The confluence of Simon and Garfunkel galavanting anew throughout the land and the SACD release of classic Dylan albums led me to think about one of the most unusual and amazing figures in recent recording history.
Do you know this man? He was president of the Young Republican Club and graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1954. He founded the jazz label Transition the following year, and began producing jazz radio programs in 1958. He was jazz A&R director for Savoy Records and executive assistant to the director of the New York State Commission for Human Rights at the same time. He became a producer for Columbia and then MGM in the ’60s where he worked with Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Animals. He discovered, signed and produced the Mothers of Invention, Blues Project, Hugh Masekela, and the Velvet Underground. He was an African American.
Thomas Blanchard Wilson, Jr., Tom Wilson, is one of the forgotten greats of the music business. Wilson was born March 25, 1931, and grew up in Waco, Texas where he attended Moore High School. Wilson was invited to Harvard where he became involved with the Harvard New Jazz Society and radio station WHRB: the latter to which he later credited all of his success in the music business.
Following his work with Savoy and brief stints with United Artists and Audio Fidelity, Wilson was hired as staff producer at Columbia in ’63. Wilson’s most significant contributions to Columbia were his three-and-one-half albums with Bob Dylan. Wilson replaced the credited producer, John Hammond, for the final Freewheelin’ session in April, 1963, in response to Albert Grossman’s (Dylan’s new manager) attempt to get Dylan out of his Columbia contract on a technicality.
The young protest singer could hardly reject the young black man brought in to produce him. Four songs on the album, “Girl From the North Country” (one of Dylan’s best love songs), “Masters of War” (an unsparing antiwar song), “Talkin’ World War lll Blues” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream” were recorded by Wilson and the solo Dylan.
Dylan’s next album was The Times They Are a-Changin’, another classic recorded solo. Wilson’s main input was to roll the tape and nod sagely, but the proof is in the pudding – Wilson pointed Dylan in the direction he needed to be pointed in and got out of the way.
The results include the title track (one of Dylan’s most beloved, enduring songs), the relentless murder/suicide tale “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and another exquisite downer, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The album cemented Dylan’s position as the most important young American recording artist and made him a star.
Another Side of Bob Dylan, with Dylan solo still, includes more classics: “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “All I Really Want to Do” and “My Back Pages.”
Wilson consciously entered into the folk-rock arena when he dubbed a band backing onto an old recording of Dylan doing “House of the Rising Sun.” The result was not released, but the seed was planted and Dylan’s next album, Bringing It All Back Home was half-acoustic, half-electric. The folk spell was broken. Wilson helped ease the nervous Dylan’s transition into an ensemble player, according to Clinton Heylin in Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions.
Dylan’s next, Highway 61 Revisited, was his first all-electric album, and the first song recorded was one of his greatest, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Wilson brought his friend Al Kooper to watch a Bob Dylan session and play a little guitar alongside Mike Bloomfield. Kooper ended up inventing the hypnotic organ sound that dominates the song in a happy accident that both Dylan and Wilson allowed to occur.
The Kooper/Bloomfield meeting led to the Super Sessions album and a band called the Blues Project, which Wilson produced after his move to MGM. Apparently, Dylan and Wilson had an undocumented falling out of some kind, for “Rolling Stone” was their final song together and Bob Johnston took over for the rest of Highway.
Wilson also recorded Simon and Garfunkel’s first album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. The acoustic album wasn’t selling until a Boston DJ started playing “The Sounds of Silence.” Paul Simon was in Europe and Art Garfunkel had gone back to school when Wilson added a rhythm section behind the track and released it as a single. Intrusive maybe, but Wilson’s ears were dead on as the single shot to No. 1 and kick started the career of the most important duo of the ’60s. Then Wilson left for MGM/Verve.
David Anderle was a young talent scout for MGM/Verve in Los Angeles in 1965. Frank Zappa and the Mothers performed a heady mixture of psychedelic blues rock, twisted doo wop, art noise, social commentary, and potty humor in a zone where irony twisted back on itself in an endless loop of inscrutable intentions.
Anderle saw the Mothers at the Red Velvet club and was smitten. He was having a hard time getting anyone at the label to take Zappa seriously when Wilson was hired as head of East Coast A&R. Anderle coaxed Wilson out from New York to see the band, and to Anderle’s amazement, Wilson “got them” right away and the band was signed, launching the careers of both Zappa and Anderle.
Zappa has declared his allegiance to Wilson. “Tom Wilson was a great guy. He had vision, you know? And he really stood by us … I remember the first thing that we recorded was ‘Any Way the Wind Blows,’ and that was okay. Then we did ‘Who Are the Brain Police?’ and I saw him through the glass and he was on the phone immediately to New York going, ‘I don’t know!’ Trying to break it to ’em easy, I guess.”
