The King Of The '60s Sidemen Returns, 'Only Slightly Mad'

Oct 18, 2013
Originally published on October 18, 2013 10:13 pm

Only Slightly Mad, David Bromberg's new album, marks a substantial return for the multi-instrumentalist. In the late 1960s, Bromberg developed a reputation as a "first-call" guitarist, meaning that when artists — including Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Carly Simon, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and John Prine, to name a few — needed someone to record or play live with them, Bromberg was at the top of the shortlist.

The highly sought-after musician enjoyed years of collaborations with many of the music world's biggest players. But after a little over a decade, something changed.

"I got burned out in 1980," Bromberg says. "At one point, I was on the road for two years without being home for as long as two weeks, and I was too dumb to realize that it was burnout. I just felt I had to stop. I decided I was no longer a musician, if I had ever been one. But maybe the intelligent part of it is that I didn't want to be one of these guys who drags himself onto the stage and does a bitter imitation of something he used to love."

NPR's Robert Siegel spoke with Bromberg about his musical influences and how he occupied himself after a self-imposed hiatus from life on the road. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


I'm Robert Siegel - and this is David Bromberg.


SIEGEL: That's the opening lick of the first cut on Bromberg's new CD, called "Only Slightly Mad." It's got blues tunes and country songs, with echoes of bluegrass and gospel. Bromberg can also be heard on many of the songs on a newly released Bob Dylan CD, "Another Self-Portrait," songs from 40 years ago that were never released.

Even if the name David Bromberg doesn't ring a bell for you, you very possibly have heard him playing guitar.From the late 1960s, David Bromberg was a first-call guitarist. Artists needed someone to record with them or play live with them, and they called Bromberg.

What kind of artists?

DAVID BROMBERG: Well, let's see. Bob Dylan; Ringo Starr; Rick Derringer; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Carly Simon; Willie Nelson...

SIEGEL: George Harrison.


SIEGEL: Emmylou Harris?


SIEGEL: The Beastie Boys.

BROMBERG: Well, I didn't play with The Beastie Boys. They used a track of mine as a sample on one of their records.

SIEGEL: They decided you would be part of their performance.

BROMBERG: Yes, I was very flattered.

SIEGEL: Pete Seeger.

BROMBERG: Yeah, I played with Pete once or twice.

SIEGEL: Phoebe Snow.

BROMBERG: Yeah, on two of her CDs. And I knew her before she knew she could sing.

SIEGEL: The Eagles.

BROMBERG: Yeah. I'm on one of their records.

SIEGEL: John Prine.

BROMBERG: Yeah, I'm on one of John's.


BROMBERG: I've played live with him, too.

SIEGEL: What would happen - you'd just get a call to turn up at the studio? Or, we need somebody pronto?

BROMBERG: Yeah. Pretty much - we need somebody pronto. The most memorable one for me was speaking to Bob Dylan over the telephone for the first time. It took me a minute or two to be sure that it wasn't somebody putting me on. He said he was going to try out a studio. He wanted me to help him try out a studio, but it was just the two of us in there. You know, we just went through a ton of tunes, and that was a lot of the material on "Self-Portrait."


SIEGEL: Did we just hear you there?

BROMBERG: Yeah, I'm kind of in the background. I was playing dobro. You'll rarely hear too much of me right at the front of a tune. I used to like to let the thing settle in a little before I'd make an entrance, at least when I was doing it right.

SIEGEL: David Bromberg has been doing it right since he started playing guitar at age 13. In the early 1960s, he went to New York City for college at Columbia. He drifted into the folk music scene of Greenwich Village and there, he connected with a mentor and teacher, a guitarist who became his inspiration.

BROMBERG: I was one of the seeing eye dogs, more or less, for Rev. Gary Davis, who was a blind street singer and one of the great guitar players to walk the planet. And I would take him to his concerts, but also to church. That's where I discovered gospel music. I probably spent more time in churches than any Jewish boy you know.

SIEGEL: In addition to your being - as you say - a seeing eye dog for the Rev. Gary Davis, he taught you guitar. He was your teacher.

