Bob Dylan's 'Self Portrait' Man

Dave Bromberg is well on his way to becoming one of the best guitarists and studio musicians in the business

Bob Dylan, rolling stone, archive, gospel, self portrait, Nashville
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Bob Dylan recording his album 'Self Portrait' with Charlie Daniels on guitar on May 3rd, 1969 in Nashville, Tennessee.
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New York — "Bob Johnston, Dylan's producer, called me up and asked me if I wanted to play on New Morning." Dave Bromberg has been kicking around the music scene for awhile – he's backed up Jerry Jeff Walker, Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Pat Sky, Al Kooper, and had even worked with Dylan on the Self Portrait album – but the call was still a flash.

Bromberg is a gentle, unassuming man of 25 who may never become a rock and roll star. What he may become is one of the best guitarists and studio musicians in the business. He played lead guitar on half the cuts on Self Portrait, and his work on New Morning, especially his acoustic intro on the title song, his slide electric on "One More Weekend," gut string lead on "Three Angels," and acoustic on "Winterlude," may have already established him as side-man of the year.

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"On the Self Portrait album I was sitting right across from Dylan and I played whatever came to mind and there was hardly any discussion. On the new one there were more musicians in the studio – Dylan had the songs pretty well worked out beforehand. What they did was sit me in a corner where I had dobro, mandolin, mandocello, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and Dylan string guitar. Usually what I did rather than the solo things on Self Portrait was a lot less obvious things. Most tunes were first takes, sometimes second, because Dylan likes a spontaneous sound. Maybe the best thing I did on the album was not to play too much."

Bromberg said the new album is "much more like his others . . . much more of a band sound with no instrumentalists featured. Self Portrait was mainly me and Dylan where I was decorating his singing with my guitar, but on this one I was much more of a part of what was going on with everybody. We recorded it all live, even the background vocals. The only thing I can think of that was overdubbed was the French horns on one cut.

"The musicians are the finest I've ever played with. If anybody was the leader it was Al Kopper, he came up with a lot of ideas and helped move the sessions along a great deal. They're all pros."

Dave began playing guitar when he was 12. Measles provided the opportunity for him to learn some chords. By the time he was in high school in Tarrytown he was playing in a group. Then came a year and a half as a music major at Columbia, where he specialized in "filthy guitar." After dropping out he taught guitar and began playing in Greenwich Village "basket houses" like the Why Not and Purple Onion. He says he played the first electric guitar in the Village at the old Night Owl, but that didn't last long. He broke up his electric group because he didn't think it was good because he didn't think it was good enough, even though B. B. King's arranger showed some interest.

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Next he became house guitarist at the Four Winds, backing up Richie Havens and Buzzie Linhardt, and later found himself backing Chubby Checkers on a gig in Florida and Jack Elliot at the Gaslight. After two State Department tours with a group called the Phoenix Singers, he was back in New York, waiting for something to happen. That was when he met Jerry Jeff Walker. He played with Walker. He played with walker on the Mr. Bojangles album, which did well, and then Elektra called him for session work on a Tom Paxton LP. Since then, he has had more jobs than he can handle.

He met Dylan at the Bitter End: "He was there to hear Jerry Jeff. He told me afterwards that he liked my guitar playing and I just mumbled something in reply. Al Aronowitz introduced us. I was just backin' up Jerry so I didn't play any of my songs. I knew Dylan was in the audience but I wasn't really very nervous about it. I played good that night though.

"Afterwards he said he liked my playing and that we'd have to get together sometime. I said, 'Oh yeah . . . you . . . music,' something like that. I was too stoned to say anything more coherent.

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"He showed up again when I was playing with Paxton at the Bitter End. As a matter of fact, Paul Colby told me later that Dylan told him he was going to do a record with me but he sure didn't tell me that. But he started showing up every time I was at the Bitter End. I was playing with all kinds of people – Paxton, Doug Kershaw, a girl named Ky and some others but he showed up once a week everytime I was there. Every time he came in we talked and I became more coherent. At one point he said he'd like to get me in a studio sometime but it was too good to be true so I didn't really want to believe it until it happened.

"One afternoon he came up to my house. I was out of town for a while and when I came back I had a message from my answering service that Mr. Dilan had called and I figured it was Patrick Sky playing a joke but Pat denied it, of course, and I eventually found out it was Dylan. I got in touch with him and he came over to visit me one afternoon. We played all afternoon.

"He's really fantastic. He really sang beautifully. I was floored. I was about five feet away from him and to hear him sing that close to you is really great. I really enjoyed it. We talked about music and his records, about what he wanted to do. I don't know if I should really go into all of that because it's like a private conversation. It was really fascinating to see how straight he was. After reading all those Dylan interviews and all those Dylan interviews and all those mysterious things you hear about him you expect the guy to be some kind of Sphinx who speaks in riddles.

"After that I didn't hear from him for about a month and then he called me up about two o'clock one afternoon and asked me what I was doing. He said he was going to test out these studios and would I like to come along, and I said sure. It turned out we had to be in the studio in half an hour and that was the beginning of the sessions for Self Portrait.

Bromberg remembers the sessions as "stream of consciousness things" – one song after another for hours, and he was sick with a high fever. He would work all day, go home, fall asleep and wake up in time to go back to the studio.

"I didn't remember anything we'd done until after the album came out. It was really a challenge, for instance, working on "Little Sadie." You can tell if you listen to it that he's improvising almost everything he does and even he doesn't know what he's going to do next. All I can say about him is he's a good man, I get good vibrations from him, I like to play with him. That he's a genius I don't question for a minute."

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Coming up for Dave is an album with Mary Travers, and possibly one with Paul McCartney: "Barry Kornfeld called me up and said Paul was looking for musicians so I went over to the studio with my guitar and dobro. We played some together and got along well so I may be on his next album."

And after that, there will be another album — his own:

"I want to do as loose an album as I can with a lot of musicians I like."

This story is from the November 26th, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 71: November 26, 1970