“I don’t know” or not, Wilson allowed the Mothers’ project to grow from a single into an album, and then from an album into an extravaganza that cost $21,000 at a time when the average rock album ran $5,000. Wilson funded a 22-piece orchestra. The editing was nightmarish. According to Zappa, “Wilson was sticking his neck out. He laid his job on the line by producing the album.”
After Freak Out sold surprisingly well, Wilson went even farther into the unknown with Zappa on Absolutely Free, which dispensed with token pop songs entirely in favor of jazzy meanderings, pseudo-operatic singing and exposition upon Zappa’s recurrent themes of cheese, shoes, the government and his abstemious attitude toward mind altering substances.
While working on Free, Wilson was simultaneously supervising the Velvet Underground’s first album, an album that reveled in the sensory-based hedonism that the puritanical Zappa railed against. Both “art” bands – the garish Mothers and the somber Velvets – shared a surface freakiness that masked the underlying gulf between them. The fact that both bands performed in Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Trip in Los Angeles is one of Warhol’s greatest ironies. It is not known how Wilson felt about this juxtaposition, but it is clear that his mind was large enough to encompass both points of view; perhaps the bands were even the personifications of his own internal contradictions.
The Velvet Underground (name borrowed from an S&M novel) was formed in 1964 when singer/guitarist/songwriter Lou Reed and Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale met and decided to form a rock band (eventually with Sterling Morrison on bass and Maureen Tucker on percussion) drawing on their interest in R&B, the free-form jazz of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, and the classical avant-garde of John Cage and La Monte Young. They sought not just to entertain, but to challenge: to prove that rock ‘n’ roll could be dangerous again.
The Velvets came under the wing of Andy Warhol (who brought in Austrian actress/model/chanteuse Nico) and became fixtures on the Village bohemian art scene.
Tom Wilson had seen the Velvets in the Village in 1965 and wanted to work with them. He told them of his impending move to MGM/Verve and suggested they wait because according to bassist Sterling Morrison in Heylin’s From the Velvets to the Voidoids, Wilson swore “that at Verve we could do anything we wanted. And he was right.”
The Velvet Underground and Nico was produced with money from a shoe salesman by the band under the vague supervision of Andy Warhol. When MGM signed the Velvets, they were given ten hours at an L.A. studio to rerecord four songs with Wilson – not coincidentally, the four most important songs on one of the most important rock albums ever recorded.
“Waiting For the Man,” with a breezy rock groove, follows a Reed character into the black section of town where he deferentially explains to one and all that he isn’t there for the women, but for his “man,” his drug dealer. Reed is almost giddy with self-contempt as his need for drugs drags his social status below that of ghetto dwellers. That defiant self-contempt defines the Velvet’s status as the first post-modern band and the progenitor of the entire punk/new wave movement.
“Heroin” takes the external adventure of obtaining drugs into the internal realm and captures the seduction of addiction with a power, beauty and grace that makes it all the more frightening. “Venus In Furs” captures both the power of the drone (that was so essential to the Velvet’s live sound) and harnesses its ability to convey an ennui of almost black hole density. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is Nico’s finest moment (Wilson also produced her beguiling first solo album). Wilson and the band construct a towering aural monument to ephemeral glamour with the pulse of dread, Cale’s supportive rolling piano, and Reed’s destabilizing frantic guitar.
As with Zappa’s second, Wilson followed the Velvets faithfully into the void for their follow-up, White Light/White Heat, a cacophonous, relentless assault on the ears and good taste. If Wilson had ever been beholden to the hit-making machinery at Columbia, between Zappa and the Velvets, surely, he was its slave no more as he unleashed idiosyncratic assaults upon middle-American values from both coasts.
According to all sources, Wilson was tall (about 6’4″), thin, handsome, intelligent, witty and charismatic. He was also intensely driven into a bewildering array of endeavors including production, music publishing, management, wine, women and song. He was one of the founding owners, with Chris Stone and Gary Kellgren (Wilson’s Engineer), of the legendary Record Plant recording studio in New York.
It would appear that Wilson has not been embraced by the black community as a pioneer. Despite his position on the New York Civil Rights Commission, “he lived his life unapologetically as a human being, not as a black man,” according to his friend Wally “Famous” Amos, the cookie magnate and former William Morris agent.
A girl friend from Wilson’s time in London in the early-’70s, Coral Browning, agrees. “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.” Perhaps it was the Young Republican in him.
Wilson was forceful, independent, and “took shit from no one,” according to Amos, who relates a story of waiting with Wilson for a cab in New York in the late-’60s. The cabby slowed down, then saw the black men waiting and took off. Wilson shouted after the man in his Texas drawl, “I’m smarter than you, better looking than you, and I can buy and sell you. So get the hell out of here.”
After an amazing, but brief 47 years, Tom Wilson died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home in 1978.