BROMBERG: Right. That was what I received in exchange for leading him to wherever he had to go. And I believe that all of the African-American blues players that I admire, I'm convinced it comes from preachers because preachers use rests, they use pauses for emphasis.


BROMBERG: Sometimes when I'm playing a solo, I literally think OK, I'm gonna preach this one.


BROMBERG: Most of my playing is informed by that. I tell people - who think I'm trying to be funny - that the rest is the best note I play.

SIEGEL: I want you to tell me about your other career - which is to say, making and selling violins.

BROMBERG: Well, I got burnt out in 1980. At one point, I was on the road for two years without being home for as long as two weeks. And I was too dumb to realize that it was burnout. I became very depressed because I just felt I had to stop. And I decided I was no longer a musician, if I'd ever been one. But maybe the intelligent part of it is that I didn't want to be one of these guys who drags himself onto the stage and does a bitter imitation of something he used to love.

So I decided I had to find another way to live my life. And at the time, I was living in Marin County; and the place where I found the most intellectual stimulation was a violin shop. So I decided to learn what I could about violins. The thing that intrigued me was how a person could pick up an instrument and without looking at what it says it is - you know, on a label on the inside - you look at the instrument and deduce when it was made, where it was made, and possibly even who made it. That's what I wanted to learn.

So in order to learn that, I went to and graduated from a violin -aking school. So technically, I'm a violinmaker. But I don't touch edge tools any longer. What I do is exactly what I was describing - people bring me instruments, and I tell them when and where it was made and sometimes by whom.

SIEGEL: You have a shop in Wilmington, Del. Do you sell violins?


SIEGEL: Do you have a website with...

BROMBERG: I have a website for the shop, but it's intentionally a very dumb website.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Why is it intentionally a very dumb website?

BROMBERG: Because I don't want to do business over the Internet - because I don't think that you can buy a violin over the Web.

SIEGEL: You talked earlier about how much you learned from the Rev. Gary Davis, and how much you learned from hearing preachers preach in black churches. Who were the other people who have taught you a lot?

BROMBERG: Well, there's a man named Jody Stecker(ph), and Jody was a huge influence on me. Of course, I learned a lot from records - Ray Charles and Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and The Contours. Jody Stecker - who I mentioned before - who is the least famous of the people I mentioned, he introduced me to the kinds of music that I probably wouldn't have met otherwise.

He also introduced me to the singing of The Pennywhistlers, who were seven housewives - I believe - from the Bronx; who sang mostly songs from the Balkans, and it's a capella. So here I am, I used to think of myself exclusively as an instrumentalist, and I realized that my favorite music is vocal.

SIEGEL: And you sing?

BROMBERG: Yeah, I've gotten to the point these days where I love the feeling of singing.


SIEGEL: What's it like listening to the radio with you? Are you constantly hearing tracks coming on and say, look, that's me over there. Hey, wait a minute - I'm on this one, too.

BROMBERG: You know, that's one of the big thrills of doing what I do, the first time you hear yourself on the radio.

SIEGEL: Are you ever surprised? I mean, do you hear a piece of music and it hits you in the middle - I forgot that I'm on this?

BROMBERG: Well, I'm not sure that I've ever heard anything on the radio that I played on, that I'd forgot, although I will say there are some things that I played on that I've probably heard on the radio, that I never knew I was on - and still don't because for a period when I was doing a lot of studio work, I did a lot of sessions for Mercury.

And Mercury would record these tunes, and they'd hire some singers to sing on them, and then they'd put them out with the name of a group, like Steam or The Archies. And these groups didn't exist.

SIEGEL: Right.

BROMBERG: I'm on a number of those, and I have no idea which ones.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) You were part of the property - the album.

BROMBERG: Yeah, I was one of the studio guys that got called.

SIEGEL: Well, you talked about it's been 30 years - more than 30 years - since you burnt out from touring as a musician. And you're back. And you're in your 60s now.


SIEGEL: How much can you do?

BROMBERG: That's a very good question. I've got to look in my iPhone and see when I'm going to be incapable of playing.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Well, I wish you the best on that score. David Bromberg, thanks a lot for talking with us.

BROMBERG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: David Bromberg's new CD is called "Only Slightly Mad."

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