Fisher died Friday at his home in Rye, N.Y., of a bone marrow disease, his wife, Dr. Elaine K. Haagen, said Thursday.
Fisher was a freshman at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1958 when he and four other fellow students formed the band. United Artists released Fisher’s arrangement of the spiritual “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” while they were still in school. It soared to the top of the best-seller chart under the title “Michael,” earning the group a gold record.
Other hits followed, including “Cotton Fields” and “The Gypsy Rover,” as did appearances on Ed Sullivan’s and Johnny Carson’s shows.
The group began to frequently play the Gaslight Cafe in New York’s Greenwich Village section and came into contact with such greats as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
They disbanded in 1964 but came together again in 1987 for a concert for their 25th college reunion. Since then, they have performed 10-12 concerts a year, said Ken Greengrass, the group’s longtime manager. The band last performed together in August in Massachusetts.
Fisher “was writing 99 percent of the music and doing the vocal arrangements” for the band, Greengrass said, in addition to being its lead singer. Fisher was only member of the band to make music his profession, working as a songwriter, arranger and producer for movies and television shows such as the “Fall Guy.”
“The sound of the Highwaymen was Fisher,” said Greengrass, who has managed Art Garfunkel and other artists. “His tenor made the group very recognizable.”
Before Fisher died, the group had been discussing a number of projects, including a PBS special and a Woodstock-like show with other performing artists.
Band member Steve Butts, a retired university administrator who was the group’s banjo player, said he and the other two surviving members were at Fisher’s bedside the day before he died.
Band member Bob Burnett had a career as a trusts lawyer and Chan Daniels, who died in 1975, had been an executive for Capitol Records.
Fisher is “the guy responsible for one of the seminal folk groups of 1960s,” said Steve Trott, who played mandolin and guitar for the group and made a career as a federal appeals court judge and worked in the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan. “He’s the guy who arranged the biggest folk hit of all time, ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.’“
Trott called Fisher a musical genius who knew opera, classical, folk music and every other kind of music like the back of his hand.
“He was able to put it all together and meld it into the Highwaymen sound,” he said.
The rock ‘n’ roll magazine Blitz has called the Highwaymen’s recording of their 1963 concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the best reissue or compilation of 2009. It also called its album When the Village Was Green one of the best releases of 2007.
The reason “Michael” was such a big hit, Trott said, was because Fisher “put a couple of minor chords into it that hadn’t been there before ... and that made all the difference.”
He told Butts to whistle “and that was it. It took about 15 minutes,” Trott said. “He did that all the time. He had this touch for folk music that was remarkable.”
A memorial service was planned for June 13 at the Clear View School in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., a treatment center for children with emotional and mental illness where Fisher served on the board of directors, Haagen said.
To learn more about The Highwaymen, click here for the group’s website.