Tom Wilson, Producer: part 2

Part 1 of this article ended in June of 1965 with the historical recording sessions for Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and the overdub of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, both produced by Tom Wilson.

Wilson left Columbia Records after these sessions, but he didn’t stay out of a job for long. He quickly joined Verve Records as the East Coast director of A&R. MGM acquired the well-known jazz label from Norman Granz in 1961 and started to diverse its catalog. In the early 1960s they added easy listening and folk artists such as Connie Francis, The Righteous Brothers, Hank Williams and The Dubliners. Later on they started distributing British Invasion artists including Herman’s Hermits and The Animals. Verve’s focus was still largely on jazz, but in keeping with the safe middle-of-the-road music that characterized the parent company, nothing remotely experimental was released on the label. Until Tom Wilson joined, that is.

In November 1965 Tom Wilson took a talent scouting trip to the west coast. One night he came to the Whiskey A-Go-Go, a hip club that opened its doors the previous year. On the stage he saw a band comprising of odd-looking men with long, unkempt hair surrounded by freaky dancers all around them. The guy in the middle wore a black hat and had a large moustache. This was an early five-piece incarnation of the Mothers of Invention. They were performing the song The Watts Riot Song (Trouble Every Day). Frank Zappa remembers his first meeting with Tom Wilson: “He stayed for five minutes, said ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’, slapped me on the back, shook my hand and said, ‘Wonderful. We’re gonna make a record of you. Goodbye.’”

Mothers of Invention, 1965

Wilson kept his promise and returned a few months later, thinking he was about to record a white rhythm and blues band singing a protest song. Zappa: “We had a little chat in his room and that was when he first discovered that that wasn’t all that we played. We decided not to make a single, we’d make an album instead. The first tune we cut was ‘Any Way the Wind Blows’. Then we did ‘Who Are the Brain Police?’ When Wilson heard those he was so impressed he got on the phone and called New York, and as a result I got a more or less unlimited budget to do this monstrosity.” That unlimited budget amounted to $21,000. Spare change in today’s standards, but compared to the then-average $5,000 that it cost to produce a rock album, it was quite grandiose.

The resulting album was The Mothers of Inventions’ debut, an album much ahead of its time known as Freak Out! In addition to the group, a 17-piece orchestra was added in a follow up recording session, playing arrangements written by Frank Zappa who recalled: “The editing took a long time, which ran the cost up. Meanwhile, Wilson was sticking his neck out. He laid his job on the line by producing the album.”

Wilson later talked about recording Zappa: “Zappa is a conscientious artisan, and somehow it’s a shame that the art of recording has not yet developed to the point where you can really fully hear everything he’s doing. Because sometimes a guitar part just goes under, and it may have three different-sounding guitars on top of each other that all play the same thing. On those albums he rarely worked with more than six to eight people. On Freak Out he used a lot of chorus, which was actually always Frank, who played himself over again. Much of that took a full three weeks to complete. “

Mothers of Invention manager Herb Cohen, Frank Zappa, and Tom Wilson, 1967. Photo: John Hodder

Zappa related a telling story about his first visit to the label’s corporate office: “When I went to New York for the first time and was taken to the MGM / Verve office, they had a cafeteria in the building for the employees. They wouldn’t even let me in, ’cause I had long hair. That’s the kind of a world it was, it was just bizarre. And I went in there with Wilson, they threw us both out. He was black and I had long hair.”

To summarize that experience with the first album and Tom Wilson’s critical role in it, here is Zappa’s insight into the record industry:

“In the old days, they had these guys with cigars sticking out of the side of their mouths – this was before they had nonsmoking areas in the office buildings. A new act would come in, and these guys with the cigars would shrug their shoulders and go, ‘I don’t know!’ And because the signing fee was so cheap . . . I mean, our fee with MGM to make Freak Out! was $2500 – yeah, split between four guys. And we were lucky to get it. And the reason we did was because somebody went, ‘I don’t know! Who knows what these kids are listening to?’ Apparently, Tom Wilson, the young staff producer who signed the Mothers to MGM, did know. Tom Wilson was a great guy. He had vision, you know? And he really stood by us. When we did that first album, he was definitely in a state of ‘I don’t know!’ by the time we did the second song. I saw him through the glass and he was on the phone immediately to New York going, ‘I don’t know!’”

Frank Zappa and The Mothers with Tom Wilson in the studio

Tom Wilson continued as producer for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s next album, Absolutely Free. While he is also listed as producer on the group’s third album We’re Only In It For The Money, Zappa started assuming that role: “At the point where we recorded We’re Only In It For The Money, although he was still technically the producer according to MGM, I was the one who did most of the work on the thing.”

