Monday, August 29, 2011
BROTHER BruBru AKA MR. TAMBOURINE MAN
"There's a misunderstanding about me...truth is," he says as his eyes widen, "I don't like hanging out with musicians."
The joke goes over well as all in the room have a good laugh at the apparent untruth. "They act as if there is nothing left to learn. They feel that since they have this gift, that they're closer to God. Not me, of course," he adds as a punchline.
History shows quite the opposite was true in the case of Bruce Langhorne. He has, arguably, made more diverse and profound connections than perhaps anyone of his contemporaries from his heyday in New York's Greenwich Village. John Sebastian may dispute that. And maybe Bob Dylan. Or Mark Dann. But Brother BruBru, as he was later known, has performed and recorded with some of the most talented and outstanding giants of his era. He would later arrange and produce albums for other legends. He wasn't invited into the studio or to play on stage just because he was a "nice Negro." It was because he was a stellar musician and steadfast friend to all he encountered.
Langhorne was a musical virtouso since he was a child growing up in Upper Manhattan. His violin career ended at age 12 after an incident with a cherry bomb that he held in his right hand an instant too long. His musical life thereafter was a matter of being at just the right place at just the right instant.
That place, of course, was Gerde's Folk City.
When he got older, he spent many days and nights playing along with other musicians in Washington Square. His musical career took shape when he was introduced to Brother John Sellers. Sellers had become the regular Emcee at Gerde's during its infancy. He was primarily playing spirituals, Roots Music and Gospel during his regular sets at Folk City. Bruce eventually would sit in with Brother John as his able accompanist. His name and unique picking style started to become better known from the exposure he gained as a young man at Gerde's. As part of his extensive repertiore, Brother John also liked to play some stripped down contemporary Folk covers and it was at that time when Bruce remembers a surge in demand for his presence on stage.
"People started asking me to join them on stage to play with them 'cause I could play almost anything. Brother John was always there. I was always there and we basically became the house band for Gerde's. I was just a kid. I had the time of my life."
Some of that time was spent holding up the bar at Gerde's. The other side of the bar was usually occupied by my Grandfather. In the early 60s, Folk City was the only place to go to see and hear the legends of the Blues and continually provided crowds with the new voices of Folk.
"Gerde's was where I met almost everybody. Bobby, Joanie, Dennis Fariña, Carolyn Hester. I spent a lot of time off stage with them, too."
Soon, Bruce Langhorne was billed as the accompanist with fan favorites Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. Within several months, he would join Texas Songbird Carolyn Hester in the studio for her 1961 release on Vanguard. A newbie guitar player from Minnesota had befriended Hester in Boston just around that time and expressed a desire to play with her. Since she already had Bruce lined up to play guitar on her next record, she asked the boy if he'd be interested in playing harmonica in New York when the time came. The man-child was Bobby Dylan and the bassist on the album was Bill Lee, father of Spike. Ms. Hester thinks this may have been one of the first intergrated Folk recording. It certainly was Dylan's first time on vinyl. Dylan and Bruce would collaborate some years later. But that's another story.
Bruce remembers the solid vibe at Folk City and attributes it to the Old World feel given to it by its owner, Mike Porco. Bruce still holds a soft spot in his heart for Mike.
"Mike was a wonderful guy," he gushed. "The rest of the world was dealing with Black and White but there was NONE of that in there. We would sit at the bar and we'd all just talk and it was like a meeting of the minds."
In fact, when Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I have a Dream" speech, it was Bruce, Len Chandler, Dylan, Baez amongst others who have been credited with warming up the crowd on the mall in Washington, DC.
In the mid 60s, Bruce was invited to play in the studio with old friend, and by now, superstar Bob Dylan. Some outtakes that he recorded with Dylan for the "Freewheelin'" album surfaced decades later but he was it was his lead guitar work on 1965's seminal Folk-Rock defining album Bringing it All Back Home that has stood the test of time. And, as has been spelled out in so many words by the man himself, Bruce IS Mr. Tambourine Man.
But a man can't build a career on inspiring other artist's song titles. He had become one of the most sought after and, subsequently, historically important musicians during the genre's transition from Folk to Folk-Rock. Not only an acclaimed "session" artist, his ability to perform live is what separated Bruce from the thousands of aspiring artists in the Village. From his exposure gained at Folk City, he earned opportunities to play with The Clancy Brothers, Tom Rush, Richard & Mimi Fariña, John Sebastian, Richie Havens, Gordon Lightfoot, Eric Andersen, Peter Yarrow, Fred Neil, Joan Baez, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. He also played on some other instruments during studio sessions and performed live with Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, the Fariñas, and others. He produced Ramblin' Jack Elliott's album Young Bringham and has also done soundtrack work, including scoring Peter Fonda's movie The Hired Hand. There is hardly a more star studded resumé.
One of his more outstanding memories was being asked...more like told...by John P Hammond to not sit in with everyone on stage and to just sit down and LISTEN. "And he was right! The show became more enjoyable to me."
He also remembers time spent with another fellow guitar virtuoso. Bruce was at Folk City in 1962 when Bronx kid José Feliciano became a hit sensation at the cabaret. As one would expect, the notoriously gregarious characters became fast friends. He remembers sitting around with José one day when they were both commenting on their respective handicaps. "And José says, 'You play pretty good for a guy with no fingers' and I said, 'You play pretty good for a guy who can't see shit!'"
Bruce was able to make a living playing music, something he thought was astounding. He even worked his way to a nationwide audience with a live appearance on NBC, but that didn't stop him from having a little fun with it.
"I'm told that there were some people in my building who liked hash," says Mr. Langhorne with a wry smile. A thumb-sized hash chunk somehow made it into his apartment where his mates indulged just before their network television performance. "And one of my friends said, 'hey we're going to be stoned on live TV in front of 6 million people!' I thought that was cool!"
The story, of course, is told a bit out of context and incomplete. Brother BruBru doesn't remember if it was Bobby or someone else he appeared with on Les Crane's show, but the story is funny nonetheless and shows Bruce's real ambition; it wasn't to make it "big" as fast as he could. He just wanted to play good music and have a good time doing so. His skill and zest for life seemed to line up his career opportunities for him.
I never had the urge to ask Bruce about Dylan. I really don't need to know "what HE was like" in the studio or at the bar. The stories can be near infinite! And 50 years later, by law, most have already been embellished over time anyway. If Bruce had outstanding anecdotes to tell, he would have told them. Most folks have all said the same about Dylan: he was funny and fun to be around. His demeanor and studio-style has been discussed and disected endlessly. I thought it would be insulting to ask Bruce about someone else when he's had such an interesting career.
It wasn't Brother BruBru's link to Bobby that led me to him. He spent much more time with Mike Porco. It's the time he spent with Dennis Fariña and the Grandison Singers and Brother John and Richie Havens that is of as much interest to me as anybody. He helped establish the very fabric of what my grandfather's cabaret became. He brightened the dark corners of that joint with the ambient sound that the headliners required. Five decades later, Bruce still keeps the Porco name aloft in his heart. To be welcomed into his home and experience that living connection with the man himself was worth more than any faded memory.