of having a girl in the group for both visual reasons and the audio opportunities that existed. We were a Folk trio with a girl long before Peter, Paul and Mary even appeared. 

When Michael’s brother John Stewart was asked to join The Kingston Trio, that relationship then gave us visibility with Frank Werber, who was their manager then, when they were the number one touring act in the world. You’d have to say that on all of those fronts, having Michael in the group was pivotal in our being discovered and in our success.

When we were still in high school, John started recording with The Trio at Capitol and met Nik Venet.  Nik Venet gave us an audition. We recorded two sides and he flipped out. One of the songs there was a copyright challenge on it and it got delayed. He wound up leaving Capitol and wound up not signing at that particular time. In the Summer of ’64, John had been asked to do a movie soundtrack for a film about the astronauts, and the Ridge Runners, which our group was called at the time, Michael did the arranging and we all sang on it. In addition to us, other singers on this were John Phillips and Scott Mackenzie. 

After high school, the original girl left the group and we tried a few different people. Beverly [Bivens] joined us at the end of 1963 and started performing with us in coffeehouses and schools in the Spring of ’64. By the Summer of ’64 we started to be courted by different producers who were looking around for the next big thing. 

Frank Werber used our original girl singer, Sue Davies on The Kingston Trio hit “Reverend Mr. Black”. He knew we were good. He knew that John was probably gonna end up getting us a record deal. But The Kingston Trio decided they didn’t want to record in L.A. anymore, so they built a studio in San Francisco where they lived. Then, in addition to them, they knew they were going to have to have other artists in that studio to pay for the rent and they started looking for other people who could record. 

He booked us into The Hungry I in San Francisco just to see how it played to the man on the street, re-named the group We Five and began recording us in the Spring of 1965 and the record came out in June.

Sylvia Fricker, who then married Ian Tyson and became Sylvia Tyson, was the author of “You Were On My Mind”. It’s a much simpler song than the way we did it. It’s basically a three- chord song the way she wrote it. It’s got some minors and things in it. It’s also more like a Country tune the way she wrote it.

[When it became a hit], money stopped being a concern, but getting enough sleep started getting to be a problem. We began doing TV shows immediately. We did all of the stuff you would imagine, the Hullabaloos, and the American Bandstand and Shindig and Shiveree and all of the local dance shows all around the country. We also did shows like Hollywood Palace, that was a very upscale ‘live’ broadcast done from the West Coast. They didn’t use a whole lot of Rock acts initially on that because you had to perform ‘live’ and you also had to fit within the musical context. We were a little bit of a stretch for them, but that worked fine. We started playing college concerts almost immediately. We did about 150 concerts in 20 months.

Debbie & Jerry Burgan and Tholow Chan

I think the biggest reason there’s an interest in [We Five] still is because the song itself is indelibly burned in the minds of people who kind of write themselves into the story. It just came along at a magic time that touched people in a special way. It was a unique arrangement. 

And so far, a lot of people have tried but no one has ever had another hit record with “You Were On My Mind” after us because the version we did is fairly distinctive. In fact, I’m actually writing a book on the experience and the song right now with a very talented author named Alan Rifkin who I met only to discover that “You Were On My Mind” was one of the cornerstone songs in his life. We got to talking and I said “I always wanted to write a memoir about this.” This guy’s a novelist. He teaches at a couple of universities. He said “Let’s do the book.” So, we’re working on it.” 

Jerry Burgan We Five guitarist memoir | RECORD COLLECTOR NEWS
No photo description available.

That book, co-authored with Alan Rifkin, is called Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution, and was published in 2014.

Michael Stewart went on to produce Billy Joel’s Piano Man album. He died in 2002 at the age of 57. Jerry’s wife Debbie Burgan, who replaced Bivens in We Five in 1968 is the keeper of his flame forever.

His co-author, Alan Rifkin, remembered Jerry in recent online comments, pointing to his humble flame-keeping and the love that lit his life.

“It was always important to [Jerry] not to overestimate his role in the birth of folk-rock,” Rifkin wrote. “He freely acknowledged Michael Stewart as the creative genius behind their arrangement of Sylvia Tyson’s song. He considered himself half a skeptic amid the fame and turmoil that came his way in the Sixties (all the while trying to get it back), which I think was the odd magic of his story.

“But it ends with him finding his small place, in the way I think every biography and every life should. Debbie was the love of his life, and that is the sleeper power of his book.”

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