Alex Hassilev dead: The last original member of the Limeliters dies aged 91 after cancer battle

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The last original member of the Limeliters Alex Hassilev has died

Alex Hassilev, a versatile troubadour and the last original member of the Limeliters, a popular folk group from the early 1960s, died at the age of 91. His wife Gladys Hassilev said he died on April 21 in a Burbank hospital California from cancer.

Before the Beatles frenzy hit America in 1964, the country was fascinated by the melodies and traditional arrangements of folk music. The Limeliters, who included Alex Hassilev, Glenn Yarbrough, and Lou Gottlieb, were among the most popular performers of the era. Hassilev, a banjo and guitar player, demonstrated his baritone voice not only in English but also in French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian, which he spoke fluently. His bandmates were equally educated, with Gottlieb holding a degree in musicology and Yarbrough working as a bouncer to fund his Greek studies.

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The Limeliters, known for their sophistication and humour, entertained audiences in coffeehouses and college halls with a repertoire that included earnest folk classics like The Hammer Song as well as playful tunes like Have Some Madeira, M'Dear, The Ballad of Sigmund Freud, and Charlie the Midnight Marauder.

During their height of popularity from 1960 to 1962, the Limeliters kept a hectic schedule, performing 300 gigs per year and producing many albums, two of which, Tonight in Person (1960) and The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters (1961), charted in the Billboard Top 10.

Limeliters members Alex Hassilev (left) with bandmates Lou Gottlieb and Glenn Yarbrough Limeliters members Alex Hassilev (left) with bandmates Lou Gottlieb and Glenn Yarbrough
Limeliters members Alex Hassilev (left) with bandmates Lou Gottlieb and Glenn Yarbrough

Hassilev was born on June 11, 1932, in Paris to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Leonide and Tamara Hassilev. His family moved to New York in 1939 owing to the looming fear of war with Germany. Despite his scholastic success, Hassilev disliked the perceived elitism of Harvard University and then the University of Chicago, eventually leaning towards acting and folk music in New York City.

This is when he met Glenn Yarbrough, beginning a collaboration that resulted in the formation of the Limeliters. With Lou Gottlieb joining their ranks, the band quickly gained fame, landing a record deal with Elektra Records and enjoying success on stage and in the studio.

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Despite their onstage harmony, offstage disputes arose, garnering them the nickname the Bicker Brothers. Yarbrough left after a plane crash in 1962, and the band officially split in 1965. Hassilev continued with his solo careers in music and acting, although his folk origins remained central to his career.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, and permanently from 1981 onwards, Hassilev sporadically reformed the Limeliters, bringing in new members as previous members died. Despite changes in popularity, the band continued to perform for their fans.

Hassilev said about his career: "In order to remain popular, you have to outlive your competition." He retired from the Limeliters in 2006, but continued to perform with them on occasion until his death.

His first marriage, to Ginger Stanjer, ended in divorce. He married Gladys Rios in 1976. Along with her, he is survived by his son, David, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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