Pushing boundaries wasn’t a producer’s job when Tom Wilson got into the game in the 1950s, but he made it his priority. Early in his career, he helped Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra explore the outermost edges of jazz. In the mid-’60s he basically willed folk rock into being, with a bit of help from Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and Jim and Jean. By the late 60s he was bringing the most radical minds in rock to the fore, overseeing the first studio exploits of The Velvet Underground, The Mothers of Invention, The Blues Project, and Soft Machine. A Black man in a predominantly white rock ‘n’ roll world, he challenged the status quo in every way possible, birthing some of the era’s most groundbreaking sounds.
Wilson’s life was a study in contrasts. His great aunt was a slave, but he graduated cum laude from Harvard with a degree in economics. He had a head for business and a conservative bent (he joined the Young Republicans at school and had mixed feelings about Black revolution), but he was an open-minded, artistic soul who could hang with the most forward-looking musicians on the planet.
Tom Wilson started his musical career in jazz. He inaugurated his Transition imprint in 1955, and by the following year, he’d unleashed two of the mightiest mavericks in jazz on the world at large with the debut LPs of both Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor (Jazz by Sun Ra and Jazz Advance, respectively.)
Ra’s astral orchestrations and Taylor’s musical cubism were still very much works in progress at the time, but they were still leagues beyond almost anything else happening in jazz. Wilson continued releasing records on Transition through 1957, but the label’s unsurprising lack of financial viability led him to seek something more remunerative. By 1959 Wilson was the jazz A&R man for United Artists.
At UA, and subsequently at Savoy, he was able to give artists like Ra and Taylor a wider audience while they expanded their sounds on records like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra and Taylor’s Hard Driving Jazz. But in 1963 Wilson took a job as a staff producer at Columbia Records, where his focus took a drastic stylistic shift.
Tom Wilson was paired rather unceremoniously with the label’s new folk phenom, Bob Dylan, reportedly due to clashes between legendary producer John Hammond and Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was two-thirds done, but Wilson aided in its completion, delivering the first real taste of Dylan’s game-changing songwriting mastery. The young Minnesotan’s lyrical wizardry won the jazz-minded Wilson over. “I was flabbergasted,” Wilson told Melody Maker’s Michael Watts in 1976, “I said to Albert Grossman, who was there in the studio, I said, ‘if you put some background to this you might have a white Ray Charles with a message.’”
Wilson facilitated Dylan’s next several evolutionary leaps, through the social commentary of The Times They Are A-Changin’ and the symbolism-heavy songpoetry of Another Side, taking an even bigger hand in the folk king’s adoption of electricity. On 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, the folk-rock explosion of tracks like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm” literally created a new genre, and the move was sparked by Wilson. “He brought in musicians like Bobby Gregg and Paul Griffin to play with me,” Dylan told Bill Flanagan in a Q&A for BobDylan.com, “Those guys were first class, they had insight into what I was about. Most studio musicians had no idea, they hadn’t listened to folk music or blues or anything like that.”
Wilson duly took credit for the progression, and in a 1969 Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner, the artist essentially agreed. “He did [initiate the change] to a certain extent,” said Dylan. “That is true. He did. He had a sound in mind.” Wilson helped Dylan take that sound even further on the surrealist roadhouse rockers of Highway 61 Revisited. By 1966, he was caroming off those innovations to expand the folk-rock idea beyond Dylan.
Simon & Garfunkel / Jim and Jean
Tom Wilson had brought Simon & Garfunkel to Columbia and overseen their little-heard, all-acoustic debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. In 1966 he applied the electric treatment to that LP’s band-less “The Sound of Silence” without even informing the duo. Wilson told Melody Maker, “I took Dylan’s backing band and went and overdubbed it, everything, on my own, ’cause they [S&G] weren’t around – they’d taken off after the record hadn’t done anything.” By the time the electrified “Sound of Silence” was released as a single, Wilson had moved to a better-paying gig at M.G.M/Verve, but he was vindicated when it went to No. 1 and led to a folk-rocking future for the pair.
One of Wilson’s earliest projects for Verve pushed the still-fresh rock/folk merger a step further. He brought Dylan session men like bassist Harvey Brooks, keyboardist Al Kooper, and the aforementioned drummer Bobby Gregg in to add something fresh to Greenwich Village folk duo Jim and Jean’s sound. The result was the cutting-edge album Changes, where Jim and Jean (who inspired the characters of the same name in the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis) performed songs written by the cream of the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement including Phil Ochs, David Blue, and Dylan. Especially ahead of the curve were Ochs’s art-folk odysseys “The Crucifixion” and “Flower Lady,” still unrecorded by their author at the time.
Tom Wilson and Frank Zappa
Having made the journey from folk into rock, Tom Wilson seemed to apply the outward-bound ideas he’d championed in his jazz days to the rock realm, just as psychedelia was starting to expand the music’s possibilities. It was only natural that he’d connect with the man who would become rock’s most indefatigable avant-gardist, Frank Zappa. After catching Zappa’s band, The Mothers, performing their edgy, apocalyptic “Trouble Every Day,” Wilson was impressed enough to bring them to Verve to cut their debut album, Freak Out!
