THE IMPORTANT TOM WILSON
Extraordinary that it's now 35 years since Bob Dylan's first “electric" record producer died. But Tom Wilson was much more than Dylan's man. Here's the entry on him from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia :
Wilson, Tom [1931 - 1978]
Thomas Blanchard Wilson Jr. was born on March 25, 1931 in Waco, Texas, where he attended the A.J. Moore High School - ‘the first school in Waco designed to educate the Negro youth’, as its Historical Marker now notes. Founded in 1881, its third Principal was Tom Wilson’s grandfather, Prof. B. T. Wilson; its fourth was Tom’s father, who took over in 1934. The school’s inspiration was Booker T. Washington and his maxim ‘Take what you have and make what you want’; the school’s motto was ‘A better Moore High through better behavior’; and though its list of what it aimed to instil in its pupils included ‘To refrain from excessive theatre going’, in general Tom Wilson became an exemplar of the school’s positive stance, however old-fashioned and ameliorative it seems today.
Wilson, tall, dark and handsome and an affable young man with a throaty Texan drawl, became a Republican and, as 1970s friend Coral Browning said bluntly: ‘Tom felt let down by blacks. He felt that after the civil rights successes of the ’50s and ’60s, blacks should stop complaining and get on with it. He felt they caused many of their own problems by carrying such large chips on their shoulders.’
Wilson thus occupies an interesting position in the history of those decades from the voteless 1930s to the civil rights struggle and beyond: the son and grandson of educated middle-class blacks inside the segregated school system of the South, he gained a place at Harvard, becoming President of the Young Republican Club and graduating cum laude in 1954. On the other hand he also helped run the Harvard New Jazz Society, got involved with radio station WHRB, moved to New York, founded the jazz record label Transition in 1955, produced radio programmes as from 1958, became jazz A&R director for Savoy, then worked for United Artists and Audio Fidelity before being hired as a staff producer for Columbia in 1963 - the first black producer in the history of the company - by which time he was also executive assistant to the New York State Commission for Human Rights.
Not only did he become Bob Dylan’s producer from Freewheelin’ to Highway 61 Revisited - which is to say, the producer of many of Dylan’s ‘protest’ anthems, the work that saw him go electric and of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ - but then when he moved over to MGM he signed FRANK ZAPPA’s Mothers of Invention and put his own career on the line to let them make an extravagant double-LP as their début release, throughout which they were articulating the kind of anarchic bohemian ‘filth’ that was anathema to Wilson himself (though in truth, of course, Zappa himself was an obsessively hard-working disciplinarian, very anti drugs and alcoholic excess). Zappa said years later: ‘Tom Wilson was a great guy. He had vision, you know? And he really stood by us...’ While producing the second Mothers album, Absolutely Free, Wilson was also supervising the Velvet Underground’s début album The Velvet Underground and Nico. Wilson was, too, the hands-on producer of its track ‘Sunday Morning’, and (albeit against the band’s wishes) edited and re-mixed the album’s other most important tracks: ‘Heroin’, ‘Venus in Furs’, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ and the especially brilliant ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’.
Sometimes his interventionism paid off and sometimes it didn’t. It paid off on The Velvet Underground and Nico; it paid off when, after producing the acoustic SIMON & Garfunkel début album Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., he took its track ‘The Sound Of Silence’, added a rhythm section and some electric guitar, issued it as a single without consulting them at all, and gave them a no.1 hit.
It didn’t work with Bob Dylan when Wilson tried the same thing on him first; nor did it work, in the end, when Wilson tried to make decisions over Dylan’s head in Dylan’s presence in the studio. To start with, though, they got on fine. Wilson replaced JOHN HAMMOND for the final Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan session on April 24, 1963 - a year to the day after the first session - because ALBERT GROSSMAN tried playing games about Dylan’s Columbia contract and Hammond rightly felt that Dylan himself was not trying to walk out on him or the label, that a producer switch would be diplomatic and maybe that a young black producer would be harder to reject. Even if that were a factor in the mix, it would not have weighed heavily: one thing Hammond, Dylan and Tom Wilson had in common was an absolutely undeflected view that people were individuals, not race representatives. When Dylan ‘dropped out of’ supporting civil rights and singing ‘protest’ songs, he always explained this in exactly these terms: that he knew, and wanted to keep on knowing, black people as people, not blacks; and Wilson felt the same. ‘He lived his life unapologetically as a human being, not as a black man,’ said his friend, the cookie magnate Wally ‘Famous’ Amos.
That session yielded ‘Girl of the North Country’, ‘Masters of War’, ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ - plus the lovely ‘Walls of Red Wing’, given to Witmark as a music publishing demo, circulated widely many years ago and finally released on The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 in 1991. (Hammond is credited as the producer of this track on the box set liner notes.)
