Eric Weissberg RIP
Eric Weissberg, who has died aged eighty from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, was a bluegrass musician who was brought to pop prominence through his banjo playing on the instrumental Dueling Banjos in the 1972 film Deliverance.
In the film, which also stars Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox’s character jams on guitar with a banjo-playing local in the Georgia backwoods. Weissberg, who had established a formidable reputation as a session musician, playing banjo, electric and acoustic guitar, dobro, mandolin, acoustic bass, bass guitar and fiddle with equal proficiency, was asked by Warner Bros. music executive Joe Boyd to record Feudin’ Banjos, a tune written and recorded in 1955 by Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith, for the scene with guitarist Steve Mandell.
This resulted in Weissberg reaching a huge international audience, enjoying an unexpected hit single and winning the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Unfortunately, the track was mistakenly credited to Weissberg instead of Smith, who sued successfully, and although it wasn’t his mistake, Weissberg got the blame.
This didn’t stop Weissberg continuing as a successful session musician. Before recording Duelling Banjos he had already stood in for Pete Seeger with the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, playing a complicated banjo concerto at three weeks’ notice despite having just broken his arm in a motorcycle accident. After touring with Judy Collins he made a significant contribution to her Fifth Album, playing guitar on tracks including Pack Up Your Troubles, Thirsty Boots and Early Morning Rain and adding backing vocals on Collins’ version of activist-songwriter Malvina Reynolds’ It Isn’t Nice.
He had also played banjo on John Denver’s 1971 hit Country Roads, Take Me Home and he would go on to appear on albums including Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Billy Joel’s Piano Man and Talking Heads’ Little Creatures as well as working with jazz musicians, pianist Bob James and flautist Herbie Mann, and appearing on countless other recordings, TV shows, commercials and movie scores.
Weissberg was born in Brooklyn to Will, a jazz fan who worked as a publicity photographer for the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and Cecile, a liquor buyer for the Hilton hotel chain who played piano and introduced Eric to folk music.
By the time he began violin studies at the age of ten, Eric had already received banjo lessons at music camp from Pete Seeger, who invited him to hootenannies at his house. There, the young Eric heard luminaries Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly and became determined to be a musician. Having listened extensively to bluegrass records, he went on to study at Julliard Music School and made his first recordings for the Mike Seeger-produced album American Banjo Scruggs Style in 1957.
Through the informal music sessions that took place on Sunday afternoons in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, Eric joined Greenwich Village hillbillies the Greenbriar Boys and when Erik Darling (later of the Rooftop Singers) replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers, Eric took Darling’s place in the Tarriers folk group.
The Seeger connection continued for decades. After touring and recording with his band Deliverance, working with Tom Paxton and extensively with Art Garfunkel, Eric was invited to participate in the Weavers’ final reunion concert in 2003, singing and playing bass guitar with musicians he’d hero-worshipped as a teenager. He latterly had a regular gig in Woodstock with local legend Happy Traum until medical issues forced him to retire.
Eric Weissberg, musician, born August 16, 1939; died March 22, 2020.
From The Herald, April 9, 2020