Tom Wilson, Producer: part 1

Producer Tom Wilson is not a household name. Even among avid music listeners he is not that well-known. While producers such as Quincy Jones, George Martin, Phil Spector and others became big names due to their producer’s credits, the same cannot be said about Tom Wilson. However, not many can list under their credits a 10-year run that includes some of the most influential artists and albums across multiple genres: jazz, free jazz, folk, rock, psychedelia and art rock. We are talking the caliber of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Bob Dylan through his electric transformation and Like a Rolling Stone, Frank Zappa’s debut Freak Out, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and many other greats along the way. This is a story worth telling, and we will cover it in a two-part article.


Tom Wilson was born Thomas Blanchard Wilson in 1933 in Waco, Texas. After attending Fisk University, a private black school in Nashville, Tennessee, he moved to Boston and entered Harvard University, at the time highly segregated. While at the university he worked at the local radio station WHRB and founded the Harvard New Jazz Society. He graduated in 1954 with a degree in political science and economics and a year later took a $900 loan and started a small independent label called Transition Pre-Recorded Tapes, Inc., or in short – Transition. He aspired to record unknown fringe jazz, folk, and classical musicians in a live situation either at performance venues or before a studio audience.

The Harvard New Jazz Society Executive Board, 1954: Wilson at left

An avid patron of jazz clubs in the city of Boston, he recorded the label’s first album on March 13, 1955 at The Stable, an incarnation of the legendary Boston jazz club The Jazz Workshop. Wilson recorded the club’s house band featuring Herb Pomeroy and he wrote the album’s liner notes, paying a tribute to the club: “In its earliest days the Stable drew almost all its audience support from the musicians themselves. However, after two or three months of operation manager Dick O’Donnell’s dark horse paid off. The crowds began to come: students from Harvard and Boston University, young and old fans from Roxbury, Newton, and Boston proper. A no-cover, no-minimum policy, half a buck drinks, and a bandstand open to all competent performers have made the Stable one of Boston’s most attractive music clubs.”

Herb Pomeroy Jazz in A Stable

Very early on in his career Wilson developed a gift to recognize extremely talented artists before others did and offer them a recording contract. Many of these artists became hugely influential after Wilson recorded them. So is the case with two of the his earliest recordings, both debut albums for their respective artists. The first is Sun Ra, who was an unknown entity at the time. He already started his Saturn label, but only released a few 45s, no LPs. In July 1956 Wilson travelled to Chicago to record the Sun Ra Arkestra featuring John Gilmore and Julian Priester. The resulting album, Jazz by Sun Ra, was largely ignored. A usually insightful critic, Nat Hentoff missed the mark and wrote in Downbeat: “What emerges is a composer of limited ability and a surprisingly small quantity of personal, fresh ideas.” This did not deter Wilson from recording more of Sun Ra in the future.

Jazz by Sun Ra

Two months later Wilson recorded the debut album of another jazz giant, Cecil Taylor. The pianist was familiar with the city of Boston, having graduated from the New England Conservatory’s Diploma Program in 1951 and staying there until 1955 when he moved to New York. His group at the time included bassist Buell Neidlinger, drummer Denis Charles and saxophonist Steve Lacy.

Reviews were favorable this time around, with Whitney Balliett writing in the New Yorker: “Transition, a small and apparently fearless firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has issued a brilliant, uncompromising record on which the principle performer is a twenty-three-year-old pianist named Cecil Taylor.”

This was Taylor’s take on Thelonious Monk’s Bemsha Swing from Jazz Advance, his debut album on Transition:

But favorable reviews did not do the trick. In 1957, after releasing some 30 LPs with Transition Records including albums by Donald Byrd and Doug Watkins, Tom Wilson had to close down the label. A sampler album released in 1956 showcases the artists he was able to record in a span of one year.

Wilson sold Transition’s catalog to Blue Note and Delmark Records and moved on to United Artists Records. This new subsidiary of the United Artists film studio was founded to distribute records of its own soundtracks, but soon branched out into recording music across different genres. Tom Wilson supervised the recording of jazz albums on the label, including a couple by Cecil Taylor. One of the highlights from that period is the album Hard Driving Jazz by the Cecil Taylor Quintet with a tenor sax player named “Blue Train”. You guessed it, this is none other than John Coltrane who plays on this session, recorded in October 1958. A few years later when Coltrane became one of the biggest names in jazz, the album was re-released under his own name as “Coltrane Time”. From the liner notes: “Blue Train (whose identity will be no mystery after his opening phrase on Shifting Down is heard) is described by Taylor as his favorite tenor saxophonist of the moment.”

