As part of the University of Washington-bred vocal group the Brothers Four, Mike Kirkland released hit records, performed for presidents, opened for the Beatles, and established a global following. Then he gave it all up and became a Bellevue-based leader in helping kids struggling with substance abuse problems.

Kirkland, who spent his final decade retired in La Conner, Skagit County, died Aug. 20 at age 82, of cancer. 

At age 19, Kirkland met John Paine, Bob Flick and Dick Foley at the UW, where all were members of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Each was a fan of calypso songs and folk revivalists such as Pete Seeger. The Brothers Four sang and played guitar, upright bass and banjo, and performed informally on campus.

“On my birthday, they serenaded me at my sorority,” says Janice Kirkland, Mike’s younger sister.

A prank call from a rival fraternity in 1958 led Kirkland and the others to believe they had an audition at Seattle’s Colony Club. When they turned up, the club’s manager hired them anyway for weekend appearances.

A trip to San Francisco brought the Brothers Four to the stage of the legendary nightclub the hungry i. Soon, they were signed to Columbia Records, where their brand of alternately haunting and rousing harmonies resulted in a nationwide hit single, “Greenfields,” and Top 20 albums.

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The group recorded television and movie theme songs, appeared with Bob Dylan on a TV special, met John F. Kennedy at his inauguration celebration, and campaigned for Lyndon B. Johnson.

“At the White House, Johnson put his arms around us and said, ‘Now, fellas, I want you to go play for the boys in Vietnam,’” says Flick. “Mike wanted to be James Bond. He loved adventure. We performed five times a day in Vietnam, on two tours, traveling by chopper.”

“Mike was ambitious, driven to see us succeed,” says Paine. “He had a good mind for it, with a great sense of humor. When something would happen on stage, like a broken string, he’d cover with a joke. He’d tease couples in the audience.”

The album cover for “The Brothers Four: Greatest Hits” features Mike Kirkland, left, along with Bob Flick, John Paine and Dick Foley. (Bruce McKim / The Seattle Times)
The album cover for “The Brothers Four: Greatest Hits” features Mike Kirkland, left, along with Bob Flick, John Paine and Dick Foley. (Bruce McKim / The Seattle Times)

Michael Duane Kirkland was born in Everett on Dec. 23, 1937, to Duane and Frances Kirkland. The family moved to Marysville, where Kirkland was both student body president and quarterback for the football team at Marysville High School.

Kirkland attended Whitman College in Walla Walla on a scholarship, then transferred to the UW. He studied premedicine until his show business career took off. In 1961 he married Brenda Jo Smith, whom he met on a Brothers Four college tour. The death of their 2-year-old son, Michael Briggs Kirkland, from pneumonia in September 1968, followed by the birth of daughter Brynn two months later, led Kirkland to leave the group and stay close to his young family in Arizona. Another daughter, Shannon, was born 14 months later.

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Kirkland’s alcoholism and sobriety brought him back to the UW, where he focused on substance abuse and addiction in adolescence. He established a private practice in Bellevue, becoming a local pioneer in a relatively new field of family therapy.

“He was sent the toughest cases, the toughest kids, and he would connect,” says his daughter Shannon Kirkland Salmina. “He just had a way of making them feel heard and understood.”

“He was gifted not only with his knowledge and experience, but in working with adolescents, penetrating their denials,” says Nancy Thorn, a therapist who mentored under Kirkland. “It wasn’t a job for him, it was a journey.”

Kirkland’s marriage ended in 1975. A later marriage to Marilyn Kean also ended in divorce. During his last years, Kirkland had a loving partner in Betty Sloan, whom he’d met in high school.

Kirkland returned to the stage one last time in 2019, joining his successor in the Brothers Four, Mark Pearson, along with Paine and two other current members, Mike McCoy and Karl Olsen.

Even when he couldn’t talk in his final weeks, says his daughter Brynn Kirkland Cox, he was grateful for all he had. “He had this presence and impact. He made you feel so special, that he really cared about you.”

In addition to his partner, sister, daughters and ex-wives, Kirkland is survived by stepchildren Michelle and William Richmond, and six grandchildren. A memorial service will be planned for a later date; donations in Kirkland’s name can be made to the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle.