The Greatest Music Producer You’ve Never Heard of Is . . .

Tom Wilson, a Harvard-educated Republican from Waco who helped launch the careers of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Lou Reed, and a few other musicians you might have heard of.
Tue January 7, 2014 9:00 am
Record producer and DJ Tom Wilson outside ABC Studios, in New York, to promote his radio show “The Music Factory” on June 21, 1967.
Getty Images

Music fans everywhere were pleased to see the announcement last month that Kiss will finally make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Cat Stevens, Hall and Oates, and producer Andrew Loog Oldham. The class of 2014 brings the total number of people inducted into the Hall to 719, a vaunted list that includes many performers but also at least a dozen producers, including heavyweights like George Martin, Quincy Jones, Phil Spector, and Jerry Wexler.

But there’s a key name that’s missing among them, and it is a travesty that the Hall has yet to acknowledge one of the most important producers of the fifties and sixties. Without this producer, Bob Dylan would not have broken through like he did—effectively bringing on the swinging sixties and changing music forever. Without this producer, Simon and Garfunkel might have quit before they ever got started, the Velvet Underground might have stayed underground, Frank Zappa might have spent his career recording on hapless independent labels, and jazz greats Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor would definitely have labored longer in obscurity than they already did. This producer helped them all find their voices and realize their visions, revolutionizing American music. He was a Harvard graduate. He was a Republican. He was a black guy from Waco, Texas.

Tom Wilson was born on March 25, 1931, and grew up in a mixed neighborhood just east of Baylor University. His mother, Fannie Odessa Brown Wilson, was a librarian, and his father, Thomas Blanchard Wilson, was a diligent insurance salesman who worked long hours and made enough money ($2,080 in 1940, well above the national average of $1,368) to keep them in the middle class.

Music was a constant presence in the Wilson family. They attended New Hope Baptist Church, the oldest black church in town, whose most famous member was Jules Bledsoe, who sang “Old Man River” on Broadway in 1927 and became the first black opera star. Wilson’s father directed one of New Hope’s three choirs, including leading a performance at a Texas Centennial celebration in 1936, when Tom Jr. was five. His grandfather owned a rug laundry, where he hosted Saturday afternoon jam sessions. Tom learned to play the trombone at segregated Moore High School.

After Wilson graduated from Moore, he moved to Nashville and spent a year at Fisk University before transferring to Harvard, where, according to writer Eric Olsen, who wrote the entry on Wilson in The Encyclopedia of Record Producers, he headed the Young Republican Club and officially studied economics. Unofficially, the handsome six-foot-four Wilson studied jazz, joining the Harvard New Jazz Society and working at the college radio station, WHRB, where he set up jam sessions and got more and more involved in the local jazz scene.

After graduating cum laude in 1954, he borrowed $900 and started his own label, Transition Records. It was a new era in jazz, and Wilson wanted to release some of the sounds he was hearing. One of his first signings was the pioneer bebop trumpeter Donald Byrd, whom he recorded with pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey. Wilson went to Chicago to record an album by avant-garde pianist and bandleader Sun Ra, who at that point had made only a couple of 45’s. Wilson also recorded 23-year-old post-bop pianist Cecil Taylor, putting out Jazz Advance , which The Penguin Guide to Jazz calls “one of the most extraordinary debuts in jazz.” Wilson—who by now was married with a couple of kids—wasn’t just a producer, he was a small businessman who took photographs, designed album covers, and wrote liner notes. He was DIY before DIY was cool. 

In four years Wilson produced 22 albums (including an unreleased one featuring John Coltrane), but he ran into financial struggles and was forced to fold the label. He was offered a job as a jazz A&R (Artists and Repertoire) representative at United Artists in New York, the first in a series of similar jobs for other labels like Savoy Records and Audio Fidelity Records. He finally landed as a staff producer at Columbia Records in 1963, becoming the first African American to hold the position there.

His first significant job at Columbia was to finish an album by a young folk singer named Bob Dylan, who had done an album of mostly covers and was now halfway through a second album of mostly originals. Producers do a lot of different things. They take care of their artists, make them comfortable, push their buttons (it’s the engineer who actually twirls the knobs). Some producers, like Phil Spector, are heavy-handed auteurs, using musicians and singers to create something specific heard in their heads. Others are more like coaches, putting the right people together, setting the tone, making suggestions, giving encouragement, then getting out of the way. That was Wilson—a confident, genial man. “He was such an ebullient spirit,” remembered singer and songwriter Van Dyke Parks, whom Wilson signed around this time. “Charismatic, statuesque, and curiously empowering for those in his orbit.”

Tom Wilson, middle, with Bob Neuwirth, left, and Bob Dylan. From D. A. Pennebaker’s 1965 documentary Don’t Look Back.

At first Wilson wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of working with someone like Dylan. “I didn’t even particularly like folk music,” he later told Melody Maker . “I’d been recording Sun Ra and John Coltrane, and I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. This guy played like the dumb guys. But then these words came out.” He told Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, that they should put a band behind him—“you might have a white Ray Charles”—but Dylan was comfortable doing things solo.

The scruffy 20-year-old clicked with the well-dressed 30-year-old, and they developed a good working relationship, doing two more acoustic albums ( The Times They Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan ) before Wilson helped usher in the modern age in 1965 with Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s half-electric, half-acoustic tour de force. The year before, Wilson had

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