The Man Who Put Electricity Into Dylan
by Michael Watts, Melody Maker, January 31, 1976
Tom Wilson is an elegant, very tall (6ft 4in) black American, a former Harvard man who talks a little like Bill Cosby but whose pencil-thin appearance makes him resemble more a basketball player.
Charming and cosmopolitan in outlook, his youthfulness is betrayed only by grey patches in his small, trim beard. He admits to being “fortyish.”
In the Sixties, perhaps only Phil Spector rivaled his track record as a producer, although his name is not even as well-known generally as that of Bob Johnston, who replaced him on the production of Bob Dylan’s sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited.
Wilson produced Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home, and claims credit for four tracks on Freewheelin’ and “Like A Rolling Stone.”
He also made Simon and Garfunkel‘s Wednesday Morning, 3 AM that included “The Sound Of Silence”; The Mothers Of Invention‘s Freak Out!; The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat and (mostly) The Velvet Underground And Nico; Nick Ashford’s California Soul, and six top 40 singles for The Animals, amongst them “Sky Pilot” and “Monterey.”
The New York Times Magazine dedicated an issue to him in which he was described as “a psychoanalyst with rhythm.”
And when he joined Columbia Records in 1963 he became, he says, the first black producer there. His reputation rests securely on the successes of those years.
Since 1969, however, when he immersed himself in his own independent publishing and production company, portentously titled The Wilson Organization, he has not done nearly as much recording, although he got a gold record, apparently, for the song “Don’t Bogart That Joint” from the Easy Rider soundtrack.
Perhaps, too, his fame might have been greater if he had not thought of himself as a “very low-key person.”
He never did hang out, he says. He has never been in cliques. And the reason he got on so well with Frank Zappa and Paul Simon was that they had interests other than music.
If he had been more publicity-conscious, he adds with a slight regret …
Now Wilson is in London, together with his partner of six months, a hugely-moustachioed and solid American named Larry Fallon, of about Wilson’s age, who has a pertinent reputation as an arranger, both for Broadway shows and for a wide variety of records.
It was Fallon who arranged and assembled the musicians for Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
He and Wilson have actually known each other since 1965, when Fallon, who is also a producer, brought to Wilson, then the East Coast head of A and R for MGM, a record he had cut by one Billy Prince that had just been turned down by RCA.
They have variously worked together, on Nick Ashford and the first Velvets album, for instance, but they are currently producing, at CBS Studios, someone called Tony Bird.
There was talk of Linda Lewis, but it seems her next record might be by Allen Toussaint.
Now, of all people, Lena Zavarone is being considered by them. One trembles, both in anticipation and trepidation.
They are also here because they have joined forces with NAMJAC, a company run by Danny Sims, the manager of Johnny Nash, who once recorded with MGM.
Nash is a key figure in an ambitious pet project devised by Wilson and Fallon.
They have written an opera in rhythm and blues, “Mind Flyers Of Gondwana,” that weaves together the legend of Atlantis and the story of the black man in America from his roots in Africa.
Nash plays the lead, and others earmarked are Gladys Knight (as a queen), Labelle, Gil Scott-Heron, Melba Moore and Minnie Riperton.
The Righteous Brothers play Mason and Dixon, and Bob Marley, it is hoped, will record some reggae tracks for the soundtrack, which will be a double album on Buddah.
They are trying to get Stanley Kubrick interested in a film version. These boys think big, and they also think often.
Wilson, whose enthusiasm is cogent and articulate, unrolls a large, glossy sheet of paper in an attempt to explain the opera. On it is a cartoon story of the work. He points to one of the inky squares.
“That’s where the R and B dee-jay comes in,” he motions cheerfully. “We’re gonna get Frankie Crocker to do that.”
“Yeah, yeah,” nods Fallon energetically. He looks bulky and uncomfortable in an armchair, and is prepared to let the responsibility for explanations rest with his partner.
They are pleasantly matched companions, a couple of pros enjoying an adventure together.
Wilson is from a middle-class family in Waco, Texas, where his father was in insurance and his mother a librarian, and he likes to confound the stereotype of the Negro as a primitive down-at-heel.
“Everybody in America prefers to write about the people that come from the ghettoes,” he said with some intensity, “but most of us don’t.”
He was talking in the Knightsbridge house-cum-office of NAMJAC, and occasionally being interrupted by long-distance calls from America, one of which involved a furious and lengthy conversation with the artist Vernon Burch (“Now he says he wants a co-production credit,” exclaimed Wilson in exasperation as he put the phone down. Then immediately he became delightful once more).
His passion for music could be traced back to his father who, in 1936, conducted a Texan choir in the Texas State Centennial, and he recalls jam sessions of his youth held on Saturday afternoon in his grandfather’s rug laundry in Waco.
He haunted the jazz stations there, and he learned to play saxophone and trombone, too.
