Remembering Bob Dylan and Velvet Underground's Pioneering Producer

Tom Wilson shepherded Dylan's electric period; signed Velvets, Mothers of Invention

In addition to Dylan's first electric albums, Tom Wilson helmed key LPs by Simon & Garfunkel, the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Credit: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Velvet Underground rarely played offices, but Lou Reed and John Cale made at least one exception about 50 years ago. Hauling Reed's guitar, Cale's electric viola, and an amp into Columbia Records' midtown headquarters, the two set up in an executive's office and blasted out two of the band's new, unrecorded songs, "Heroin" and "The Black Angel's Death Song." Any other label executive at the time might have cowered beneath his desk or run screaming, but not this one. "We plugged in and let him have it," Cale recalls, "and he said, 'Wow, love that viola — that's real excitement coming out of that.' I thought, 'Wow.' He was a rarity."

The open-minded A&R man was Tom Wilson, who would eventually sign the Velvets to their first record deal (at MGM, where Wilson worked next) and produce some of their early recordings. Yet shepherding that iconoclastic band into the record business — and, in light of their impact, helping ignite what became alt- or indie rock — was only one of Wilson's feats. He guided Bob Dylan from unplugged to electric, made stars out of Simon & Garfunkel, signed and championed Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and started an indie jazz label that launched the careers of Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra. If you've heard Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues," the Velvets' "Sunday Morning," the electric version of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence," or visionary albums like the Mothers' kaleidoscopic head trip Freak Out! or Nico's gothic-cabaret jewel Chelsea Girl, you've heard just a sample of Wilson's work.

Among fellow producers and liner-note-scanning record geeks, Wilson, who died in 1978, is a revered figure. But for whatever reason, he remains one of rock's unjustly overlooked producers — despite not only his accomplishments but the startling fact that he was an African-American in charge of major rock records during a pivotal era in the music's history. "It was unfathomable for an African-American guy at that time to sign acts like the Mothers and the Velvets and be Dylan's producer," says former Warner Brothers executive Jeff Gold. "No one had done anything like that. And Tom did it again and again."

This week, Wilson's role in Dylan's musical growth will be reinforced with the release of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966. Available in several configurations (two- and six-disc distillations and an 18-CD set for completists), the latest installation in the Bootleg Series documents the sessions for Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited as well as the early, pre-Nashville recordings for Blonde on Blonde. Since Wilson helmed Bringing It All Back Home as well as "Like a Rolling Stone," the producer's voice crops up repeatedly: He's heard asking Dylan the names of songs before takes (Dylan often teasingly replies with a wrong title), and that's Wilson's trademark hearty, infectious laugh heard during the botched early take of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream."

Much like Dylan himself, Wilson never fit into an traditional box. Born in Texas in 1931, the son of an insurance-company vice president and a librarian, he had his head in both fiscal and musical matters from an early age. He played trombone and cello in high school and later attended Harvard, where he majored in economics and joined the Young Republican club. "He was a Republican when there was such a thing as a liberal Republican," says his longtime friend John Richo. "But with the Voting Rights Act and the Southern strategy, he said goodbye, and he became very much a liberal Democrat."

After graduating cum laude from Harvard, Wilson, in his early twenties but ambitious, launched his own label, Transition. With his love for jazz, he released albums by Taylor, Sun Ra and others. After the company folded, Wilson eventually took a job in the A&R department at Columbia — where he became the label's first black producer. Despite his jazz background and his initial indifference to folk, Wilson, who started working at the company in 1963, was tasked with wrapping up Dylan's year-in-the-making second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. "I remember him telling me one time about his love of jazz and that when he was hired on at Columbia, they'd given him Dylan," says his son, Tom Wilson III. "And he said, 'You looked at this guy, a scraggly little folk singer.' But he quickly qualified it with, 'But the boy had something to say.'"

Tall and sharp-dressed, Wilson was a tennis-playing, football-loving type who drove a zippy blue Aston Martin and commuted on weekends from Manhattan to his family's home in Massachusetts. "If Obama wasn't president and fitted himself out, he'd be Tom," says Wilson's one-time assistant, Phyllis Smith. ("He was stylin'," adds Cale.) But with his eyes equally on sonic adventurousness and the market, Wilson was, by all accounts, a good match for Dylan early on. "Tom was smart, creative, and steady on his feet," says Dylan associate Bob Neuwirth. "He didn't push things around as far as arrangements, but he was on top of everything musically, and he and Bob clicked. They understood each other. Tom was open to what Bob was doing, and Bob respected Tom. There's no way to undervalue Tom's contribution." (In D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back tour doc, Wilson can also be seen in the background, watching Dylan write a song.)