When they worked together on Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, beginning on August 6, 1963, Wilson rightly allowed Dylan full control. That first day yielded the great, much-neglected ‘North Country Blues’ and attempted several other things, among them the stellar ‘Seven Curses’: another recording that circulated in bootleg form many years ago and saw official release in 1991. The next day’s session yielded four album tracks: ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, ‘With God On Our Side’, ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’ and the glorious ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’. What a day’s work. Further sessions on August 12 and October 23 were separated by momentous events: Dylan’s star-making appearance at the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL that August 17, the appearance at the historic March on Washington D.C. on the 28th, and the less career-important but artistically significant writing of ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ at JOAN BAEZ’s house in California, followed by a performance that no-one appears to have taped, of the two of them sharing vocals on a début outing for that song when Dylan made a guest appearance at her Hollywood Bowl concert on October 9.
The August 12 session had yielded various further outtakes for retrospective issue nearly 30 years later - the turgid ‘Paths of Victory’, the worse ‘Only A Hobo’ and the magnificent ‘Moonshiner’ (among the greatest vocal performances in Bob Dylan’s entire canon) - but nothing for The Times They Are A-Changin’; but October 24, while adding ‘Eternal Circle’ and ‘Suze (The Cough Song)’ to the list of material held back till 1991, also gave them the album title track plus the lovely ‘One Too Many Mornings’. A further session on Hallowe’en finished off the album with ‘Restless Farewell’. A few days earlier, Wilson had been in charge of the recording of Dylan’s concert at Carnegie Hall (October 26, 1963) from which, as from his New York Town Hall concert of April 12, it had been planned to make a live album, Bob Dylan In Concert, which got as far as a tracks selection and a Columbia job number (77110) but never did see release. No producer credit is given on the tracks issued retrospectively.
The fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, was recorded entirely in one day, June 9, 1964, again with Wilson producing. They also came out with a long-since circulated take of ‘Denise’, the magnificent ‘Mama You Been On My Mind’ and early attempts at ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. The album was released to a mixed response in August, and on Hallowe’en Wilson supervised another live recording, Dylan’s New York Philharmonic Hall concert, which was released 30 years later as Bob Dylan Live 1964 - The Bootleg Series Vol.6.
Things between them changed after that. In December 1964, Wilson got drummer BOBBY GREGG and others to overdub backings onto the Bob Dylan track ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ (released in 1995 on the Highway 61 Interactive CD-ROM, with packaging that implied that the whole recording had been made back in 1961) and onto three tracks from the Freewheelin’ sessions, ‘Mixed Up Confusion’, ‘Rocks And Gravel’ and ‘Corrina Corrina’, all of which had to have their original backing tracks removed for the benefit of this futile exercise. In an otherwise entertaining and acute article on its subject, ‘The Amazing Tom Wilson’, blogger Eric Olsen makes the absurd claim that it was Wilson’s electric overdubs on ‘House of the Rising Sun’ that planted the seed for Dylan’s electric flowering (‘The folk spell was broken’). Wilson doesn’t need his achievements augmented by that sort of claim; it’s enough that he was the producer of Bringing It All Back Home - achieved in two days of sessions in mid-January 1965 - and of the first sessions for Highway 61 Revisited, that June 15 and 16.
The first of these two days yielded the fast version of ‘It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’, one take of which - the wrong take, it might be argued - was released in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, as was the same day’s ‘Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence’ and a fragment of an early try at ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. (Other outtakes of this were issued in 1995 on the Highway 61 Interactive CD-Rom.) Far more importantly, the second day’s session produced - and Tom Wilson produced - the classic take of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.
It was Wilson who brought in AL KOOPER, to watch and play a bit of subsidiary guitar. The story of how Kooper switched to organ, Wilson tolerated this, Bob Dylan liked the organ part and got it turned up in the mix and it led to the perfect take of the song - all this is well known: but a key exchange between Wilson and Dylan in the course of all this has usually been played down. When Dylan says ‘Turn the organ up’ and Wilson replies ‘But he’s not an organ player’ Dylan is often quoted as merely saying, ‘I don’t care: turn it up’ - but in fact what Dylan says is ‘Hey, now don’t tell me who’s an organ player and who’s not. Just turn the organ up.’ The difference is small but telling; in that Dylan response is contained all his resentment, perhaps going back a considerable time, at what he perceived as Wilson’s high-handedness: an attitude on Wilson’s part that means he’s always going to under-attend the artist’s instincts and is likely to fail to catch the moment as it flies.
Fair and reasonable or not, that was the end between them. When the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited resumed on July 29, Wilson had been replaced by BOB JOHNSTON.
Among many other distinctions in a relatively short life, Tom Wilson also produced the Blues Project and ‘discovered’ and signed Hugh Masekela, went into music publishing and was a founding co-owner of the Record Plant studios in New York. At 47, he died of a heart attack, at home in LA, on September 6, 1978.
[Main sources: Eric Olsen, ‘The Amazing Tom Wilson’, posted 23 Oct, 2003 on the Blogcritics.Org web page http://blogcritics.org/archives/2003/10/23/154347.php, incl. for the quotes from Coral Browning, Frank Zappa & Wally Amos; Waco City Directory 1934; Social Security Deaths Index; Moore High School data from its alumni reunion webpages seen online 21 Feb 2006 at www.wacoisd.org/ajmoore/alumni/history.htm; other sources include Al Kooper, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards, New York: Billboard, 1998 and Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, New York: Beech Tree Books / William Morrow, 1986.]