O'Luney Tunes

As he prepares to perform at Thornton Fest, an annual event in the metro-area suburb, Denver's Bob Haworth, clad in patriotic garb that includes a stars-and-stripes stovepipe hat and red, white and blue boots, quickly inventories the weapons in his musical arsenal. "There's one," he says, kicking his leg to trigger the bass drum on his back, "two," knocking his knees together to clang two cymbals, "three..."

His list is a long one. All told, Haworth carries about three dozen instruments while performing as "Bob O'Luney's Amazing One-Man Band," including various percussion and wind mechanisms, noise-making doohickeys and a mutant seven-string banjo called a "guit-jo" that serves as his main ax. "And that may be off a little," he confesses, "because I've got a bunch of whistles that I never think about playing." Still, there's nothing superfluous on his homemade rig--92 pounds' worth of gear that resembles a torture device for the musically inclined: "Oh, no, I get around to everything, and I try to play all of them within one song."

Moreover, Haworth is able to do so on the move. The jaws of his astonished listeners fall faster than rain from a summer thunderstorm as they watch him strumming a Dixieland melody on his guit-jo and steadily walloping his back-borne kick drum. But what these passersby don't realize is that Haworth is far more than a 36-trick novelty act. On the contrary, he is an accomplished singer and guitarist with an impeccable folk-music pedigree: He served as a member of the Brothers Four, one of the best-known acts to emerge during the late Fifties/early Sixties folk boom, for fifteen years and has been a part of the Kingston Trio, arguably the era's most popular folk outfit, since 1985. So what on earth is Haworth doing raising a ruckus while wandering around the fairgrounds in an outfit more garish than anything in Elton John's closet? Haworth provides an answer in the context of a new composition whose title serves as his claim to entertainment royalty. "Michael Jackson's the King of Pop, and Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll," he says. "Well, I'm 'The King of Fun.'"

Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1946, Haworth first came into contact with music courtesy of two banjo-playing uncles, one of whom performed with Bing Crosby. At age eight he took up the instrument himself, playing in an all-banjo troupe while in elementary school. "Then, in 1957, I heard the Kingston Trio when 'Tom Dooley' came out," he notes. "And I really got into folk music."

From then on, Haworth, who spent his youth in Medford, Oregon, immersed himself in the sounds and songs associated with the genre. So it was only natural that after graduating from high school in 1965 he would head to the University of California-Los Angeles to pursue a degree in music. In his words, he "dinked around in school" while earning money as a film-score banjoist. That changed when he was phoned by a friend in Oregon who managed a threesome known as the Hudson Brothers. The group--a Portland outfit that would go on to national fame hosting a goofy mid-Seventies television variety show and a concurrent kiddie program--was looking for a guitarist, and Haworth fit the bill perfectly. He spent the next two years with the combo, touring the Northwest until, as he puts it, "the brother thing got to be too overwhelming."

Little did he know that he had more brothers in his future--specifically the Brothers Four, a quartet of fraternity types from the University of Washington who hit number two on the pop charts with "Greenfields" in 1960. Haworth signed up in 1970, and over the course of the next decade and a half, he recorded twelve albums for CBS with the clan and enjoyed lucrative tours of Japan, where the quartet had a sizable following.

Then, in 1985, Haworth received a call from representatives of his boyhood favorites, the Kingston Trio. The reason, he recounts, "was that their tenor/guitarist [Roger Gambill] had suffered a heart attack, so they asked me to fill in. And, well, he died, so I was stuck with the gig." Not that Haworth was blase about this opportunity. "That was a giant thrill to be asked to join them," he allows. "They were the top folk group of all time."

After stepping into the Trio, Haworth stayed on the road steadily for three years, performing in approximately 200 shows per year. This level of activity decreased substantially after original Kingston Trio guitarist Nick Reynolds returned to the fold in 1988, but because Reynolds's health prevents him from touring full-time, Haworth continues to play with the group for two months each year. He's already got a weekend commitment with the Trio in July, which he's looking forward to. "It's a situation where I've maintained a good relationship with the guys and I know the repertoire, so I can stand in without any rehearsal," he asserts. "It's real easy for them to depend on me."  

Because of his status as a Trio part-timer, however, Haworth has a lot of time on his hands. He fills it by performing in a country band, Coyote Moon, and a variety/comedy ensemble known as the Fabulous Bo Mooney Show. In addition, he serves as a booking agent for his own firm, Crescent Entertainment. But he's most in demand as Bob O'Luney; for instance, he's booked to perform every weekend through the summer at the Parade of Homes in Aurora (call 778-1444 for details). He concedes that the situation frustrates him at times. "It just doesn't make any sense to me," he says. "I've sat and pondered it, but you can't figure it out, so I just live with it. I'm accepting the fact that I'm a unique thing when I do this and that there's no one else who can get this work. I've found my niche." There are other advantages as well. "I don't have to call the band to see if they're available for a show," he points out, chuckling. "It's just, 'Hey, right foot, can you do it?' 'Yeah.' 'Left foot?' 'Okay.'" What's more, "it's something I really look forward to doing. It's a real fun thing to do."

