Photo by PoPsie Randolph/
Michael Ochs Archives/
Tom Wilson may not be a household name, but the musicians he worked with certainly are. From Bob Dylan to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Simon & Garfunkel to The Velvet Underground, Wilson produced 1960s’ rock ‘n’ roll that’s gone from cutting-edge to enduring classic. The work he did as a producer at Columbia and Verve Records made an indelible mark on rock history.
Wilson was just 47 when he died of a heart attack 35 years ago today. In honor of his short but influential life and career, we’re sharing four great songs that wouldn't sound the same without Tom Wilson.
One of Wilson's earliest successes was Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Wilson shepherded Dylan and his band through endless style changes and personnel shifts until they found the perfect take – the one that would impact musicians from The Beatles to Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Costello. It made Dylan, already a star, into a force of nature.
When Tom Wilson got his hands on Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence," it was a gentle acoustic track. Inspired by the success of The Byrds' electric folk hit "Mr. Tambourine Man," Wilson added a rock ‘n’ roll arrangement with electric guitar and bass plus drums. Wilson didn’t tell the duo he was making the change, but we imagine they were pleased with the results. The Wilson-produced track was a success, hitting No. 1 on the charts, influencing a generation of folk rockers, and propelling Simon & Garfunkel to international fame.
Wilson wasn't done innovating in the rock world. When he produced the 1966 debut album of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, he helped usher in an entirely new sound. As Zappa recalled later, when Wilson worked with the band on "Who Are the Brain Police," he "was on the phone immediately to New York going, 'I don't know!' Trying to break it to 'em easy, I guess."
A list of musical game-changers of the 1960s wouldn't be complete without The Velvet Underground, and Wilson helped produce their seminal debut album as well. His influence was particularly felt on the track "Sunday Morning," which he specifically requested the band add to the album to release as a single. Wilson's production of the song added lush instrumentation that differs from the rest of the spare, stripped down The Velvet Underground & Nico, and it remains one of their most memorable songs.
Written by Linnea Crowther