Where Have All the Kingstons Gone? John Stewart Went from 'Cold as a Mackerel' to Hot as Fleetwood Mac

updated 07/16/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/16/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A star rock guitarist like Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham is forever being told by worshipful players that they learned everything by listening to him. John Stewart said just that—and was astonished, he beams, when "Lindsey told me he had learned to play guitar off my records."

The works in question include quiet classics like Reverend Mr. Black, Greenback Dollar and Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, which Stewart sang with the Fleetwood of folk, the Kingston Trio. "It was," says the 39-year-old Stewart, "as if Lindsey and I had been talking at each other for years without knowing it."

The communication across the generation gap was more direct—and mutually reverential—when Lindsey, 29, spent 50 hours helping John produce his current "last-ditch" album. Since the Trio died in 1967, John had released eight solo LPs but was "cold as a mackerel" and suffering from deep depression. Three record labels had dropped him, and a fourth was threatening to if this new one failed. Stewart whimsically titled it Bombs A way Dream Babies.

No way will it be a bomb. Its big single, Gold, bears not only Lindsey's ringing guitar but also the ever-sexy backup voice of his Fleetwood colleague Stevie Nicks. Unsurprisingly, Gold is already a Top-20 smash on its way to gold and possibly platinum. Bombs Away is ticking in the same direction.

"Great relief has swept over my body," sighs Stewart. "This is a new breath of life. Lindsey's a genius, and there's no price tag to put on that kind of support," he says graciously, adding: "I find it hard to deal with the fact that what I've worked so hard for the last 11 years has finally happened."

Stewart, a horse trainer's son, began impersonating Elvis as a high schooler back in Pomona, Calif., did local gigs with the Furies, then embraced the late-'50s folk boom with the Cumberland Trio. When Dave Guard quit the Kingston Trio in 1961, Stewart stepped in at 21. He got a $500 weekly salary and was hardly wealthy when the Trio split six years later. But he recalls, "I lived a good life. I bought an Austin-Healey, married my high school sweetheart, had three kids and wasn't into drugs." Yet Stewart still had not chased his self-doubts. "I felt I had dropped into a good thing."

Even rags-to-rhinestones cowboy—and ex-Trio accompanist—Glen Campbell coldly concurred. Stewart says Glen once snapped at him: "You won't get any help from me—you haven't paid your dues." Indeed, John was soon paying something more painful: alimony and child support. (Ex-wife Julie and three teenage kids live in Northern California.) To add to his mid-'70s problems, he had developed a severe jaw misalignment that caused the grinding down of his teeth. They had to be periodically recapped and left him in constant pain. Along the way Stewart passed up a chance to team with "a kid from Texas who used to hang out backstage with the trio, telling everybody what a big star he'd be someday—John Denver." Stewart had only one commercial success as a songwriter (the single Daydream Believer for the Monkees) and one critically admired LP, California Bloodlines, that wouldn't sell. "I was low," admits Stewart. "Suicide is too strong a word—I didn't have the pills at bedside—but I didn't know what to do."

The turnaround came in 1977 after Stewart, rather shrewdly, asked his cult fans at an L.A. club to write in requesting that RSO Records president Al Coury sign him. His first record died, and John had to go $9,000 in personal hock to put out Bombs.

Now John and his second wife, singer Buffy Ford, live modestly in a two-bedroom Malibu cottage shared with a dog and two cats. (Of the Kingston boys, the Stewarts see predecessor Dave Guard, now a San Francisco songwriter, who sang backup on one cut of Bombs. They also are in touch with Nick Reynolds, an Oregon rancher. Bob Shane is again touring with a new Kingston Trio group.) A teetotaler at home, John keeps his 6'2" frame lean on yogurt, juices, light foods and jogging. John met Buffy when she was singing at a Bay Area club. They cut a duet LP in 1968 and married in 1976. "We don't put a great deal of stock in tomorrows," he says. "We live for the todays...but not in a hedonistic way."

To say the least. After learning the necessary dental skills, Stewart meticulously—and painfully—recapped his own ground-down teeth monthly for the past year to avoid costly dental bills. But Gold royalties last month allowed him corrective oral surgery. Though he plans to buy "a car that works" to replace a '72 junker, the Malibu tennis scene is still out. "It's too expensive around here," says Stewart, who has a different personal measure for success. "It's the Rocky syndrome," he says. "I want to prove that I can go the distance."

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