The Song Remains: Eric Weissberg 1939-2020

To many, Eric Weissberg, who died on March 22nd, 2020, from Alzheimer’s Disease, was a one-hit wonder with ‘Duelling Banjos’ from John Boorman’s 1972 film ‘Deliverance’. However, he was so much more than that, being one of the first young urban musicians to join the ‘50s folk revival, a populariser of bluegrass and the banjo and a major session and touring musician, adept on any stringed instrument including banjo, dobro, guitar, fiddle, mandolin and pedal steel.

Eric was born on August 16th, 1939, in New York City and his first big influence was Pete Seeger from whom he took banjo lessons. He performed on local radio from an early age and attended the prestigious Juilliard School Of Music. From the age of 17 he, like many other aspiring folk musicians, attended the Sunday afternoon jam sessions in Washington Square. It was through these informal get-togethers he formed The Greenbriar Boys with John Herald and Bob Yellin, leaving the group before their recording debut. The Greenbriar Boys were one of the first groups to start turning bluegrass from a Southern form of music into an international phenomenon. In 1959 he joined the influential folk group The Tarriers and appeared on their 1960 Atlantic album ‘Tell The World About This’ and two subsequent live albums.

In 1963 Eric issued the Electra album ‘New Dimensions In Banjo And Bluegrass’ featuring himself and Marshall Brickman on banjo and a young Clarence White on guitar. It was a set of bluegrass instrumentals and was very influential on the next generation of bluegrass players including Tony Trischka, Pete Wernick and that well-known banjo player, actor and comedian Steve Martin. As well as his own recording career, Eric also played on many folk related sessions for artists such as Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Ian and Sylvia, Tim Rose, Buffy Saint-Marie and Doc Watson.

As the popularity of folk music waned in the late ‘60s, Eric moved into general session work and quickly became one of the top session players in New York playing on records by  Jim Croce, Melanie, Art Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Frankie Valli, Loudon Wainwright III, Talking Heads and jazz artists Herbie Mann and Bob James as well as countless others. In 1969 he founded the short-lived Blue Velvet Band with Jim Rooney, Bill Keith and Richard Greene and recorded one country rock album ‘Sweet Moments With The Blue Velvet Band’.

It was his reputation as a leading session musician that lead to his involvement with the ‘Deliverance’ soundtrack when Warner Brothers Executive Joe Boyd asked him to record Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith’s ‘Feudin Banjos’ for a scene in the film. Eric arranged and recorded the film version with fellow banjo and guitar player Steve Mandell. When the film was successful Warner Brothers quickly released the track as ‘Duelling Banjos’ and as a single it went to number 2 in America and Canada. Warner Brothers capitalised on this success by re-issuing Eric’s ‘New Dimensions In Banjo And Bluegrass’, which they now owned following their acquisition of Electra,  with two original tracks replaced by ‘Duelling Banjos’ and its B-side and now titled ‘Duelling Banjos: From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Deliverance’ in 1973. This was done without Eric’s involvement or agreement. However, the album went to number one in America and Canada selling a phenomenal amount of copies and winning the Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Warner Brothers repaired their relationship with Eric by giving him a solo deal for a follow-up album, 1973’s ‘Rural Free Delivery’. When it was released it was credited to Eric Weissberg And Deliverance and was a fun mix of country rock and bluegrass and has been called “a good example of early ‘70s proto-Americana” by Joe Sixpack.

Eric kept touring with Deliverance but gradually returned to full-time session work. He was again in the public eye when in 1975 he appeared on ‘Meet Me In The Morning’ from Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood On The Tracks’ album. Session work continued to occupy him in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s he became part of Art Garfunkel’s touring band and played selected sessions such as Nanci Griffith’s ‘Other Voices’. He kept working in the ‘00s and ’10s until health problems prevent him from playing music. In February 2009 he performed at the celebration of President Lincoln’s 200th birthday on solo banjo.

Eric Weissberg was one of the founding architects of what is now called American roots music as it moved out of its geographical home locations and into national and international awareness and popularity.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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