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From Sun Ra to The Velvet Underground: The Producer Who Made a Lane For The Strange

When people think of some of the greatest producers of the 20th century many people think of guys like Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, George Martin, Quincy Jones, Teo Macero, or Brian Eno. One producer who doesn’t come up often and has seemed to have faded away into obscurity is Tom Wilson. Recently, I’ve been listening to some of Tom Wilson’s work nonstop so I would like to highlight him and hope he can be brought back into popularity.

Tom Wilson got his start during the 50s when he started his own record label for jazz records called Transition Records. This label would introduce a lot of people to the newest genre pushing talents in jazz like Donald Byrd and Cecil Taylor. Wilson also got to produce a Cecil Taylor album with John Coltrane as the saxophonist that would later be released as “Coltrane Time” under Coltrane’s name.

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But most notably, Tom Wilson introduced the world to Sun Ra, who would become one of the greatest jazz artists of all time and an influence on many artists. Tom Wilson was not only putting artists out on his label but was also producing their albums as well as giving them a place to experiment.

After his run at Transition ended, Tom Wilson would end up at Columbia records becoming the first African American to hold the staff producer title at Columbia.

This is where he would start to produce for his most famous collaborator– Bob Dylan. Wilson started to produce for Dylan during “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” sessions. He produced four tracks on the album which many claim this is Dylans best album during his folk period. Wilson initially wasn’t too excited about working with Dylan because he favored jazz over folk but after hearing his lyrics he was “flabbergasted.”

He would go onto produce “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and “Another Side of Bob Dylan.” Their collaboration really started to shine on Dylans next album “Bringing It All Back Home” where Dylan famously went electric which would cause one of the largest shifts in rock music. You can hear Wilson’s voice at the start of Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream and you can even see him in an alternate take of the famous “Subterranean Homesick Blues” music video.

Many people credit Wilson with causing Dylan to go electric but that is up for debate, he certainly helped bring it together at the very least. Wilson and Dylan’s collaboration would end after Wilson produced “Like a Rolling Stone” but would get replaced for Bob Johnston for the rest of the Highway 61 sessions.

While at Columbia, Tom Wilson also produced the first Simon and Garfunkel album ” Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” This album at first did not do well which led to Simon and Garfunkel splitting up, but then eventually “The Sound of Silence” would gain a bit of airplay at college radio stations.

Wilson, seeing the minor success, would then create a version of the song with a rock backing band which caused it to be a number one hit and would bring Simon and Garfunkel to get back together and go on to become some of the highest selling artists of all time.

After leaving Columbia Wilson would end up at MGM where he would eventually get with The Velvet Underground. Even though Andy Warhol is listed as the producer Lou Reed and John Cale both state the Tom Wilson was the real producer of the groups debut ” The Velvet Underground & Nico.”

This album wasn’t initially commercially successful but would eventually become on of the most influential albums of all time and would be credited with many sub-genres of rock music like punk and drone. Wilson would produce the next Velvet Underground album “White Light/White Heat” which again was extremely influential and eventually loved by many.

Wilson would also produce Nico’s first album “Chelsea Girl” which again for a third time would go onto become a loved and influential album. John Cale would go onto say that “The band never again had as good a producer as Tom Wilson.”

While at MGM, within two months of producing the first Velvet Underground album, Wilson went on to produce the first Mothers of Invention album “Freak Out” which would start Frank Zappa’s career and would be a hugely influential album being cited as a major influence on The Beatles “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

He would go on to produce the second Mothers of Invention album “Absolutely Free.” Zappa states that “Tom Wilson was a great guy. He had vision, you know? And he really stood by us” and also “Wilson was sticking his neck out. He laid his job on the line by producing the album.”

Many of the albums Tom Wilson would work on would have the same thing associated with them: risk and influence. Wilson never wasn’t pushing the norms of music and the artists he was working whether it was Sun Ra’s space jazz, Dylans electric era, or The Velvet Underground creating early punk rock Wilson pushed for it. He would bring many of the best albums into fruition and for that I hope the next time the greatest producer conversation is being discussed Tom Wilson is in that conversation.