Wilson’s next move was to Savoy Records, the legendary label that started in 1942 by Herman Lubinsky and recorded some of jazz’s biggest names in the 1940s, including Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Error Garner and Miles Davis. In the early 1960s the label developed an appetite for avant-garde jazz, and this is where Wilson produced one of the genre’s iconic albums of that period. It was a luck of the draw, when Sun Ra travelled from Chicago to New York City with some of his Arkestra members, seeking gigs in the Big Apple. Not more than a few minutes after they set foot (or wheels in this case) in NYC, they hit a taxi and their car was grounded. The stranded group of musicians had no money to fix the car nor to find accommodations. Sun Ra called Wilson to let him know he is in town, and the producer wasted no time arranging a recording session, which took place on October 10, 1961. That session yielded one of Sun Ra’s best known albums, The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra. The music on this album is quite accessible compared to Sun Ra’s future albums in the 1960s. Full of exotic percussion instruments and excellent reed work by John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, tunes like “New Day” are the highlight of the album:

As a jazz producer Tom Wilson also contributed liner notes to some of the albums he produced. At the back of The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra you can find the following text penned by Wilson: “Get set to blast off with SUN RA into a new adventure in musical sound. This is a long due voyage into new dimensions of jazz where rhythms have become super-rhythms, where trite arrangements and instrumentation have given way to exotic sound pictures combining distant rumblings from the primeval past of all music with strange strains from the future. Be ready to experience something on the other side of ‘something else’: The futuristic sound of SUN RA.” Indeed.

The futuristic sounds of SUN RA

From Savoy Tom Wilson moved on to take a management position with Dauntless Records, a subsidiary of Audio Fidelity Records. With that label he released albums by Sal Salvador, Steve Kuhn & Toshiko Akiyoshi, Walt Dickerson and others. But this was just a small step towards the giant leap he would take in 1963 when he joined Columbia Records as a staff producer. Folk music was making big waves at the time and Columbia had one young singer in that category, discovered by legendary producer John Hammond. He already released one album with the label, a flop that did not enter the albums chart and sold only 2,500 copies. Others in the company started calling him Hammond’s Folly. But Hammond persisted and his protégé got a second chance. Recordings for the next album started in 1962, but as they continued into 1963 john Hammond had to step down due to conflicts with the singer’s overly aggressive manager, one named Albert Grossman. We are talking, of course, of Bob Dylan and his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Time for the fresh staff producer Tom Wilson to step in and complete the album. Wilson, remember, was in the business of recording advanced and free jazz musicians. Recording three-chord songs by a young folkie seemed somewhat less interesting musically. Wilson recalls: “I didn’t even particularly like folk music. I’d been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane … I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. Dylan played like the dumb guys, but then these words came out. I was flabbergasted.” Flabbergasted is as fine an adjective to use here, for the songs Dylan brought to the first session with Wilson on April 24, 1963 were “Girl from the North Country”, “Masters of War”, “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream”. Wilson stepped into a goldmine. Not many single sessions in the history of music recording produced such a crop.

Columbia Records PR portrait, ca. 1964. Photo: Don Hunstein

Two more albums by Bob Dylan followed in 1964 with Tom Wilson producing: “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Another Side of Bob Dylan”. Both albums feature solo performances by Dylan singing and accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica. The first album sealed his place in the pantheon of protest song writers and produced the iconic title track, plus “With God on Our Side”, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, “One Too Many Mornings” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, among other songs. The second album started his move away from songs you would expect from “the voice of a generation” title bestowed on him, one he never accepted. It was recorded in a single marathon session on June 9, 1964. Critic Nat Hentoff (yes, the same one!), who was invited by Dylan to the session, reported in detail a few weeks later in the New Yorker and provided rare insights into how Tom Wilson functions in a recording studio.

Sitting next to the producer before the session began, Hentoff heard him say: “I have no idea what he’s going to record tonight. It’s all to be stuff he’s written in the last couple of months.” Wilson knew how to adapt the technical requirements of a recording studio to the style of the performer in order to get the best performance: “My main difficulty has been pounding mike technique into him. He used to get excited and move around a lot and then lean in too far, so that the mike popped. Aside from that, my basic problem with him has been to create the kind of setting in which he’s relaxed. For instance, if that screen should bother him, I’d take it away, even if we have to lose a little quality in the sound.”

