The Black Man Behind Bob Dylan
“I believe that everyone involved with the process of producing and purveying records is creative, or should be.”
Those words are attributed to Tom Wilson—supposedly from an unearthed transcript of a speech the gifted producer was set to give at an industry event sometime in 1966. Tom Wilson was the man behind some of the biggest and most influential rock music of the 1960s; having produced songs and albums for legendary figures such as Bob Dylan, The Animals, Simon & Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground and solo works by Nico. Prior to that, Wilson had founded Transition Records, and produced sessions for artists like Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and John Coltrane.
While recording jazz records at Transition, Wilson caught the attention of Columbia Records. His time at Columbia would prove to be fateful and fruitful; it was during his first six months with the industry giant that he was introduced to Bob Dylan.
“I didn’t even particularly like folk music,” Wilson said in an interview with Melody Maker in 1976. “I’d been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane, and I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. This guy played like the dumb guys. But then these words came out. I was flabbergasted. 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.’”
He’d studied political science and economics at Harvard, graduating cum laude—and he was president of the school’s chapter of the Young Republicans. Having run the Harvard New Jazz Committee, he founded Transition in 1955, producing radio shows and eventually becoming jazz A&R director for Savoy. After tenures at United Artists and Audio Fidelity, Wilson was hired as a staff producer for Columbia in 1963.
Wilson began producing Dylan, the folk sensation who’d become a mainstream star on the heels of his lauded second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in 1963. Their first album together was Dylan’s first LP of all-original compositions, The Times They Are A-Changin’. Wilson became Dylan’s producer for the next three albums, helming the records that would shift Dylan’s sound and image tremendously; as the singer-songwriter evolved from folkie protest singer to abstract hipster poet rocker.
In the summer of 1965, Wilson produced Dylan’s latest creation, a sneering anthem that would become one of the ‘60s defining songs, the opus “Like a Rolling Stone.” With that single, Dylan’s transformation into bonafide rock star was complete; but it would be the last track Wilson would record with Dylan. The notoriously headstrong star became frustrated with Wilson’s hands-on approach to producing, culminating in a heated exchange in the studio over Al Kooper’s organ-playing. Wilson was replaced with Bob Johnston when recording on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album was resumed.
But there was much more to Tom Wilson’s legacy than Bob Dylan classics. Shortly after meeting Dylan, Wilson started session work with Simon & Garfunkel, as the duo was readying their debut album. Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. was a commercial failure, but after the acoustic ballad “The Sound of Silence” began getting widespread airplay, Wilson remixed the folk-pop tune with rock instrumentation—in the spirit of The Byrds’ hit “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Using the backing musicians that had played on “Like a Rolling Stone” earlier in the day, Wilson added rock instrumentation to “The Sound of Silence,” and the remixed song was released as an official single. His assertiveness may have sometimes led to annoyance (as it did with Dylan), but it oftentimes paid off. Simon & Garfunkel had no idea the song had been remixed until after the single had been released, but almost a year after Wednesday Morning’s release, “The Sound of Silence” became the No. 1 song in America.
Being named the East Coast A&R Director for Verve Records in late 1965, Wilson produced tracks for the Velvet Underground on their classic debut The Velvet Underground and Nico, though his heavy-handedness again caused some concern after he remixed the group’s “Sunday Morning” without their consent. Wilson also had an eye for talent and a knack for spotting diamonds in the rough; he was instrumental in signing jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention—a group that most labels considered too “out there” even for the psychedelic 60s.
“Tom Wilson was a great guy. He had vision, you know? And he really stood by us,” Zappa would tell MTV in 1986. “He had a fascinating ability to read The Wall Street Journal, have a blonde sitting on his lap, and tell the engineer to add more compression to the vocal all at the same time. But by the time we started working on our third album, he was not talking to the engineer as much and talking to the blonde a little bit more, and so I said, ‘Well, why don’t you just let me produce this? I know you have other things on your mind.’ We’re Only in It for the Money was the first album that I produced. He produced the first two.” Despite their frustrations, John Cale of the Velvet Underground also mused that “The band never again had as good a producer as Tom Wilson.”
While many praise Wilson’s openness in working with so many white rock artists, some believed that Wilson was conflicted about race. He was often in the company of mostly white friends and associates, with an associate declaring in a 1968 interview with the New York Times that, “Tom plays at being a spade, actually he’s more white, and some of the Negroes in the business don’t like him.” In that same article, Wilson sounded less sure of his position amongst white people. “If there’s a race war,” Wilson said at the time. “I might join. It depends where I am at the time.”
Friends claimed that in the ‘70s as the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements waned, Wilson became bitter towards the struggle and felt that black people weren’t moving forward because of past bitterness. He’d been executive assistant to the New York State Commission for Human Rights, but according to The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Wilson’s friend Carol Browning said that Wilson couldn’t relate to black disillusionment in the 1970s. “Tom felt let down by blacks,” she said. “He felt that after the civil rights successes of the ’50s and ’60s, blacks should stop complaining and get on with it. He felt they caused many of their own problems by carrying such large chips on their shoulders.”
Wilson was also far removed from the music industry of the 1970s; with the swinging ‘60s in the rear view and disco and punk on the horizon, the sounds of Tom Wilson seemed to come from a long-ago age. Wilson rarely gave interviews and wasn’t in the public eye very much in his final years. He died in 1978 of a heart attack.
Wilson hasn’t become a widely known figure in popular music history, despite the fact that he was there for folk rock’s birth and helped guide the sound and statements of artists who would push rock music into more experimental and artistically-challenging directions. He’s a fascinatingly mysterious figure, a black Republican from Texas who graduated from Harvard and produced legendary misfits. His greatest gift was allowing these visionaries to be who they were—while also adding a little bit of himself to the mix. He believed in the individual, as an artist and as a business.
“You know why I went independent?” he rhetorically asked the New York Times in 1968. “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.”