Although he originally came to prominence in the recording industry as a jazz producer, Tom Wilson made his mark with folk-rock and psychedelic music in the mid- to late '60s. His list of credits during that approximately five-year period is astonishing, including important albums by Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, the Velvet Underground, and the Mothers of Invention, as well as lesser-known but significant artists such as the Blues Project, Nico, and the Soft Machine. Wilson is not often mentioned as one of the most important producers of the '60s, but judged sheerly by the discs attached to his name alone, he's got a fair claim to notice as one of the greats.
Wilson might be known today only to jazz scholars if not for an unexpected twist of fate that put him square in the pop and rock world. Graduating from Harvard in economics, he made his initial reputation as a producer with progressive jazz artists of the late '50s and early '60s, working on albums by Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and others; he also wrote liner notes for several jazz releases during this period. In early 1963, Columbia Records, as a result of pressure from Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, removed John Hammond from his position as Dylan's producer. As his replacement, they suggested Wilson. Wilson candidly admitted later that he didn't even like folk music, but was impressed enough by Dylan to complete the sessions for the singer's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
Wilson would be Dylan's producer through mid-1965, and would be an important figure in Dylan's transition to folk-rock by the time 1965 dawned. In December 1964, Wilson took the unusual step of overdubbing electric instruments on three songs that Dylan had recorded in 1961 or 1962, including "House of the Rising Sun." It's not known for sure what Wilson had in mind, but it's likely he was trying to demonstrate, to Dylan and possibly others, what kind of results could be achieved by Dylan recording in a rock style. These were never released, or intended for release, although the overdubbed "House of the Rising Sun" appeared on Dylan's Highway 61 CD-R, and was initially falsely claimed to be an early-'60s recording. Wilson produced Dylan's first official rock sessions (discounting his 1962 rock single "Mixed Up Confusion") on 1965's Bringing It All Back Home, and made an unexpected left-field contribution to "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," which leads off with a false start and Wilson's high-pitched laughter. Wilson was also responsible for choosing most of the musicians who accompanied Dylan on Bringing It All Back Home; he would use some of the same musicians on other important early folk-rock records by Simon & Garfunkel and (most likely) Dion.
Wilson was also at the helm of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" single. The famous spontaneous, almost accidental contributions of Al Kooper on organ for this track would never have happened but for the fact that he was a good friend of Wilson's, who invited Kooper to the session to watch. Despite the undisputed commercial and musical success of "Like a Rolling Stone," it would be the last thing Wilson and Dylan did together. Dylan had become dissatisfied with Wilson, who was replaced, for reasons that have never been fully explained. But Wilson had learned a lot about folk-rock along the way, and applied a similar strategy to electrifying Simon & Garfunkel, who in 1965 had all but broken up after a flop acoustic LP on Columbia. Wilson took a track from that album, "Sounds of Silence," and overdubbed electric guitars and drums, just as he had done to old Dylan tracks on those experimental recordings of late 1964. The result was a number one hit and brought instant stardom to Simon & Garfunkel, who may not even had continued as a duo if not for Wilson's "Sounds of Silence" treatment. Also at Columbia, Wilson produced some underrated, overlooked folk-rock cuts with Dion in late 1965 that sounded as though they benefited from some of the same backup musicians that Dylan had used. Overall, Wilson's stay at Columbia had turned into one of those "only in America, and only in rock & roll" scenarios: an African-American jazz producer, who professed not even to like folk music when he began recording it, turned out to be a main agent of folk's transition into folk-rock.
Wilson became the East Coast director of A&R for Verve Records. Immediately he became a key figure in the evolution of rock into something artier and more experimental than it had ever been before, signing the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground. Frank Zappa sometimes gave the impression that Wilson had thought the Mothers of Invention were a White R&B band of sorts when he signed them, which is doubtful; he was probably one of the few major-label execs around at that time who was hip enough to have an idea of where they were coming from. Wilson produced their first two albums, Freak Out! and Absolutely Free, and is listed as "executive producer" on We're Only in It for the Money. It's likely that even on the first two albums, Zappa was the main force as far as musical direction and arranging went, but Wilson was undeniably helpful in getting Zappa the time and budget to do a debut double LP, Freak Out, that included lots of orchestral musicians -- no small risk for a group's first album. Wilson also had Zappa do some arranging for an Animals album he was producing, Animalization, although that didn't work out too well.
Wilson's role in the Velvet Underground's career was more avuncular. He produced only one track on their classic first album, "Sunday Morning." The rest of the production was credited to Andy Warhol, although as Wilson supervised the remixing and editing, one might deduce that he had a more significant musical role in the proceedings than Warhol did. Wilson produced the group's second LP, White Light/White Heat, and also did Nico's first album, which benefited from some unusual string and wind arrangements, although Nico would later be quite critical of Wilson's use of flute in particular. Wilson also produced the best album (Projections) and single ("No Time Like the Right Time") by New York folk-blues-rock group the Blues Project, featuring his friend Al Kooper on keyboards, and did the first album by the Soft Machine in 1968.
Mothers and the Velvets, Wilson's role seems not so much to have been musical as artistically supportive. Not many labels, let alone big ones like Verve, would have been happy to let Zappa and the Mothers do ambitious suite parodies of hippie counterculture, or let the Velvets sing about sex and drugs and record overdistorted tracks with the needle way in the red on White Light/White Heat. Some of the musicians he worked with have recalled that Wilson was not terribly involved in the sessions themselves. Kevin Ayers of the Soft Machine, for instance, remembered that Wilson was on the phone to girlfriends most of the time when the Softs' debut LP was cut, and John Cale of the Velvet Underground recalled that Wilson "had this parade of beautiful girls coming through all the time" in the liner notes to the Velvets' Peel Slowly and See box set. But Wilson did know enough to let the artists play and release controversial, brilliant material their way without unduly interfering -- which is just as important a contribution on a producer's part as the more widely hailed methods of shaping and arranging a performer's material.
After the late '60s Wilson was not heavily involved in record production, dying in 1978 in Los Angeles. This was before rock scholarship had reached an intense level, and it's a deep loss to history that he was not interviewed at length about his associations with, and contributions to, several of the biggest giants of '60s rock music.