Bob Dylan, 1964

As much as Dylan’s recording sessions were loose, Wilson had the responsibility of delivering the goods. He had deadlines to meet, and with Dylan’s hectic schedule, that night was his one shot at taping enough material for a full album. He confided to Hentoff: “I’m somewhat concerned about tonight. We’re going to do a whole album in one session. Usually, we’re not in such a rush, but this album has to be ready for Columbia’s fall sales convention. Except for special occasions like this, Bob has no set schedule of recording dates. We think he’s important enough to record whenever he wants to come to the studio.”

With that concern he had to make quick decisions in the studio. When Dylan went through three takes of one song, the engineer suggested one more take. Wilson replied: “No. With Dylan, you have to take what you can get.”

An interesting comment from Wilson proves that he understood Dylan’s mindset at the time better than most folks in the music industry: “Those early albums gave people the wrong idea. Basically, he’s in the tradition of all lasting folk music. I mean, he’s not a singer of protest so much as he is a singer of concern about people. He doesn’t have to be talking about Medgar Evers all the time to be effective. He can just tell a simple little story of a guy who ran off from a woman.”

A funny episode took place during the recording of I Shall Be Free No. 10, one of many talking blues numbers Dylan recorded in his early career. He was struggling with that song and suggested to Wilson to move on to another song and come back to it later. Wilson replied: “No. Finish up this one. You’ll hang us up on the order, and if I’m not here to edit, the other cat will get mixed up. Just do an insert of the last part.” One of several friends Dylan invited to the session who sat behind Wilson said “Let him start from the beginning, man”. Hentoff described the situation well:

Wilson turned around, looking annoyed. “Why, man?”

“You don’t start telling a story with Chapter Eight, man.” the friend said.

“Oh, man,” said Wilson. “What kind of philosophy is that? We’re recording, not writing a biography.”

As an obbligato of protest continued behind Wilson, Dylan, accepting Wilson’s advice, sang the insert. His bearded friend rose silently and drew a square in the air behind Wilson’s head.

Reflecting on his past career as a jazz producer, working with some of the best on the scene, Wilson told Hentoff: “Intensity, that’s what he’s got. By now, this kid is outselling Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.”

Wilson at newsstand with Bob Dylan, June 1964. Photo: Sandy Speiser

As great as these early albums Dylan recorded in 1964 with Tom Wilson producing, nothing there could anticipate the big bang of what the two would accomplish the following year. The next album, and one additional song recorded in June of 1965, would change the face of folk rock forever and create an uproar among folk purists and some of Dylan’s followers.

Wilson had the notion of adding more instruments to provide accompaniment to Dylan’s songs early on after he first heard Dylan performing his songs with his guitar. He recalls telling the singer’s manager: “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.’” In December of 1965 Wilson urged Dylan to try a new arrangement of his earlier acoustic performance of “House of the Rising Sun“. In Dylan’s words it was a “Fats Domino early rock & roll thing”. The recording was quickly discarded, but the idea of it persisted.

A month later, over three days in January 1965, the recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home took place. The first day was dedicated to acoustic solo rehearsals, including a performance of Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream. Wilson gave Dylan directions how to sing the surreal song about numerous bizarre encounters: “If you wanna do it right do it slow, if you wanna do it the way you wanna do it, go ahead.” All that survived from the first day is a false start and a rare occasion (the only one?) of hearing Tom Wilson on a record saying “start again” followed by a big hearty laugh. The song starts again with a full band, recorded a day later:

For the remaining two days Tom Wilson brought into the studio a fantastic backing band that included Robert Gregg (drums), Joseph Macho jr. (bass), William E. Lee (bass), Bruce Langhorne (guitar), Al Gorgoni (guitar), Kenneth J. Rankin (guitar) and Frank Owens (piano). Dylan later recalled: “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.”

Bruce Langhorne talked about Tom Wilson’s role during the recording sessions, comparing it to that of the legendary John Hammond, Dylan’s first producer: “I think that they were producers who really had so much love and respect for the artists that they would just…and they had faith, this is the thing. Some producers felt that they had a job to do, that the universe would not do the job, but they had to do it, you know. And other producers felt that hey, you know, put the right people together in the right circumstance, and it will evolve. And I think that’s the kind of producer Tom was.”

In 1969 Jann Wenner interviewed Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone magazine. He brought up a question:

“There’s been some articles on Wilson and he says that he’s the one that gave you the rock and roll sound . . . and started you doing rock and roll. Is that true?”

He was able to get as frank an answer you could get from the notoriously evasive singer: “Did he say that? Well, if he said it . . . more power to him. He did to a certain extent. That is true. He did. He had a sound in mind.”

