Faces in the Crowd: Tom Wilson

Ah, yes...after staring at the title of this blog post, I'm sure many of the readers of this blog are thinking to themselves, "Who the heck was Tom Wilson?!"  Tom Wilson initially became known as a jazz producer and as time went on, he eventually established himself as an A-List record producer in the mid-to-late sixties ,producing records for artists from the folk-rock and psychedelic genres.  Within a five-year period, he produced albums by The Velvet Underground, The Mothers of Invention, Bob Dylan, The Blues Project, Nico, Simon & Garfunkel and the Soft Machine.  It’s ironic that when journalists write about the great record producers of the sixties, his name is rarely mentioned. 

 

In 1950, Wilson was a student at Harvard where he studied political science and economics  While at Harvard, he presided over the Harvard New Jazz Committee.  After graduating cum laude from Harvard, Wilson’s career as a record producer began in 1954 when he started his own record label, Transition Records; working with Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Donald Byrd and other renowned jazz artists.  In 1957, due to his experience in the jazz field, he began working at the United Artists record label.  By 1963, he had secured a position as a staff producer at Columbia Records. 

It was in 1963, that Wilson's career took off like a rocket.  After Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, complained to Columbia Records about continuing to use John Hammond as Dylan’s producer, Wilson was chosen to produce Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. 

 

Bob Neuwirth, Tom Wilson & Bob Dylan

 

Excerpt from a Bob Dylan interview by journalist Bill Flannagan: "Bill Flanagan: Tom Wilson is kind of a mysterious figure, not much is known about him. What did he bring to the party as a producer? Bob Dylan: Tom was a jazz guy, produced a lot of jazz records, mostly Sun Ra. I just turned around one day and he was there. Nowadays they’d call him a producer, but back then they didn’t call him that; he was a typical A&R man, responsible for your repertoire. I didn’t exactly need a repertoire because I had songs of my own, so I didn’t know what an A&R man did. Somebody had to be there from the record company to communicate with the engineer. Back then I don’t think I was ever allowed to talk to an engineer. […] Tom was Harvard-educated but he was street-wise too. When I met him he was mostly into offbeat jazz, but he had a sincere enthusiasm for anything I wanted to do, and he brought in musicians like Bobby Gregg and Paul Griffin to play with me. Those guys were first class, they had insight into what I was about. Most studio musicians had no idea, they hadn’t listened to folk music or blues or anything like that. I think working with me opened up Tom’s world too, because after working with me he started recording groups like The Velvet Underground and The Mothers of Invention. Tom was a genuinely good guy and he was very supportive."

Excerpt from an article by Michael Watts The Man Who Put Electricity Into Dylan, Melody Maker 1976: "It was during his two years at Columbia that his career was really made. To begin with, there was Bob Dylan. “I didn’t even particularly like folk music,” said Wilson. “I’d been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane, and I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. This guy played like the dumb guys. But then these words came out. I was flabbergasted. I said to Albert Grossman, who was in the studio, ‘If you put some background to this you might have a white Ray Charles with a message.’”

“Wilson would be Dylan's producer through mid-1965 and would be an important figure in Dylan's transition to folk-rock by the time 1965 dawned. In December 1964, Wilson took the unusual step of overdubbing electric instruments on three songs that Dylan had recorded in 1961 or 1962, including House of the Rising Sun. It's not known for sure what Wilson had in mind, but it's likely he was trying to demonstrate, to Dylan and possibly others, what kind of results could be achieved by Dylan recording in a rock style. These were never intended for release.  Wilson produced Dylan's first official rock sessions on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home (discounting his 1962 rock single Mixed Up Confusion).  Wilson was also responsible for choosing most of the musicians who accompanied Dylan on Bringing It All Back Home; he would use some of the same musicians on other important early folk-rock records by Simon & Garfunkel and Dion.  Wilson was also at the helm of Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone single. The spontaneous, almost accidental, contributions of Al Kooper on organ for this track would never have happened but for the fact that he was a good friend of Wilson's, who invited Kooper to the session to watch. Wilson had learned a lot about folk-rock along the way and applied a similar strategy to electrifying Simon & Garfunkel, who in 1965 had all but broken up after a flop acoustic LP on Columbia. Wilson took a track from that album, Sounds of Silence, and overdubbed electric guitars and drums, just as he had done to old Dylan tracks on those experimental recordings of late 1964. The result was a number one hit and brought instant stardom to Simon & Garfunkel, who may not even had continued as a duo if not for Wilson's Sounds of Silence treatment.” (Richie Unterberger, Tom Wilson biography All Music Site

