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.”