The concept for Haworth's pied-piper act came to him in the mid-Seventies, when he was living on Vashon Island, near Seattle. He's still not quite sure what inspired it. "I've racked my brain trying to figure out where it came from, but all that comes to mind is Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. At the beginning of the movie, he comes out in a one-man-band thing, so I think that might have been where I got the idea originally."

But while Bert, Van Dyke's character in Mary Poppins, played relatively few instruments, Haworth notes, "I put on the banjo, and from there it just started growing. I'd find a little empty spot and think, 'I could get to that.' So I'd put on the honker horn or the washboard, and start adding stuff. It seems like every year I find a slot where I can add something else. Sometimes I go out in the garage and look at all the junk out there and think, 'How can I use this?' Or I'll decide to add something and go out to my junk pile and figure out how to make it work."

An example is the slide whistle that Haworth uses to embellish many of his songs. "When I tried to mount it in the harmonica rack, there was no way to get to the mouthpiece and still have it where I could work it with my right hand," he remembers. To solve this ergonomic dilemma, Haworth mounted the device over his shoulder, with a rubber tube that connects the whistle to his harp rack. "I'm constantly creating ways to make the gadgets work," he notes.

And boy, do they. At Thornton Fest, he launches into "When the Saints Go Marching In," punctuating a booming backbeat with a counterpoint jingle from a tambourine strapped to his right foot. When he finishes the song's chorus a couple of measures and several paces later ("Oh, when the saints"--THUMP!--"go marching in"--THUMP!), he glides into a dizzying series of instrument breaks. "It's showtime!" he announces before whipping through solos on harmonica, kazoo and ceramic jug, all of which are held in a rack around his neck. He follows with a whiz-bang display of washboard savvy, accented by raps on a wood block and a secretary bell attached to the board. All the while, Haworth's feet and hands keep time as the pinwheels mounted on his shoulders whir in the breeze. He ends the song with a loopy siren-whistle flourish that prompts a swarm of onlookers waiting at an adjacent cotton-candy booth to burst into applause. "Thank you very much," he declares before moving on, the wind and some new fans at his back.

Granted, not everyone is enchanted by Bob O'Luney. "Some people think this is a little oddball, and I've had people ask, 'Aren't you embarrassed?'" Haworth admits. "And when I first started doing this, it was kind of embarrassing, because here I was in the middle of a crowd doing something really weird, with all these eyes focused on me. But now I'll go play anywhere. I don't care if you laugh at me."

That's fortunate, since a handful of people in Thornton giggle under their breaths when the nutcase troubadour goes by--and that's not the worst of it. As they wait for a carnival ride called the Sizzler, three cookie-cutter teenage girls (all in plaid shorts, vibrant lipstick and upright ponytails) lower their snow-cones to eye Haworth with vacant stares and sneers, and several parents seem to hold their children a little closer when he approaches.  

Meri Haworth, Bob's wife and the owner of a local printing company, understands these responses. She met Haworth in 1986, when he was playing with the Kingston Trio at an event called Lakewood on Parade; he moved to the Denver area two years later so that they could be together. But since then, she's seen plenty of Bob O'Luney performances--and even more reactions to Haworth's shtick. "It's disbelief," she clarifies after adjusting a pair of clapping hands mounted just behind her husband's head. "People aren't sure if he's for real or not." Adds Bob, "A lot of people just haven't seen anything like this, so they're kind of dumbstruck. It is sort of a one-of-a-kind thing."

While this uniqueness may unnerve some festival-goers, it impresses many more. As Haworth finishes up a series of requests ("Home on the Range," "Hound Dog," "Johnny B. Goode" and "The Battle of New Orleans" among them), someone asks, "What songs doesn't he know?" Later, he breezes through a version of "Mama Don't Allow," a jug-band classic that typically features bandmembers trading hot solos. Haworth, of course, takes them all himself. "Say," he shouts, "let me hear that washboard"--and then he promptly obliges his own suggestion with a flurry of percussive notes. An intent woman in the crowd offers a quiet assessment shared by many: "Incredible," she whispers to herself.

Another adult is considerably less complimentary; he leans down to his kindergarten-age son and sarcastically asks, "What do you think Mom would say if you told her you wanted to be a one-man band when you grow up?" But the kid shrugs off the remark, his eyes glued to Haworth. As a pair of teenagers lead off their awestruck younger brother, the smaller sibling looks back over his shoulder to sneak one last peak at Bob. He obviously recognizes a kindred spirit. "I am a kid," Haworth explains. "I'm fifty years old and I'm a kid. I just can't seem to grow up."

After an hour, Haworth's roving set reaches its conclusion. "I'm public enemy number one," he sings joyously, sweat trickling down his boyish face. "I'm going to jail for having too much fun." As the song's last chord rings from his chiming guit-jo, Haworth leans down to a smiling youngster at his feet and poses a question. "Too much fun?" he asks. "Why, there's no such thing!

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