John Simon, 1992Producer/musician/composer John Simon on Tom Wilson:

I love your site, but it made me sad because nothing could come close to the real deal. When Tom died I felt like I had been crushed by a boulder. He was so full of life, so warm. Tom dying young was just plain WRONG!

I showed up at Columbia Records as a trainee destined for the A&R Department in 1963, not long after Tom had joined the company. A lot of established producers at 799 Seventh Avenue were jealous of their turf and not inclined to share secrets with a 22-year-old upstart. But Tom was as open as his smile. “Come on in!,” he said as he waved me into his office.

We had bonds because, for one thing, we were both counter-culture Ivy Leaguers who were anything but conventional Ivy Leaguers. We each soaked up the educational component that our respective alma maters provided, but we also spent a lot of campus time absorbed in jazz.

Janis Joplin, a bottle of Southern Comfort, a paper airplane, and John Simon, 1968 (photo: Elliot Landy)

Janis Joplin, a bottle of Southern Comfort, a paper airplane, and John Simon, 1968 (photo: Elliot Landy)

A record producer’s 9-to-5 life, when he’s not in the studio, is very unstructured, up for grabs. Tom and I spent a lot of time shooting the shit. As in Wally Amos’s recollection, a lot of our conversation was about women, particularly the physical attributes of any new secretaries arriving on the scene. Ah, youth! Although I never felt aware of any racial component with Tom, I remember him talking about a young woman he was fixing up on a blind date who told him she preferred men with blue eyes. “I got her a blue-eyed black man,” he laughed.

A lot of people assume that a record producer is responsible for the sound quality of a recording. That’s not always so. That’s the province of the engineer, particularly at Columbia where the engineers were unionized and producers were not allowed to touch the studio console or any of the equipment. Tom’s gift was his brain. He was a great Idea Man. He could tell an engineer that he wanted this or that sort of sound, but his idea to add a rock rhythm section to “Sounds of Silence,” for instance, was just that — an idea. His mind generated ideas beyond the recording studio to marketing, sales, and design. A gifted man — and a man of taste.

Tom told me that before Columbia he’d worked under an A&R boss who made a lot of doo-wop records. He said the guy had a card file of nonsense syllables for the background singers so there’d be no repetition from record to record. He’d ask Tom, “How about ‘Shoo-bop-bop doo-wah?'” Tom would say, “Nah, we used that on ‘My Girl’s So Fine’,” and the guy would pull out another card.

Tom was always up for doing something wacky. Columbia had its sales conventions during the summer in the hottest places imaginable: Puerto Rico, or Miami. The A&R staff went too, just for fun. I remember Tom and I bet some other conventioneer that we could play an entire game of tennis in Las Vegas in the middle of July without passing out. We played at midnight — and won the bet.

October 1, 2013

Updated: October 3, 2013