Tom Wilson with Bob Dylan, 1965

The album opens with the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, which was released as a single and became Dylan’s first Top 40 hit in the United States. Per Dylan “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the ’40s.” Many are familiar with D. A. Pennebaker’s iconic promotional clip, in which Dylan drops cue cards with the song’s lyrics written on them. However, the alleyway scene was not the only clip that was shot. In a different cut we see parts of two other scenes — in a park and atop a roof of the Savoy hotel in London — with additional background cameos in each: Allen Ginsberg, Bobby Neuwirth, and ….yes – Tom Wilson.

We fast forward a few months and arrive at June 15, 1965. The recording sessions that took place that day and the next are among the most written about in music history and for a good reason, for they yielded the song Like A Rolling Stone. The producer credit on these sessions alone should be sufficient ground to call Wilson one of the greats, but his biggest contribution to the session may have been inviting Al Kooper to the second day of recording. Funny enough, the invite was extended for the pupose of watching the session, not playing on it. Kooper connected with Wilson several months earlier while trying to peddle a topical song he wrote, and who best to pester than the producer of the best topical songwriter? Wilson Invited Kooper to be a fly on the wall in an electric Dylan session, but Kooper brought his guitar, determined to play it. That determination lasted no more than a few licks by the guitar player Dylan brought to the studio that day, one Mike Bloomfield. As Kooper writes in his memoir, Bloomfield “commenced to play some of the most incredible guitar I’d ever heard. And he was just warming up! I was in over my head. I embarrassedly unplugged, packed up, went into the control room, and sat there pretending to be a reporter from Sing Out! magazine.”

Listening to a playback of “Like A Rolling Stone” in the studio.

But Kooper was persistent and asked to play the organ. Wilson did not like that idea, telling Kooper “you don’t even play the organ.” Still, Kooper proceeded to occupy the vacant Hammond organ seat when Wilson briefly left the studio. Kooper continues the story: “Then Wilson returned and said, ‘Man, what are you doin’ out there???’ All I could do was laugh nervously. On the Highway 61 Interactive CD-ROM, you can actually hear this moment taking place. Wilson was a gentleman, however. He let it go.“

Tom Wilson was not a musical director, not an arranger, and not a sound man. His greatness as a producer was in getting the right people together in one room and allowing things to happen. He knew when to insist on something and when to let it go. That simple organ part Kooper played on Like A Rolling Stone is now one of the most recognizable in all of music.

A lesser known fact is what happened in the second part of the first day of recording on June 15th. Wilson, realizing he had a group of very talented studio musicians on hand after the Dylan session ended, proceeded to another session. He kept guitarist Al Gorgoni and drummer Bobby Gregg from the Dylan session, and added guitarist Vinnie Bell and bassist Bob Bushnell. That session produced a number one hit and revived the career of one of the most popular duos in popular music.

The Sounds of Silence Single

Wilson made an executive decision that day. He took a song he produced a year earlier and overdubbed additional instruments over it. At the time of the original recording of that song, the song performers Simon and Garfunkel were virtually unknown. The song was included on their debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. and the release of that album did not make a dent in their obscurity. They decided to part ways, and Paul Simon travelled to London to try his luck at the British folk scene. That could have been the end of that duo, were it not for Wilson. He picked up on the local popularity of the song The Sound of Silence among university students in Boston. He then decided to apply a similar treatment to it as was the fashion then to popularize folk songs, ala The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. Simon and Garfunkel were not consulted about this move, but those were the days. The revised song did what Like A Rolling Stone could not achieve – climb to the top of the charts. And even more important, spark anew Simon and Garfunkel’s career.

Before I knew all these facts I always wondered about that snare drum hit that kicks off the entrance of the rhythm section at the 38s mark on The Sound of Silence single and how similar it is to the one that starts off Like A Rolling Stone. No wonder – same drummer, same day.

The June 1965 sessions for Like A Rolling Stone were Tom Wilson’s last with Bob Dylan. The reasons for his departure are murky, and when Bob Dylan was asked about it he said: “All I know is that I was out recording one day, and Tom had always been there — I had no reason to think he wasn’t going to be there — and I looked up one day and Bob was there.” Bob Johnston came in as producer to finish Bob Dylan’s next album, Highway 61 Revisited, and kept working with him until the early 1970s. Another chapter in Tom Wilson’s career came to an end but a new one, no less impressive, would soon follow.

Part 2 of this article is coming, in which we continue Tom Wilson’s story and more iconic albums by Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this about another producer who left his mark in the 1960s:

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