Wilson went on to produce The Times They Are A-Changin' and Another Side of Bob Dylan (its title suggested by Wilson, to Dylan's initial dismay). Although Dylan had made early, pre-Wilson recordings with backup musicians, he and Wilson's last full album together, Bringing It All Back Home, was Dylan's true first step toward electric rock & roll. In the eyes of the musicians who worked with Wilson at the time, the fact that the producer was black didn't seem to be a factor. "Tom was unique as an African-American doing that thing," says guitarist Bruce Langhorne, who played on Dylan sessions. "But there was no racial component at that time. Or none that affected us."

The opposite of an in-your-face peer like Phil Spector, Wilson had a comparatively laid back working method. In the image most remember of Wilson, he could be found in the control room — working the phones, reading magazines and greeting visitors (often female) while keeping one eye on the music being made beyond the glass. "Sort of relaxed," says Smith with a fond laugh. "I picture him with his head leaning back and his eyes closed, taking in whatever was going on and listening to the music." In that regard, Wilson paved the way for hands-off but attentive record makers who followed: "He defined the role of a certain type of producer," says Grammy-winning producer Craig Street (Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson). "The quiet producer who sits back, like Rick Rubin or T Bone Burnett. Before Tom, that model wasn't there."

In the midst of working with Dylan and others, including Dion and Pete Seeger, Wilson also oversaw Simon & Garfunkel's 1964 debut, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. When the album flopped, the duo broke up, and while Simon was playing folk clubs in England, he heard, to his surprise, that Wilson had overdubbed electric guitar, bass and drums on the once-unplugged "The Sound of Silence." (In fact, the new instruments were added by some of Dylan's musicians after one of the "Like a Rolling Stone" sessions.) The newly rocked-up track became Simon and Garfunkel's first Number One hit and salvaged their career. Wilson's son still recalls the sight of his father attending his eighth-grade graduation, where the students sang "The Sound of Silence." Looking into the crowd, the younger Wilson witnessed an unusual sight: a tear streaming down his father's cheek. "It was very much out of character," Wilson III says. "I said, 'Dad, it's only my eighth-grade graduation — there will be more to come.' He said, 'No, man, it's not your graduation — they're singing our song here. It's become a graduation standard.' It was a real moment for him."

Wilson was also behind the boards for Dylan's epic "Like a Rolling Stone," but that collaboration would prove to be his and Dylan's finale. Why Dylan switched to another producer, Bob Johnston, for the remainder of Highway 61 Revisited remains unclear. One source says Dylan had grown restless and wanted a musical change. ("He said, 'Maybe we should try Phil Spector,'" Wilson later recalled.) Another tale says Dylan tired of seeing Wilson making calls during sessions and said to a colleague, "If we go in and he's on the phone, he's out of here." When Wilson was working with the Velvet Underground not long after, Cale says Lou Reed had similar concerns about Wilson: "Lou didn't think Tom was paying attention. He was having visitors in the back room."

When Jann S. Wenner asked Dylan about the change in his Rolling Stone interview in 1969, Dylan replied, "Well, I can't remember, Jann. I can't remember ... 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 [Johnston] was there." When Wenner asked about Wilson taking credit for helping Dylan go electric, Dylan replied, "Did he say that? Well, if he said it .... [laughs] More power to him. [Laughs] He did to a certain extent. That is true. He did. He had a sound in mind."

In 1966, Wilson, who some say felt underappreciated at Columbia, left the company for MGM, where, in a sign of how much he supported rock's cutting edge at the time, he signed both the Velvets and the Mothers of Invention to its subsidiary, Verve. Andy Warhol oversaw The Velvet Underground & Nico, but Wilson took the reins for the band's second album, White Light/White Heat, and Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker were allowed to run wild, especially on the 17-minute "Sister Ray." "We were impressed with the fact not so much of 'The Sound of Silence' but with what he did with Dylan," says Cale of deciding to work with Wilson. "Dylan was in our sights. We were trying out the idea of a band improvising songs at every concert. And the fact that we wanted to expand the sound — Tom found that interesting."

