Family photo, per Portland Press-Herald

Family photo, per Portland Press-Herald

In case you missed it, a great Eph singer/songwriter passed away on May 31.

Holt enrolled at Williams as part of the Class of 1951 but left, first to travel in Europe, and then to serve in the Air Force in the Korean War. His obituaries prominently feature his authorship of the song “Lemon Tree” (YouTube link), and his work on Broadway (he was nominated for a Tony for “The Me Nobody Knows”), I would place his most significant contribution to popular culture in his role in surfacing the song “Charlie and the MTA,” thereby giving rise to, among other things, the Boston subway’s reloadable “Charlie Card.”

Most people know “Charlie and the MTA” from its recording by the Kingston Trio in 1959. But Holt brought the song to the Kingston Trio’s attention after he came within a hair’s breadth of having a hit with it two years earlier, in 1957. According to a 2010 article in American Music, Holt learned the song in 1955 at a New York cabaret, the Purple Onion (undoubtedly popular with Purple Cows):

Holt added “M.T.A.” to his solo repertoire, changed the tune a little,
and recorded it as a single and as part of an album, The World of Will
Holt, for Coral Records in 1957. The song quickly began to receive airplay
on radio stations and seemed well on its way to becoming a hit. “It was
going to be a hot song . . . a novelty song,” Holt recalled. Life magazine
even sent a reporter/photographer team to Boston to do a feature story
on Holt, taking pictures of him at the various subway stops mentioned
in the song.

But soon after Holt’s recording of “M.T.A.” began to climb the music
charts, radio stations suddenly stopped playing the song. Stores stopped
selling the record. Life magazine abruptly pulled the story on Holt before
that issue of the magazine hit the newsstands. Holt says that the reason
for the sudden turnaround was that radio stations—particularly those
in Boston—had received complaints that the song “glorified” a communist,
because it mentioned Walter O’Brien [the Boston mayoral candidate for whose campaign
the song was originally written]. Sing Out! magazine corroborated
Holt’s account…

In a desperate move to salvage the song, Coral Records removed the
line about O’Brien. They literally cut it out—without replacing it—so
a careful listener can notice a gap in the subsequent version. Coral
rereleased the song without that line, but the damage had been done.
Holt’s new version of “M.T.A.” went nowhere. “My fame and fortune
was suddenly out the window,” Holt recalled.

Holt’s friends in the Kingston Trio picked the song up from him, revised it with the now-familiar introduction, recorded it, and, well, you know the rest.

Will, Ephs everywhere wish we’d known you longer and better. Rest well.

Obituary links:
Washington Post
New York Times
Portland Press-Herald

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