 

It should be noted that Tom Wilson produced some of Dylan’s most memorable albums; The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home.  Wilson also produced the aforementioned track, Like A Rolling Stone, which appeared on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.  Despite the huge commercial success of the Like A Rolling Stone single, Dylan chose to work with Bob Johnston, a Nashville based Columbia staff producer.  In late 1965, after the breakup with Dylan, Wilson was hired as the A&R director for Verve/MGM records on the East Coast.  I think that during this period, Wilson’s past experience with eclectic jazz artists held him in good stead as he signed Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground to the Verve label.  

Richie Unterberger, Tom Wilson biography, All Music Site: “Wilson produced the Mothers of Invention's first two albums, Freak Out! and Absolutely Free, and is listed as executive producer on We're Only in It for the Money. It's likely that even on the first two albums, Zappa was the main force as far as musical direction and arranging went, but Wilson was undeniably helpful in getting Zappa the time and budget to do a debut double LP, Freak Out, that included lots of orchestral musicians -- no small risk for a group's first album.

Wilson’s role in the Velvet Underground's career was more avuncular. He produced only one track on their classic first album, Sunday Morning. The rest of the production was credited to Andy Warhol, although as Wilson supervised the remixing and editing, one might deduce that he had a more significant musical role in the proceedings than Warhol did. Some of the musicians he worked with have recalled that Wilson was not terribly involved in the sessions themselves. Kevin Ayers of the Soft Machine, for instance, remembered that Wilson was on the phone to girlfriends most of the time when the Softs' debut LP was cut, and John Cale of the Velvet Underground recalled that Wilson "had this parade of beautiful girls coming through all the time" in the liner notes to the Velvets' Peel Slowly and See box set. But Wilson did know enough to let the artists play and release controversial, brilliant material their way without unduly interfering -- which is just as important a contribution on a producer's part as the more widely hailed methods of shaping and arranging a performer's material.”

 

1966 proved to be a very busy year for Wilson.  When The Animals no longer wanted to work with British pop music producer, Mickie Most, they chose Tom Wilson to oversee their recordings until 1967 when the original line-up of the band broke up.  Another notable project that Wilson undertook was producing classic album, Projections, by The Blues Project.  During 1966, Wilson also produced albums by such artists as Pete Seeger, Freda Payne, Connie Francis, Hugh Masekela and Eric Burdon. 

Wilson remained active as a producer through the end of the 60’s and into the mid-70’s; working with a wide variety of artists such as Soft Machine, Fraternity of Man, John Mayall, Country Joe & The Fish, Tony Bird and Gil Scott Heron.   Wilson’s last project was Live On The Queen Mary by New Orleans artist, Professor Longhair.  By the end of the 70’s, Wilson’s style of music production was no longer in demand by the current artists of the day. 

From The Daily Beast, The Black Man Behind Bob Dylan: "Wilson was far removed from the music industry of the 1970s; with the swinging ‘60s in the rear view and disco and punk on the horizon, the sounds of Tom Wilson seemed to come from a long-ago age. Wilson rarely gave interviews and wasn’t in the public eye very much in his final years. He died in 1978 of a heart attack."

At the time of Wilson's death, he was working on a project titled The Mindfinders of Gondwanda; a double album of which he had finished three of the four album sides.  This concept album incorporated many different music genres including funk, jazz, country, new wave and disco.  In the course of researching this blog post, I learned that Tom Wilson's daughter, Darien, has the master recording reels for this project so perhaps The Mindfinders of Gondwanda may be released sometime in the future.

 

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Tom Wilson Discography

Official Tom Wilson Site 

Marshall Crenshaw's Tom Wilson Documentary

 

I'll be back with a new blog post next Tuesday!

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