The notoriously demanding Zappa always said respectful words about Wilson, who produced not only Freak Out! but the Mothers' subsequent two albums. "He was such an ebullient spirit — charismatic, statuesque, and curiously empowering for those in his orbit," said Zappa of Wilson. "That he was Ivy as well as street smart was a jaw dropper." At MGM/Verve, Wilson also produced Chelsea Girl and the Blues Project's Projections (keyboardist Al Kooper was one of Wilson's closest musician friends), and he propelled Eric Burdon and the Animals — the second incarnation of the band — back onto the charts with "Sky Pilot" and "San Franciscan Nights," which thrust the group fully into the psychedelic era.

Despite the times and his race, Wilson didn't necessarily see himself or his achievements as overtly political. "It wasn't hubris, like 'I will be the first to do it,'" says his son. "More like, 'Well, that doesn't seem like something that can't be done.' It was more the wonderment and the pioneer aspect rather than the rage against the machine. It wasn't anti-establishment. He wanted to be in control of his own destiny." 

Leaving MGM in 1968, Wilson started his own company — part production and publishing company and part talent company — and in then-unfashionable Brooklyn at that. But his record-making career was never quite the same. Most of the acts he oversaw never approached anything close to a hit. (One exception: "Don't Bogart Me," the Fraternity of Man track on the Easy Rider soundtrack.) "When he was with the labels, he was producing acts signed with the labels or had deals with the labels," says Richo. "When he moved to his own organization, he was taking raw talent and trying to build them into viable acts. It's not an easy thing, and the odds of having a hit with someone you're trying to build are not as great as working with someone who's established." According to one Wilson friend, other factors relating to Wilson's lifestyle (he was eventually divorced) may have hurt his career as well. "Tom dated white women," says the friend, "and that was a problem boiling under the surface with artists and his bosses."

By the early Seventies, Wilson had moved to Los Angeles and was a founding partner of the Record Plant, one of the city's most in-demand studios. He kept his hand in the studio, producing Gil Scott-Heron and Country Joe and the Fish, but he began looking toward life beyond record-making, which included stage, screen and multimedia projects. In a music-conference speech he gave during this time, he said, prophetically, "We are entering into an era of complex mixed media where varied information — pictures, sounds, symbols — will become fused into a freely associative entertainment form." Cale's last memory of Wilson is seeing his former producer at a movie screening in L.A. "There was Tom, looking very suave and with a gigantic yellow postal bag packed with scripts," says Cale. "He said, 'I got this thing here and that thing here.' What an image, but that's the image you needed in Hollywood."

For what would have been his passion project, Wilson began working on an R&B opera, Mind Flyers of Gondwana. "Tom loved music, but that was not his ultimate goal," says Richo. "He wanted to be a creator." Music and lyrics were written, and Wilson had a cast in mind that would have included Gladys Knight, Minnie Riperton and the Righteous Brothers. Unfortunately, Wilson's next career act was cut tragically short. He suffered from Marfan syndrome, a disease that weakens the aorta and is associated with those who, like Wilson, are tall, thin and have especially long limbs. Wilson had his first heart attack in 1976; he recovered, but a second rupture, two years later, killed him at age 47. Despite their past differences, Dylan attended Wilson's memorial service.

For decades after, Wilson's name was largely lost to history. To this day, his family doesn't receive royalties, since Wilson signed contracts at a time before producers received such payments. Wilson's image and name were so low key that some in his business didn't even realize he was African-American. About 20 years ago, Street and journalist Greg Tate were watching a clip of Wilson, and both were stunned by the realization. "Greg said, 'Did you know he was a brother?'" Street recalls. "Our jaws dropped. For the two of us, it was like the skies had opened up."

On the 50th anniversary of "Like a Rolling Stone," one of his two favorite records with Dylan (the other being "Subterranean Homesick Blues"), Wilson may finally be receiving his due. Music journalist and historian Irwin Chusid has launched an extensively researched website that details Wilson's career and discography. Marshall Crenshaw is exploring a documentary on the producer, and Atlanta playwright Calvin Ramsey is also researching a play based on Wilson's groundbreaking life and career. For the musicians who worked with him, Wilson's legacy lives on in the records they made with him. "He understood what we were trying to say," Cale says. "He'd been in the avant-garde, and Tom saw the musical background of what was in our arrangements. We kept pushing and improvising, and he didn't bat an eye."