Glenn Yarbrough was the lead singer with the Limeliters, one of the most popular folk singing groups of the early 1960s. From 1959 to 1963 the three singers, Glenn Yarbrough on the guitar, Alex Hassilev on the banjo and Lou Gottlieb on the bass, earned millions of dollars by being seen on virtually every television set in the U.S., always having sold-out concerts and selling millions of records. However, he was never happy and spent his entire life wanting something more than just being famous, but he didn't know what it was.
In 1963, he left the Limeliters, which caused the group to break up. He got a boat so he could spend all of his time sailing, but he was so talented and popular that RCA convinced him to come back to dry land and record solo albums for them. Everyone of his generation is likely to remember hearing him sing "Baby the Rain Must Fall", the title song of the 1965 film of the same name. However, he told The Saturday Evening Post, "The only thing success has taught me is that success is meaningless."
Childhood of Poverty
His childhood yields some clues to his unrequited search to find a purpose to his life. He was born in Milwaukee on Jan. 12, 1930, into poverty because his parents were social workers without any available jobs during the Great Depression. His father traveled all over the country to one job after another, while he lived with his mother in New York City. He was able to help support his mother as a paid boy soprano in the famous Choir of Men and Boys at Grace Church in Manhattan. He attended college at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where his roommate was Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra records. He started singing folk songs after going to a Woody Guthrie concert; the next day he bought a guitar and taught himself to play.
He was drafted during the Korean War and was miserable doing his job as a code breaker, a task for which he had no real preparation. He used his guitar to get him another army specialty and was so talented that he was assigned to perform in Korea and Japan. After leaving the army, he realized he had not prepared himself for any job, but he did know that his voice could support him. He went to South Dakota, then to Chicago and performed on local TV stations and in clubs. He moved to Aspen, Colorado where he ran a club called Limelite. In 1959, he formed the group with Hassilev and Gottlieb and named it after his club. In 1960, they recorded their first album on the Elektra label.
Looking for a Meaning for His Life
By the late 1960s he was miserable and was looking for something else. He quit entertaining to sail around the world. While sailing to Hawaii, he asked himself what he really wanted out of life and he decided that he would rather teach than sing. He sold his Rolls-Royce, Porsche, Bentley and two Ferraris and his house in New Zealand, his banana plantation in Jamaica and an apartment building he owned in Beverly Hills. He used the money to start a school in the mountains outside Los Angeles for disadvantaged, mostly African-American children. He was incredibly gifted as a singer, but he lacked the knowledge and discipline to run a school, so the school ran out of money and he had to close it down in the early 70s.
He divorced his first wife, Peggy Goodhart, and married his second, Annie Graves, built and moved into a 57-foot sailboat and spent the next five years on the high seas. Through these years, promoters sent sporadic requests for the Limeliters to get back together, and in 1973 they gave a reunion concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall to a sold-out audience. The public responded so enthusiastically to that performance that, despite some conflicts, the group stayed together until 1981. Then Yarbrough gave up again and once more left to sail around the world. Through the 1980s and 90s, Yarbrough spent most of his time on his boat, but when he ran low on money, he would return to land and record songs and give concerts. The Limeliters continue to perform without Yarbrough, first with Red Grammar and then with Rick Dougherty, but Yarbrough had always been the star and many of the new group's concerts were just openers for Yarbrough's concerts. Gottlieb died in 1996, leaving Hassilev as the only original member of the group. Meanwhile, Yarbrough was still searching for a purpose to his life. He bought a home near Guadalajara, Mexico and grew fruit and vegetables which he gave away to poor people who lived nearby.
He Never Found What He was Searching For
Besides not being able to stay with his immensely successful singing group, he also had never been able to stay with one woman. He divorced his first, second and third wives and was separated from his fourth wife at the time he died.
In 2010, at age 80, he had lost his concert voice and tried to correct the problem with surgery. I looked all over, but found only one report that he had had a polyp removed from his vocal cords. In the recovery room after surgery, he had a heart attack, stopped breathing and had to have a tracheotomy and be put on a ventilator to revive his breathing. After that, he suffered from progressive dementia and never sang in public again. He had to be cared for full time by his daughter, Holly Yarbrough Burnett, in Nashville and died there at age 86 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
COPD caused such severe lung damage that earlier in his life it had hurt his ability to sing, and later in life it damaged his brain to increase risk for dementia. Eventually it caused him to smother to death. Chronic lung diseases markedly increase a person's chances of developing dementia (Mayo Clinic Proceedings, November 2013;88(11):1222–1230), most likely by depriving the brain of adequate amounts of oxygen (Biomed Res Int, 2014;2014:697825). Drugs that are used to treat dementia and allergies can damage the lungs to increase risk for further lung damage (JAMA Intern Med,. March, 2015;175(3):401-407).
What is COPD?
You need oxygen to stay alive. Oxygen goes into your lungs through your bronchial tubes and passes through air sac membranes called alveoli into your bloodstream. COPD means that your bronchial tubes are thickened and scarred so you have difficulty bringing oxygen into your lungs, and your alveoli are damaged so that oxygen cannot pass readily into, and carbon dioxide cannot pass out from, your bloodstream.
COPD affects 32 million people and is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. Smoking is the most common cause. You get COPD from breathing in smoke, fumes from fuel for cooking or heating, air pollution, workplace exposure to dust, smoke or fumes, and so forth. It is also caused by certain conditions that interfere with bringing oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of your lungs, such as Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, cystic fibrosis, uncontrolled asthma or any chronic lung infection.
Nearly everyone in the music world of the 50's, 60's and 70's smoked. Even if he did not smoke himself, the many hours spent in clubs would have given him very high levels of exposure to second hand smoke.
A Sad Way to Live
As a singer he was successful, but he was never satisfied. He spent most of his life running away from his great talent and returned to use his gift only when he needed money to support himself. When surgery took away his magnificent voice, he really had nothing left.
He had such a unique voice that it is sad to hear that he did not feel fulfilled. In 1996, Yarbrough told the Los Angeles Times, "You know, I never thought I’d spend a lifetime doing this; it just happened." I think that if you have a talent to do anything well, you should use it and be grateful that you are gifted. Stop looking for something else in which you will have far less capability and are far less likely to find happiness and success.