Other than rechristening themselves The Mothers of Invention in accordance with Verve’s request for a name alteration, The Mothers made zero concessions to conventionality on their maiden voyage. Wilson reportedly let Zappa unleash his inner conductor and call the shots, while making sure Frank had everything he needed to realize his vision.
“I spent $25,000 on Freak Out! without telling the company anything about it,” Wilson told Melody Maker. “I promoted them myself. We went on a cross-country tour and sold 47,000 copies. I had to sell it or lose my job.” In Hit Parader, Zappa confirmed, “Wilson was sticking his neck out. He laid his job on the line by producing the album.” Freak Out! was probably the most radical “rock” album ever released by a major label at that point. But Zappa – never one to bestow compliments lightly – later told MTV, “Tom Wilson was a great guy. 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.”
Tall, handsome, impeccably attired, and endlessly charismatic, Wilson was the sort for whom the term “ladies’ man” was invented. He even drove around in an Aston Martin DB4, better known to movie lovers as the original James Bond car. Eventually, even some of Wilson’s most enthusiastic boosters would complain that he devoted too much attention to his love life, to the detriment of his work.
The Blues Project
In 1966, however, he clearly still had the balance right. After setting Zappa loose on the world, Tom Wilson brought The Blues Project’s first studio album into being. The band’s keyboardist, Al Kooper, had been in Wilson’s orbit since he invited Kooper along to a Dylan session and he ended up playing the epochal organ part on “Like a Rolling Stone.”
The first Blues Project album was a live recording that concentrated on the blues-rock side of their sound. But when the band hit the studio with Wilson to make Projections, the doors were opened wide. The jazzy simmer of the instrumental “Flute Thing,” the swirl of psychedelia and folk rock on “Steve’s Song,” and the floor-shaking R&B/rock stomper “Wake Me, Shake Me” share space with the searing blues updates of “I Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes” and “You Can’t Catch Me.” The album cemented The Blues Project’s status as one of the most exciting things coming out of New York City, at a time when the town had no shortage of electrifying acts.
The Velvet Underground
The most revolutionary New York band of the 60s (and maybe ever) became part of Tom Wilson’s world in 1967. He brought the Velvet Underground to Verve after they’d gotten the cold shoulder from a slew of other labels. Similar to Dylan, the Velvet Underground’s debut album was mostly in the can by the time Wilson came along. Andy Warhol was the nominal producer, but Wilson brought it across the finish line.
Wilson oversaw the re-recording of three key songs: the drug-deal street scene “I’m Waiting for the Man,” the junkie reverie “Heroin,” and the exotic, absolutely evil-sounding adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s S&M novel, “Venus in Furs.” Their like had never been heard before, and they still stand unparalleled more than half a century later. Wilson also aided in the realization of the shimmering, bittersweet ballad “Sunday Morning.”
“The band never again had as good a producer as Tom Wilson,” said John Cale in Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story. Wilson was there from start to finish for the second VU album, White Light/White Heat. In some ways the record was even more extreme than its predecessor. On “The Gift,” Cale recited a black-humored short story over an industrial meat grinder of a backing track, for a net effect as unprecedented as anything on the previous LP. And the 17-and-a-half-minute “Sister Ray” is a frenzied, delirious collision between Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, the Velvets’ monstrous mountain of fuzz and feedback, and the kind of free-improv that Wilson’s early avant-jazz work helped make possible.
Tom Wilson brought the second Mothers album into the world too. Absolutely Free amplifies the wild promise of Freak Out! in a million directions. Nods to conventionality like blues and 50s rock influences are thrown to the winds, while acidic humor, avant-garde composition, and Dadaism get free reign. On tunes like “Plastic People” and “Status Back Baby,” Zappa goes mustache deep in vicious social satire, eviscerating the hypocrisies of the hippies right alongside the establishment. Even for the 60s, it was as far from commerciality as you could get, but Wilson apparently felt right at home – so much so that he stuck around for 1968’s even more determinedly in-your-face We’re Only in It for the Money.
Wilson’s excursions to rock’s outer limits weren’t limited to American artists. He and Animals bassist/Jimi Hendrix manager/producer Chas Chandler produced the self-titled 1968 debut of The Soft Machine. The British keyboards/bass/drums trio foreshadowed the arrival of prog and jazz-rock with a raw, post-psychedelic sound that made them the darlings of the U.K. underground and the progenitors of what became known as the Canterbury sound, serving up ambitious art rock with a healthy side order of British whimsy.