But Zappa paid a nice tribute to Tom Wilson on that third album. He immortalized Wilson in the flesh on one of the most iconic album covers in history. Along with the band and a very select group of real people, Tom Wilson can be seen on the far left side of We’re Only In It For The Money. Along with about 80 cut outs of folks based on a list Zappa provided to artist Cal Schenkel, this was a mockery of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The story of that cover is told in detail here: Frank Zappa’s Album Covers by Cal Schenkel, part 1: the 1960s.

We’re Only In It For The Money front cover

Just how unique was the inclusion of Freak Out! in MGM/Verve’s catalog can be deemed by the albums that immediately preceded and followed it in that catalog. Freak Out!’s catalog number is seated between albums by The Righteous Brothers and Jimmy Witherspoon. Nothing wrong with these artists, but someone had to do some selling of Zappa to the suits at a label that focuses on that type of demographic. In addition to Tom Wilson’s vision and influence at the label, a shout out is due to his versatility. The same month he supervised the recording sessions for Freak Out! he also produced Connie Francis’ album Movie Greats of the 60s. Try listening to both albums in a single seating, quite the experience.

Connie Francis / Movie Greats of the 60’s

We conclude the Frank Zappa chapter in Tom Wilson’s career with another quote by Frank Zappa, this time about the producer’s work with Bob Dylan, covered in the previous article about Tom Wilson:

“Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues was a monster record. I heard that thing and I was jumping all over the car. And then when I heard the one after that, Like a Rolling Stone, I wanted to quit the music business, because I felt: “If this wins and it does what it’s supposed to do, I don’t need to do anything else,” but it didn’t do anything. It sold; but nobody responded to it the way that they should have. They should have listened to that and said, ‘Hey, that record got on the radio. Now, wait a minute, we’ve got a chance to say something, you know? The radio is for us to use as a weapon.’ It didn’t happen right away, and I was a little disappointed. I figured, ‘Well, shit, maybe it needs a little reinforcing.’”

Another band that benefited from Tom Wilson’s services as a producer was The Animals. Seeking more artistic freedom than they had with producer Mickie Most, at the end of 1965 they signed with MGM. With Wilson as producer they released in 1966 the singles Inside-Looking Out, Don’t Bring Me Down and See See Rider. Perhaps Wilson’s biggest impact on their music was not as producer, but the fact that he introduced Eric Burdon and Co. to Frank Zappa. Their music took a sharp turn towards psychedelia after that encounter. Zappa: “On July 4, 1966, on what you might describe as a moment’s notice, I was asked to manufacture, on behalf of Tom Wilson, for the Animals, a musical organization from England, a set of arrangements. I was told: just go in there, tell the musicians what you want and they’ll play it.”

The Animals Animalism front cover

I’ll spare you the rest of that story, where Zappa chronicles that session and the stark contrast between the professionalism of members of the Wrecking Crew including the legendary Carol Kaye vs. the tardy Animals. The resulting album, Animalism, included two songs arranged by Zappa. Here is All Night Long, with Zappa on guitar.

The real change in the Eric Burdon’s direction came in 1967 when he formed a new band called Eric Burdon & the Animals and released the album Winds of Change. In a year that saw so many wonderful psychedelic albums on both sides of the Atlantic this album is usually omitted in lists of top albums of 1967, but nonetheless it is a great artifact of that time. Again, Zappa had a story to tell: “After Eric went to a party at my place, I don’t know what happened in his head – I believe he was a little bit psychedelically jacked-up that evening. It must have been something, because now there’s this album that they recorded about a month or two ago with Tom Wilson in Los Angeles; their new group is psychedelic. One of their songs is seven minutes long. It’s a poem about the Black Plague and it’s accompanied by tape-recorded sounds of a monastery. Wilson said they went into the studio and played Suzy Creamcheese note for note, played Return of the Son of Monster Magnet note for note.”

On the title track from On Wings of Change, The new Animals name check Frank Zappa, along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Mamas and The Papas, Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix. Here we go:

In 1966 Wilson continued his work with Al Kooper, a relationship that started a little before the historical recording session for Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone that Wilson produced.

