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The Highwaymen were a circa 1960 "collegiate folk" group, which originated at Wesleyan University and had a Billboard number-one hit in 1961 with "Michael", a version of the African-American spiritual Michael, Row the Boat Ashore, and another Top 20 hit in 1962 with "Cottonfields". "Michael" sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold record.
As a freshman in 1958, Dave Fisher, who in high school had sung in a doo-wop group, joined with four other Wesleyan freshman – Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels, and Steve Trott – to form the Highwaymen. Fisher, who would graduate in 1962 with the university’s first degree in Ethnomusicology, was the quintet's arranger and lead singer. In 1959, United Artists released his arrangement of the spiritual "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" while the group were sophomores in college. The recording reached #1 in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1960 under the abbreviated title of "Michael", earning the quintet the gold record. The single also reached #1 in UK and #4 in Germany. Later members were Gil Robbins (father of actor Tim Robbins), who joined in 1962 when Steve Trott entered Harvard Law School, and guitarist/bassist Johann Helton. Today, just two of the original five members, Steve Trott and Steve Butts, are still alive, with Daniels having died in 1975, Fisher in 2010, Robbins on April 5, 2011 and Burnett the following December. Ten albums have been recorded to date.
The original Highwaymen, minus Daniels (who died in 1975), reunited in 1987 for a concert for their 25th college reunion. From that time until the passing of Dave Fisher in 2010, the band recorded several CD's and performed from ten to 30 concerts a year. Their only new studio album from this period, The Water Of Life A Celtic Collection, was recorded and engineered by their bassist Johann Helton at JoTown Records in Boise, Idaho. The group last performed in August 2009 at the Guthrie Center in Massachusetts. The rock and roll magazine Blitz described the Highwaymen’s record of their 1963 concert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the best compilation or reissue of 2009. Blitz also named the band's album When the Village Was Green one of the best releases of 2007. In 1990, the group sued country music's Highwaymen, made up of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson over their use of the name, which was inspired by a Jimmy Webb ballad they recorded. The suit was dropped after the foursome agreed to let members of the original group open for them at a 1990 concert in Hollywood.
The group broke up in 1964. With Dave Fisher as musical director and the only remaining member of the original quintet, The Highwaymen continued for another five years with new members Renny Temple, Roy Connors, Mose Henry and Alan Shaw (ne: Scharf. They recorded two albums, "Stop! Look! & Listen," and "On a New Road," and performed countless concerts and appeared on virtually every television variety show. Temple, Connors and Henry were previously in a popular Florida folk group called The Vikings Three. Alan Scharf had an earlier career as an actor which continued after the Highwaymen disbanded. He went on to do small roles in a few movies including the cult classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and many national, regional, and local commercials. He continued his singing as a cantor in Congregation Beth El, a synagogue in La Jolla, California. Roy Connors became an advertising executive and formed his own ad agency with a partner, John Forsyth. Forsyth & Connors, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, went on to become the second largest agency in Florida. The agency was sold in 1991 to the advertising conglomerate, Earl Palmer Brown. Connors wrote and produced national TV commercials, jingles, and performed in a number of national commercials. He became a feature song writer on the CBS children's TV show, "Captain Kangaroo," where he wrote original songs for the cast. After many years of loss of contact, Scharf and Connors reconnected in southern Florida, forming a duo called 2 GUYS, singing many of the folk songs they sang as members of The Highwaymen. More information on Roy and Alan can be found at their web site: 2GUYSharmony.com.
Of the original quintet from Wesleyan (all of whom made the Dean's List), one attended Harvard Business School, two attended Harvard Law School, and one attended graduate school at Columbia University, then proceeded into business, law, and academia, respectively. Fisher alone stayed in the music business. After the second incarnation of the Highwaymen, Fisher traveled to Hollywood where he composed and arranged music for films and television and worked as a studio singer and musician. He wrote more than a thousand songs, many of which have been used in movie and television productions. After serving in the Army Reserve, Burnett graduated from Harvard Law School in 1967 and "went on to a long career in law and banking." Chan Daniels (who died in 1975) had been an executive for Capitol Records. Steve Butts received a Ph.D. in Chinese Politics from Columbia, and until retirement, had served as an academic administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Grinnell College and Lawrence University. He also taught baroque music performance and statistics at Columbia and the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music. Steve Trott, after graduating from Harvard Law, became a prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office. Later, he served in the United States Department of Justice during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan and in 1987 was appointed a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Fisher died on May 7, 2010, at the age of 69.
The Highwaymen had a significant impact on the folk scene of the early 1960s. Aside from two major hit singles and several appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the group contributed two future standards to the folk repertoire ("All My Trials", "Big Rock Candy Mountain") and played the central role in uncovering an important, long-overlooked song by Lead Belly, "Cotton Fields", which subsequently became a major addition to the repertoires of both the Beach Boys and the Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Highwaymen also made the first recordings, or at least the first recordings in the United States, of seminally noteworthy songs by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger ("The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face") and Buffy Sainte-Marie ("Universal Soldier").