After a year at Fisk University in Nashville, he entered Harvard to study economics — from his he was to graduate cum laude in 1954 and was caught up in the productions of the local Cambridge station, WHRB.
With friends he started a jazz club in the college, and they began recording their own shows.
Soon he found himself knowing a lot of jazz musicians, and one night, he says, the girlfriend of “a fellow now in the UN (a big degree in anthropology)” urged them to cut a record.
Since she had an annuity, they readily complied. The first record on Transition was Jazz In A Stable, recorded at Goddard College in Vermont, where Archie Shepp was a student, and the first artist to be signed was Donald Byrd, at the prompting of Cannonball Adderley.
“He said ‘go to Detroit and you’ll discover all these fabulous musicians.’ I had to go and see Donald’s father, who was a minister, first.
“He wanted to look me over before I could sign his son.”
Sun Ra was another of several avant garde jazzmen he recorded before Transition, begun on a $500 loan, folded after almost four years.
There were also Odetta, Coltrane, Horace Silver and Art Blakey. In all, he cut 22 albums, for which he also designed the covers and did the photography.
Yet his achievement went unrecognised for some time, until eventually he got a production job with United Artists.
“I paid my creditors 92 cents in [sic] the dollar,” he remarks now with a hint of primness, “and came to New York.”
He was with UA for three years and then in 1960 he became the jazz A and R director with Savoy Records, the company formed in Newark, New Jersey by a Sam Goldwyn caricature named Herman Lubinsky.
Of Lubinsky he has at least one amusing recollection: “‘Wilson,’ he said to me when I started, ‘we think you are a genius. We will give you carte blanche. Just don’t spend over $300 an album’.”
As it transpired, much of his work anyway lay in repackaging Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, Errol Garner and Lester Young.
He left Savoy in 1962, and spent a year as associate recording director with Audio Fidelity Records of New York, which required such diverse duties as recording the First International Bossa Nova Festival and the theme from the Naked City TV programme.
He was also nominated for a Grammy for a “best stereo demonstration album” called Stereo Spectacular.
It would seem to have been a rather peculiar year, and he ought not to have been ungrateful when its end came, with a job at Columbia in New York.
It happened because he had replaced Quincy Jones at a meeting of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences on the role of the A and R man, and Goddard Lieberson, then the extraordinarily gifted head of CBS-Columbia Records (sometimes known as “God”), heard him and offered a job as staff producer.
He was placed under the tutelage of David Kapralik, the head of Columbia A and R, who went on to become manager of Sly Stone, and whom he now carefully esteems.
“He was a great teacher,” he responds. “He was theoretical, for one thing. He’d say, ‘listen to these 200 records and categorise them.’
“It would make you really dig beneath their surface and find out what was good. One should not kowtow to ‘feel,’ y’know.”
It was during these two years at Columbia that his career was really made. To begin with, there was Bob Dylan.
“I was introduced by David Kapralik,” he recalls, “at a time when I was not properly working for Columbia. I was being used by them, shall we say.
“He said, ‘why don’t you guys stick around and do a coupla things?’ I said, ‘what do you mean? I don’t even work for Columbia.’
“What’s more, I didn’t even particularly like folk music. 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 there in the studio, I said, ‘if you put some background to this you might have a white Ray Charles with a message.’
“But it wasn’t until a year later that everyone agreed that we should put a band behind him. I had to find a band. But it was a very gradual process.”
Nevertheless, Wilson takes full credit for Dylan’s eventual conversion to electric music. “It came from me,” he states decisively.
Dylan, he goes on, was quite easy to work with. The only trouble he had was in getting him to stand still in front of a microphone.
“He always had his songs written out when he came into the studio,” he says, acknowledging this fellow professionalism.
But after cutting “Like A Rolling Stone” they fell out.
Wilson shrugs: “He said ‘maybe we should try Phil Spector’.” That was the end of the relationship. Now he laughs, good-naturedly.
“A few weeks later the record went gold,” he twinkles, “but I know for a fact it only sold 900,000.”
At Columbia he also signed Tim Hardin, discovered Al Kooper, and produced Pete Seeger and Dion with the Belmonts, but no success was greater than his recording of Simon and Garfunkel of “The Sound Of Silence.”
The story of how this simple, acoustic tune that barely anyone had heard, was stiffened with a backing track and then became a huge hit, is well-known. But Wilson also reveals the background to the original track.
It appears he met Simon when he was song-plugging for a publisher named E.B. Marks.
At the time Wilson’s chief aim was to create a black Peter, Paul and Mary, but he was so taken with Simon’s songs, one of which was “He Was My Brother,” that he decided to record them on an “experimental budget” (“that means fooling around with an artist who’s not signed”).
This was the rough draft of Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, and on the strength of it Simon was signed to Columbia.
Wilson takes up the story: “So then he says, ‘I have a friend at Columbia (University, in New York). Let me bring my friend up here. We used to sing together.’
“So Arthur came, and on the session I used a young engineer, Roy Halee.”