Wilson called on Kooper for studio work on a number of albums he was producing. These included Freda Payne’s How Do You Say I Don’t Love You Anymore and Jim and Jean’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Wilson was also responsible for Kooper’s next major career move: “Tom Wilson rang me up one day and requested my services on yet another session. I always gave Tom top priority because of the tremendous debt I owed him, and I gladly assented. I arrived for this date in my typical out-there fashion, earring and all, and was introduced to a roomful of my contemporaries known as The Blues Project.” The band, which Kooper dubbed ‘a New York Jews for Electric Blues crusade’, was formed in Greenwich Village in 1965 by guitarist Danny Kalb. As Wilson moved from Columbia to MGM Records, he brought The Blues Project with him to his new label. They were signed to Verve-Folkways, MGM’s answer to Elektra Records. The band released a live album recorded at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Au Go Go during Thanksgiving weekend in 1965. In the fall of 1966, with Tom Wilson producing, the band recorded their fantastic album Projections.

Here is Two Trains Running, an adaptation of Muddy Waters’ song:

1966 was a very productive year for Tom Wilson. In addition to albums we mentioned by Frank Zappa, The Animals and the Blues Project, there were also albums by Pete Seeger, Hugh Masekela, and the curious The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale: Batman and Robin. This was a freelance job Wilson took to cash in on the Batman craze following the TV series that kicked off at the beginning of that year. The “Dan & Dale” moniker was attached to a series of novelty instrumental albums released in the early 1960s. Mind you, there is no Dan nor Dave here and the music leaves a lot to be desired. I would have omitted this episode in Wilson’s career, but the cast of characters on the Batman album is worth mentioning. Wilson invited the Blues Project musicians to the session as a way to earn a quick buck. Kooper was unavailable, so Wilson called on the next Hammond organ player he knew. This was none other than Sun Ra, whom he recorded a number of times in the past, including the album The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra.

Here is the Batman Theme. Who said Sun Ra’s music wasn’t commercial?

1967 was somewhat less productive for Tom Wilson as number of albums produced go, but that year saw the release of one of the most influential albums in the history of rock music. It was the album Brian Eno famously said it only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years, but “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” You guessed it, we are talking about The Velvet Underground & Nico.

If Tom Wilson had nothing to do with the album other than sign the band to Verve, that would have been enough to justify him as one of the most risk-taking and trailblazing music business executives ever. We have to remember that in the US this was the peak time for flower power, tie-dye, sunshine pop, soul of the pop flavor from Motown or the root soul from Stax. The Velvet Underground were as far from all of these camps as you can find. The melancholic, gothic, art-rock music that they played along with lyrics that dealt with drug abuse, prostitution, sadism and masochism were a huge commercial risk for any major label. But Wilson showed time and time again that he was able to navigate between popular music for profit and ambitious music for the art of it. And so we have this legendary album:

The Velvet Underground & Nico front cover

By the time the demo recordings that the Velvet Underground made in mid-1966 reached Tom Wilson’s ears, the band had already been rejected by Columbia Records, Atlantic Records and Elektra Records. While some of the songs were musically palatable to A&R executives, songs like Waiting for the Man and Venus in Furs were too much for their stomach. Between a man waiting on a drug dealer to show up for a $26 Heroin transaction and a sex submission scene with the line “Taste the whip, now bleed for me”, all to the tune of a screeching viola, this material was sure to get the boot. But Tom Wilson had already worked with Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Frank Zappa. A group of young men wearing black singing about sex and drugs, accompanied by a tall blonde with a German accent and an eccentric pop artist did not faze him.

The Velvet Underground, 1966

After listening to their material Wilson booked the band to TTG Studios in Los Angeles, were they re-recorded the songs “I’m Waiting for the Man”, “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin”. Upon listening to all the songs intended for the album, he finally came to realize that risk is all well and good but this type of material needed something that can be played on the radio. Perhaps something on the softer and more feminine side of their repertoire, usually sang by Nico. He told Andy Warhol’s filmmaking collaborator Paul Morrissey: “The only thing I don’t like about the record is, there’s not enough Nico. You’ve got to get another song from Nico. And there’s nothing here we can use on the radio, so why don’t we get Nico to sing another song that would be right for radio play?”

Sunday Morning single, produced by Tom Wilson

At the last minute one more track was recorded and added to the album. Written by Lou Reed and John Cale, it was released as a single and selected to open the album. Interestingly it is sang by Lou Reed, who decided to take sing lead in the studio even though it was intended for Nico, who sang it during live performances prior to the recording. Musically it is much more pleasing to the ear, and it is likely that most of the people who heard it on the radio in 1967 did not realize that its subject matter was paranoia. Here is Sunday Morning:

If you look closely at the original LP credits, it reads “Edited and remixed under the supervision of Tom Wilson.” The producer’s credit goes to Any Warhol. In later years both Lou Reed and John Cale begged to differ. Reed said that Wilson was the “real producer” of the album and Cale was quoted: “Warhol didn’t do anything. Tom Wilson produced nearly all of the tracks.” Not to minimize Andy Warhol’s presence, but his many talents did not include being a music producer. More likely an executive producer. Wilson continued with the Velvet Underground on their follow up album White Light/White Heat, this time getting his proper producer credit. Not many producers working for the majors would have the foresight to release a 17 and a half minutes track like “Sister Ray” that closes the album. John Cale later said: “The band never again had as good a producer as Tom Wilson.”