The M.G.M./Verve-sponsored radio show The Music Factory, hosted by Wilson from 1967 to 1968, gave first New York and then the nation further evidence that the label’s hotshot producer was a cutting-edge character. He chatted candidly with happening artists like Tim Buckley, The Velvets, Janis Ian, Richie Havens, and The Lovin’ Spoonful as well as great, lesser-known acts like The Appletree Theater, Beacon Street Union, Bobby Callender, and Harumi. Amazingly, you can hear the shows in full at producer, writer, DJ, and polymath Irwin Chusid’s exhaustively curated Tom Wilson tribute site.
When he wasn’t enabling experimental rockers to splash their wildest dreams all over the ears of the public, Tom Wilson was helping artists with a subtler sensibility to realize their visions. Nico relied on his aid in establishing her musical identity outside the Velvet Underground with her 1967 solo LP, Chelsea Girl. She was backed by her VU bandmates and her then-paramour Jackson Browne. Probably the most touching moment amid the record’s mix of chamber pop and spare, wiry folk-rock was Browne’s yearning “These Days,” which he would cut on his own years later.
Wilson had led Dion down the folk-rock path a couple of years earlier, and in 1969 he helped secure the former doo-wop star’s new identity as a contemplative troubadour with Wonder Where I’m Bound. Dion’s mellower mode had briefly made cash registers chime with the 1968 smash “Abraham, Martin and John” but wouldn’t prove profitable past that. Sales weren’t the priority for the producer or his artist, though.
The most mysterious of Wilson’s musical mates was the man behind the 1968 album Harumi. Next to nothing is known about Japanese singer/songwriter Harumi Ando, who crafted a double album of dreamy, delicately flowing psychedelia with Wilson’s help. Its second half consists of two heady side-long epics, one featuring stoner spoken-word narrative (in English) by Harumi and legendary New York radio personality Rosko over tabla drums and koto. The other backs Japanese narrators with a steady-choogling psych-rock jam. The album made no commercial impact but eventually became a cult favorite. Harumi was never heard of again.
Who was Tom Wilson?
Tom Wilson left M.G.M./Verve in 1968 to start his own production/A&R company. By that time, he’d made major inroads as probably the first Black man supervising white artists at a major label. Not being particularly politicized, he kept his distance from the Black Power movement, but with his powerful personality and strong sense of self, he could become personally swept up in everyday struggles against prejudice. As the subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story by Ann Geracimos, he expressed his anger over the fact that, despite all his professional accomplishments, “some guy making $30 a week in the stock room gets the cab that won’t stop for me.”
“Tom Wilson straddled the post-war racial divide in a singular way,” says Irwin Chusid. “He was ambitious. If there was an advantage in being ‘authentically’ Black, he was a brother. If there was an advantage in being ‘inauthentically’ Black (i.e., sympathetically white), he pivoted. If it would get him a gig, a client, a paycheck, or laid, he had chameleonic superpowers. He kept people guessing. I suspect that he had, in his self-determinative way, transcended race, that ultimately he wasn’t interested in being a musical Jackie Robinson as much as he was interested in being Tom Wilson. If race was an issue, it was your issue. If color was a problem, it was your problem. If he didn’t cling to a community, not his concern. Tom had work to do, and no one – and no racial barrier – was going to get in his way.”
One thing’s for certain – Wilson had no time for small-mindedness of any sort. When Simon & Garfunkel were starting out, for instance, they considered changing their names. “They thought, being Jewish names, the jocks might not play the record,” Wilson told Melody Maker. “I said to them, ‘Gentlemen, this is 1965. It’s time to stop all that.’”
As a producer, his approach seemed to be about keeping things on track while staying out of the way as much as possible, favoring the artist’s comfort over technical perfection. In 1964 he told The New Yorker’s Nat Hentoff, “You don’t think in terms of orthodox recording techniques when you’re dealing with Dylan. You have to learn to be as free on this side of the glass as he is out there.” Ann Geracimos observed, “He has the knack of building up whatever talent a group or an artist has, by sitting back and letting things happen, guiding them offhandedly.”
Some of Wilson’s artists have stated that women and business eventually diverted too much of his attention from the music. But when notoriously irascible artists like Dylan and Zappa have sung your praises after making multiple albums with you, that speaks volumes. So does having a respected recording artist like Marshall Crenshaw funnel his energies into making a documentary about you. Crenshaw’s been working on a Wilson film ever since being blown away by Chusid’s website.
“Tom Wilson is really a singular figure in popular music history who shifted the landscape in so many ways during his time,” says Crenshaw. “If you look at the bullet points of his legacy, it’s remarkable. The synergy between him and Bob Dylan – you can’t overstate how important that was to popular music in the 60s, which was a time when music really was a driver of social change. Releasing the first records by Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor on his label back in the 50s set off something that still resonates and reverberates… I think that Wilson’s agenda was to try and raise the consciousness of popular culture, and that we have to credit him in the here and now for doing that.”
Wilson never quit working. He died way too young, suffering a fatal heart attack at 47 in 1978. If he’d lived long enough to get old, it seems certain he’d have achieved a goal he told Ann Geracimos about in 1968, when he said he was expending all this effort “so that I can sit back in old age… remembering how little I missed.”