Photo by Don Hunstein
The Highway 61 Sessions
by Harvey Brooks
It was July 29, 1965. I was playing a gig with an unknown pop trio at the Sniffin Court Inn on East 36th Street in Manhattan. During a break, I went next door to my usual hangout between sets, the Burger Heaven, where I got a phone call from my friend, Al Kooper. “Can you play bass tomorrow on a recording session with Bob Dylan?” I responded, “Who is Bob Dylan?” Al filled me in, and I took the gig.
After my morning coffee, I drove from my parents house in Queens to Manhattan in my recently acquired 1965 Ford Mustang 2+2. I parked in the indoor garage on 54th Street and crossed the street to 799 Seventh Avenue. I then took the elevator to the seventh floor, where Columbia Studio A was located. It was there that I would record Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album.
I opened the door to the control room, took a deep breath and entered. A thin, frizzy-haired guy dressed in Levi jeans and boots was standing in the front of the mixing console listening to a playback of what turned out to be “Like a Rolling Stone.” I assumed this was Bob Dylan. I spotted Al walking toward me from the back of the control room and introductions were made. Dylan affirmed my existence and went back to his listening.
Al then walked me around to the control room to meet the producer, Bob Johnston, and Albert Grossman, Bob’s manager. Grossman was a Ben Franklin look alike who had a long gray ponytail and wore round wire-rimmed glasses. With introductions over, it was time to set-up. I walked into the studio, plugged into an Ampeg B-15 bass amp and began to tune.
Though I was only 21-years-old, I had already been on tour and had performed with many R&B acts, which included the Brooklyn Apollo with Chuck Jackson, Baby Washington and the Exciters. I had worked with varying styles and felt I could adapt to about anything on the fly. For that reason, I was looking forward to any musical challenge Bob Dylan would throw my way.
Abruptly, the studio door burst open and in stormed guitarist Michael Bloomfield, an intense spark of pure energy. He was wearing penny loafers, jeans and a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves. He had a Fender telecaster hanging over his shoulder and his smile was electric. Though it was the first time we had met, I felt an instant simpatico with him
The other players on the session included Bobby Gregg on drums, Paul Griffin and Frank Owens on piano and Al on organ. At the first session, Joe Macho Jr. or Russ Savakus had played bass, but Dylan wanted a more sympathetic feel for the rest of the sessions. He was looking for a bass player that felt comfortable with the bass line and had the ability to pick up changes quickly. Al knew I was a good choice, which is why he recommended me to Dylan. It was not enough to be a skilled studio musician in a Dylan recording session.
In talking to Bob, I admitted to him that I hadn’t heard any of his music before the session, but was very impressed with Like a Rolling Stone, which I heard when I walked into the studio. “Well, these are a little different,” Bob responded. I assumed he meant from his past work, but Bob was bit vague. He gave me a kind of crooked smile and then lit up a cigarette.
Tom Wilson, who had produced Like a Rolling Stone a couple of weeks earlier, was replaced for unknown reasons. The new producer was Bob Johnston, a Columbia staff producer from Nashville who was already producing Patti Page when he got the Dylan assignment.
Johnston had a documentary-style “keep the tape rolling” approach to producing, which allowed him to capture a live feeling and special moments that happen between takes in the studio. He was frustrated by the technical bureaucracy at Columbia and ordered several tape machines brought into the control room, so he could keep one running at all times in order to capture anything Dylan might want to keep. This tactic worked quite well for both Bobs.
Though the first session for Highway 61 Revisited had been recorded two weeks earlier, a lot had happened in the interim. Like a Rolling Stone, recorded at the first session, had been released and caught on like fire. Four days earlier, Dylan had been booed by the crowd when he had gone electric at the Newport Folk Festival. It was a pivotal time in his career. He was in the transition from being a “pure” folk artist to becoming a rock and roll legend!
Here I was at the second session, uncertain and waiting to hear what was on Bob’s mind. In a few minutes, he came out of the control room and started to sing the first of three songs we would work on that day. Johnston had setup three-sided baffles, leaving the side that faced the band open so we could see him. Bob sang the first song, Tombstone Blues, a few times. There were no chord charts for anyone. It was all done by ear. As a habit, I made a few quick chord charts for myself as I listened to him perform the song. Everyone focused on Bob, watching for every nuance. Then, the band went for it.