Tom Wilson, John Cale, Lou Reed

You may be wondering about this photograph of Tom Wilson with John Cale and Lou Reed. It comes from the set of a radio show Wilson hosted in 1967 and 1968 called Music Factory. The show was sponsored by his label MGM/Verve and as expected he showcased music released on the label. The opening theme was by (who else?) Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention playing “Help, I’m A Rock” from Freak Out! On the third episode he hosted Lou Reed and John Cale after the release of White Light/White Heat. During their discussion Wilson asked how drummer Maureen Tucker joined the band. Lou Reed answered “We needed an amplifier, and she had one.” Wilson then observed “This is the only girl drummer with a major pop music group in the whole scene. Sex doesn’t matter anymore as far as musicianship is concerned.”

To close the Velvet Underground chapter in Tom Wilson’s career, here is Frank Zappa commenting on their debut album: “I think that Tom Wilson deserves a lot of credit for making that album, because it’s folk music. It’s electric folk music, in the sense that what they’re saying comes right out of their environment.”

Nico Chelsea Girl front cover

The Velvet Underground’s album took a long time to release, almost a year since the band made the early demo recordings in mid-1966. A month after its release in March 1967 Tom Wilson got his wish to have more songs by Nico. He was in the studio recording Nico’s solo debut Chelsea Girl. Nico later criticized the string and flute arrangements that Tom Wilson wanted on the album. I personally love the orchestrations by Larry Fallon on this album, a year before he wrote the arrangements for Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (including playing the harpsichord arrangement on “Cyprus Avenue”).

Tom Wilson with Nico

The album features a number of songs by Jackson Browne, including the classic These Days, a song that Browne recorded on a 1967 demo tape for Elektra’s Nina Music publishing department. He accompanies Nico on electric guitar. The string arrangement was added later, to Nico’s dismay. I like it, I think it adds another dimension and dynamics to the song. You be the judge:

In 1967 Tom Wilson enlisted arranger Larry Fallon again to write orchestral arrangement on the curious album Harumi, the self-titled debut by Japanese musician Harumi. It is a double album with psychedelic pop songs on the first album and two side-long tracks on the second, featuring spoken word in English and Japanese, psychedelic rock jams and ethnic Japanese instruments. Highly risky business for any music industry executive.

Harumi front cover

The album does not stand up to the same level as those by other artists I featured so far in the two articles I dedicated to Tom Wilson, but as Zappa said it is the idea of it that counts. This is what Frank Zappa told Goldmine magazine in 1989: “I remember one day he (Tom Wilson) came in and announced that he had just signed a Japanese psychedelic artist named Harumi, and Harumi was making some kind of a flower-power album. I never heard the album, I don’t know if it was in Japanese or what. But it was the idea that, ‘Okay, today we’re gonna record a Japanese psychedelic record.’ A lot of the credit for the odd stuff that went on the label has to go to him because he was the one who would stand up to the people that wrote the paychecks and say, ‘Yeah, I wanna record and / or produce these things.’”

This was the twilight of an extremely productive period for Tom Wilson. Other projects he worked in 1966 and 1967 included albums by South African trumpeter and bandleader Hugh Masekela, and Fraternity of Man who sang “Don’t Bogart Me”, now a cult classic due to its inclusion on the Easy Rider film soundtrack. A 1968 article in the New York Times cited that Wilson produced eight Top 100 albums in the previous 12 months.

In 1968 Wilson left MGM and went independent. He said about this move in an interview: “You know why I went independent? Because I got tired of making money for a millionaire who didn’t even bother to send me a Christmas card. I discovered if you are honest, you get a lot further. A guy’s not going to respect you if you don’t fight for what you think you are worth.” As an independent he was not able to match his stellar career in the late 1950s and 1960s, a period that was one of the best runs in any producer’s career in the history of music.


Irwin Chusid’s excellent website dedicated to the life and work of Tom Wilson.

White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground day-by-day, by Richie Unterberger

If you missed the first part of this article, here goes:

Categories: Artist

Tagged as: ,

1 reply »

Leave a Reply