He smiles and pauses. “Yeah, you’ve heard of him. … So we put this record out, and it sold maybe a thousand copies. That was it.
“But one day Stan Kaven, a promotion guy, came to me and said it had suddenly sold X amount of copies. I said to him, ‘Hey, be cool.’
“But he said yeah, and he said most of them were sold in Miami. He said, according to our guy in Miami it was ‘Sound Of Silence’ they liked, but they wanted a beat put to it.”
His smile becomes even broader. “So I took Dylan’s backing band and went and overdubbed it, everything, on my own, ’cause they [S&G] weren’t around — they’d taken off after the record hadn’t done anything.
“In fact, the single was held up from July to late September or October, by which time I’d left for MGM — more money — but, of course, it went to number one.”
That’s not quite the end of the story, however, because Wilson says the duo thought their names so unfashionable they should change them to Landers [Landis] and Garfield.
“They thought, being Jewish names, the jocks might not play the record. I said to them, ‘Gentlemen, this is 1965. It’s time to stop all that.’
“I thought it over at a marketing meeting. I thought, ‘Once you have heard “Simon and Garfunkel” you’ll never forget it’.” And so it proved.”
Today he still has a great deal of time for them, referring to Simon as a “Salinger from Queens.”
A very subtle animal, he says: “He came to me to sell tunes, and he sold me! He’s a very, very intelligent being.”
But in 1965 Wilson had gone to MGM and become memorably involved with Frank Zappa, to whom he was introduced at his home by his manager.
There he found Zappa with a big roll of brown paper, perhaps not unlike that drawn up by he and Fallon, on which was described the whole of Freak Out!, the Mothers’ first album.
“He knew what every term was, every concept,” he recalls with relish. “He would say, ‘at this point I need 150 people to shout “s—,” and then you put echo on it.’
“I spent $25,000 on Freak Out! without telling the company anything about it. I promoted them myself.
“We went on a cross-country tour and sold 47,000 copies. I had to sell it or lose my job. Then a few weeks later Lou Reed came by.”
Reed bore with him a copy of the first album, half-finished by Andy Warhol, which Wilson proceeded to buy for $3,000: “And it sold. That surprised everyone, too.”
He reflects, perhaps surprisingly, upon the Velvets’ professionalism. White Light/White Heat took only a week to make, he states, and that included the mixing: “A lot of the thing was that Lou would help with the textures.”
There was much work at MGM for three years, notably with Nick Ashford — whose “California Soul,” he says, was written at his instigation, as an “answer” to “California Dreamin'” — and The Animals, whose previous record he had much admired.
He still marvels that “House Of The Rising Sun” was cut in 45 minutes, or so he had been told by Mike Jeffrey, once the manager of both The Animals and Jimi Hendrix.
Basically, he disagrees with the notion that the producer is the artist, who sees his musicians as instruments.
“I think Spector took this thing to its biggest point in the mid-Sixties,” he elaborates, “and then The Beatles came along and took it down.”
Wilson is also particularly proud of his gift of discovering and packaging significant music. “I like to take someone you never heard of,” he says, “and make him a household name.”
He left MGM in 1968, the year he co-founded the Record Plant in New York — he sold out his interest in early 1973 — and his career took a slightly different tack.
Although he had the gold record with “Don’t Bogart That Joint” and produced what is described, on printed information about him, as the “first rhythm and blues album featuring the new Jamaican reggae beat and Moog electronic synthesizer” — it was called Detroit 1984 — he has been much less active in recording.
He says he became more interested in helping other producers. Thus, at the Record Plant he took the job of vice president of sales.
Also, he has been leasing the services of The Wilson Organisation to Motown Records, “a family company” in which he feels greatly at home: “Remember, I had never worked in a company that was basically oriented to R and B.”
There he learned “that singles magic,” and there he developed a healthy respect for Motown’s president, Berry Gordy, whose approach to picking hits is, apparently, nothing if not calm and collected.
“He would sit there as the records were played, one after another, and he would say ‘that’s a smash,’ ‘that’s mediocre,’ or ‘that’ stinks,’ all with the same smile on his face and in the same tone of voice.”
The thought makes him chuckle happily.
In the past year, however, he says his lust for producing has returned, and this could be connected to his feeling that music is undergoing some great changes.
He sees a ripe future in video cassettes, but he also believes that songs are beginning to count again, which presumes he thought there was a time when they didn’t.
He takes great comfort, too, from the fact that the managing director of English CBS, Maurice Oberstein, has recently been to see him record. “It’s just like it was with Dylan, when Lieberson was there,” he notes with pleased surprise.
The key to this man’s nature is that he likes to have fun, and producing has once more become enjoyable. New experiences are important to him. People count.
“You know,” he says, as he slips on his jacket before leaving, “one of the most fantastic things about this business is just meeting people who are hanging out, who all have some interesting things to tell you, that makes the whole job fascinating.”
He should be a journalist, I reply in parting.