Remembrance: Eric Weissberg

(Photo by Robert Selkowitz)

I’m not the only one who loved Eric Weissberg. There are legions of us, many who were enraptured by the musical cut of the man, many who teed it up onstage beside this giant and were privileged to go along for the ride as his splendid banjo picking drove a band headlong into wild uncharted territory.

There was great sadness when he passed away Sunday, March 22 in Michigan from what they call complications arising from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 80 years old, and he and his wife Juliet had left their Woodstock home in the last year to be nearer to their son, Will, his wife Jessica and their daughter Elara and now a new grandson Nash.

But there is also joy at a life well lived.

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Other obits have focused on the fact that he was the guy who played banjo on Dueling Banjos, for the movie Deliverance. And that recording did play a big part in his career, winning a Grammy and crossing over to make it to No. 2 on the Billboard charts.

But hey, the guy was a Julliard trained classical upright bassist, and could play virtually any stringed instrument at a moment’s notice — guitar, mandolin, fiddle, dobro…he played the steel guitar on John Denver’s Country Roads, without having played the complicated instrument before. That’s a pretty good guy to have in any band.

He traveled the world with music, touring with Judy Collins, the Tarriers, Denver, Art Garfunkel, Tom Paxton, and his versatility, as well as his musical chops allowed him to make a fine living in the session salad days of New York City from the 1960s into the 1990s. You can find him on literally hundreds of albums from the Clancy Brothers to Richie Havens, Collins, Denver, Doc Watson; he was on Billy Joel’s Piano Man record, Rick Danko’s Times Like These; Nanci Griffith; Talking Heads; Dylan’s Blood on The Tracks, and on and on.

His 1963 album, recorded with Marshall Brickman and Clarence White, New Dimensions In Banjo and Bluegrass was a seminal work, influencing banjo players all over the world, players like Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck and more. He was great friends with fellow banjo icon Bill Keith, who lived just down the road from the Weissbergs here in Woodstock.

Eric always said that his favorite recording was Sweet Moments With the Blue Velvet Band, a 1969 recording he made with Keith, guitarist and singer Jim Rooney and fiddler Richard Greene.

Rooney tells the story in his remembrance of Eric, posted on Facebook.

“Sometime in the Spring of 1969 I was living in New York, working for the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals, and Izzy Young asked me if Bill Keith and I would do a concert at the Washington Square Church. By this time Bill had taken up the pedal steel in addition to the banjo, and we thought it might be fun to do a split concert of bluegrass and country music. Both of us immediately thought of Eric, who by this time had become one of the top session musicians in New York. He could play banjo and mandolin on some things and electric guitar on others. Eric was up for it and we quickly threw together a couple of sets. On the afternoon of the concert we were rehearsing in the church when Richard Greene poked his head in the door. Richard was fresh from playing fiddle with Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys and was in the process of putting together SeaTrain with Peter Rowan. We invited Richard to join us on the spot. We were so happy with the results that I got in touch with a couple of record labels and before we knew it Warner Bros. Records signed us to do an album. We called ourselves The Blue Velvet Band. Our album Sweet Moments with The Blue Velvet Band became one of those underground cult favorites, and Eric, who had played on literally thousands of recording sessions, always said that it was his absolute favorite of all the records he had played on.”

 

Eric kept his oldest friends like Mickey Vandow and Bill Zalesky, close.

“To write only a paragraph about a man who could fill volumes seems a daunting task,” writes Zalesky. “Suffice to say my decades with Eric have had a lasting effect on my life. His love of music, sports, and high quality cars is well known but his dedication to motorcycling is most impressive. With our small group of friends we were brought to new heights of experience. Eric suffered no fools and lived his life on his own terms, a philosophy he passed on to me. Through Eric I experienced a host new facets of life; I rode through every part of this country,  partook in readying and polishing his amazing Bentlys for award winning shows, I shot rapids, jumped out of airplanes and came to appreciate his beloved ‘NY STEMS’ as he referred to his favorite baseball team. His humor will be missed but his memory is mine forever and I shall cherish them.”

Another long time friend and musical cohort is Happy Traum.

“Eric Weissberg and I had been friends since we met, in the mid-Fifties, at the High School of Music and Art in New York City,” writes Happy. “Eric was one of those rare souls about whom one can truly say ‘What you see is what you get.’ Despite his prodigious talents and musical successes, he was humble, down-to-earth, and an easy-going companion with not a bit of artifice in him. He had many wonderful stories from his long career that he told in minute detail and with a twinkle of good humor that could keep you entertained for hours. I’ll miss him terribly.”

 

“In Woodstock for several years there was a weekly bluegrass session at the Harmony restaurant,” writes Jim Rooney. “Bill Keith did it until his health started to fail and then Eric stepped in. This was not about money or playing to a large audience, it was about playing and singing for the sheer joy of it and the camaraderie. Eric never lost that.”

That was our Bluegrass Clubhouse, that Jim was talking about. Eric had subbed with our Saturday Night Bluegrass Band for years before taking over for Bill, and we were the lucky ones to have two of the great pioneers of the instrument grace our band.

Eric played far beyond the time anyone would have thought he could. We helped him get the banjo together, get the capo on straight, but when the song started, there was that roaring three finger picking style propelling the music to glory, and him hitting every note of his singing part.

And when he could no longer play, the disease robbing even his fingers, we would gather at his house, me, Tim Kapeluck, Fooch Fischetti, Geoff Harden, and when they could, Jim Rooney and Happy, and sing and play for him. He’d sit and sing along, with a big smile, his harmony on the Jimmie Rodgers tune Miss the Mississippi as true as ever, sometimes a tear falling from his eye…or was it mine?

So long, pal. Your music and spirit lives on with us, and with so many others who love you. We’ll never forget.