As we began recording, Bob was still working on the lyrics. He was constantly editing as we were recording. I thought it was an amazing way that he worked. His guitar or piano part was the guiding element through each song. Every musician in that room had their eyes and ears glued to him, yet his poker face never revealed what he was thinking.
It might have taken a couple of takes for everyone to lock in. There were mistakes, of course, but they didn’t matter to Bob. If the feel was there and the performance was successful, that’s all he cared about. In real life, that’s the way it is. If the overall performance happens, it’s a keeper. Bob would go into the control room and listen. Bob Johnston may have been the producer keeping the tape rolling, but it was all Bob Dylan deciding what felt right and what didn’t.
As we played, I quickly learned about the different members of the band. Bobby Gregg was a very good, straight ahead studio drummer. He was the kind of player that let you create your part of the music by setting up the rhythmic pattern of the song and keeping the tempo relaxed.
The phrasing of Dylan and Bloomfield was very sympathetic. An explosive player, Bloomfield was aggressive and played a little bit in front of the beat on rhythm parts. My goal was to find a bassline that made the groove happen. Bob set the feel and direction with his rhythm and my bass parts reflected what I got from the rhythm guitar or piano and Bobby Greggs’ drums. It was necessary for me to play simple and solid so that all the energy coming from Bloomfield was maintained. If everybody were to rush, the tempo would be fluctuating back and forth. Bob loved Michael, who was a unique guitar player. He was not your relaxed, in the pocket groove guy. He went for it all the time.
Most of my previous playing experience had been in R&B bands that performed tunes by Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Playing with Bob Dylan was much more personal because he was writing new songs about people and events. Next, we recorded “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” and “Positively 4th Street” the same way. Masters for the three songs were successfully recorded on July 29. “Tombstone Blues” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” were included on the final Highway 61 Revisited album, but “Positively 4th Street” was issued as a single-only release.
After we recorded Positively 4th Street, I sat down in the control room and really listened to the lyrics. This was not a love song. This was not Kumbaya. He was telling somebody off in no uncertain terms.
I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is to see you
At the close of the session that first night, Bob attempted to record “Desolation Row,” accompanied only by Al on electric guitar and me on bass. There was no drummer, as Bobby Gregg had already gone home. This electric version was eventually released in 2005 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 album.
Bob Johnston had a love of and even a bias toward Nashville musicians. It became an underlying topic the entire session about how great they were. He kept talking about how cool Nashville is. With his repeated comments, I felt it was bit disparaging for us. I felt Johnston thought of us as New York bumpkins. His Nashville bias played into Desolation Row. In my opinion the version without drums that Al and I had done that night was slower and definitely more soulful. Clearly, Johnston thought otherwise. On August 2, five more takes were done on Desolation Row!
However, the version of the song ultimately used on the album was recorded at an overdub session on August 4. This time, Johnston’s personal friend, Nashville guitarist Charlie McCoy, who is a great player, was visiting New York City and was invited to contribute an improvised acoustic guitar part. Russ Savakus played bass. We were gone by the time the final take was recorded.
Johnston’s love of Nashville would eventually take him there. After a couple of years in New York City, he became head of Columbia Records in Nashville. He finally joined the session musicians that he liked so much. After our album, Johnston’s relationship with Dylan was cemented. He went on to produce Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in 1966, John Wesley Harding in 1967, Nashville Skyline in 1969 and both Self Portrait and New Morning, another Dylan record I played on, in 1970.
When I left the studio after the final session, I didn’t have any sense of whether or not we had created a hit record. I did know, however, that all the songs felt good. They felt solid. I now understand why Highway 61 Revisited was a successful record. Bob got it. It’s an amazing talent when one knows what to go for. He’d check it out. When he got what he wanted, he’d say “that’s it...next.” Occasionally, someone would suggest trying another take. But most of the time Bob was in control. In looking back, my childhood friend Al Kuperschmid/Kooper had given me a step up in my career.
(This is an excerpt from View From The Bottom, a soon to be published book by Harvey Brooks and Frank Beacham)