Eric Weissberg, 'Dueling Banjos' musician, dies at 80
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Eric Weissberg, 'Dueling Banjos' musician, dies at 80
The soundtrack to “Deliverance” was certified gold, for sales of more than 500,000 copies.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Eric Weissberg, a gifted multi-instrumentalist whose melodic banjo work on the 1973 hit single “Dueling Banjos” helped bring bluegrass music into the cultural mainstream, died Sunday in a nursing home near Detroit. He was 80.

Juliet Weissberg, his wife of 34 years, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Though the theme songs to the film “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967) and the CBS sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” both recorded by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, preceded “Dueling Banjos” in exposing wide audiences to bluegrass, neither made it to the pop Top 40. “Dueling Banjos,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1972 movie “Deliverance,” fared far better, rising to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart.

The soundtrack to “Deliverance” was also certified gold, for sales of more than 500,000 copies.

But Weissberg — who also played fiddle, mandolin and guitar — produced much more than a one-hit wonder. More than a decade before “Dueling Banjos,” he had distinguished himself as a member of two popular folk groups, the Greenbriar Boys and the Tarriers, and as an in-demand session musician in New York.

As a session player he appeared on Judy Collins’ “Fifth Album,” contributing guitar to her 1965 version of “Pack Up Your Sorrows.” He played banjo on John Denver’s 1971 Top 10 pop hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” His fretwork was heard on albums like Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” (1974), Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” (1973) and the Talking Heads’ “Little Creatures” (1985). He collaborated with jazz musicians like Bob James and Herbie Mann as well.

“Dueling Banjos” did not, as the song’s title suggests, involve two banjoists pitting their skills against each other. Instead it showcased Weissberg’s three-finger Earl Scruggs-style banjo in a sprightly call-and-response — more of a dance than a fight — with the flat-picked acoustic guitar of his collaborator, Steve Mandell.

The song was originally recorded in 1955 as “Feudin’ Banjos” in a version that featured the song’s composer, Arthur Smith (known for “Guitar Boogie"), and Don Reno, both of them on banjo.

When it appeared on the soundtrack for “Deliverance,” a movie based on the James Dickey novel of the same name, it was mistakenly copyrighted to Weissberg.

A lawsuit was settled in Smith’s favor. Weissberg always maintained that Warner Bros. had credited him as the song’s composer without his knowledge or consent.

An inspiration to banjoists who followed in his wake, especially those of a progressive bent like Tony Trischka and Béla Fleck, Weissberg contributed to a trio of influential early banjo albums: “American Banjo Scruggs Style” (Folkways, 1957), “Folk Banjo Styles” (Elektra, 1961) and “New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass” (Elektra, 1963).

“Here were some early seedings of progressive banjo playing scattered in my fertile mind,” Trischka said of the “New Dimensions” album in a 2006 edition of Banjo Newsletter. “These tunes set a whole new standard for what could be done with the banjo. All that, plus a generous dose of the early melodic style.”

All but two tracks from “New Dimensions,” recorded with guitarist Clarence White and banjoist and Oscar-winning screenwriter Marshall Brickman, were reissued on the soundtrack to “Deliverance.” The Beastie Boys later sampled a snippet of one of the album’s tracks, “Shuckin’ the Corn,” on “5-Piece Chicken Dinner,” from their 1989 touchstone, “Paul’s Boutique.”

Eric Weissberg was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 16, 1939. His father Will, was a publicity photographer for the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan who loved listening to jazz. His mother, Cecile (Glasberg) Weissberg, was a liquor buyer for the Waldorf Astoria and later for the entire Hilton hotel chain. She often played selections from the “Fireside Book of Folk Songs” on the piano when Eric was young.

Weissberg grew up in Knickerbocker Village, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and attended elementary school at the Little Red School House, a progressive private school in Greenwich Village, where he began taking violin lessons at the age of 10.

By then Eric was already spending summers at Camp Woodland in Phoenicia, New York, near Woodstock, which was run by the father and uncle of Toshi Aline Ohta, the future wife of Pete Seeger, who would give banjo lessons to Eric when he was 8 or 9.

Soon after Seeger’s folk group the Weavers formed, Weissberg attended hootenannies in the presence of other luminaries of the era, like Woody Guthrie.

Weissberg attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1957 before leaving to study at Juilliard. On Sundays afternoons he joined singalongs with the likes of John Herald and Bob Yellin, in Washington Square Park, where public singing was permitted from only 12 to 6 p.m.

After his success with “Dueling Banjos,” which won a Grammy for best country instrumental performance in 1973, Weissberg formed a group called Deliverance, which toured widely and recorded for Warner Bros.

He continued to do session work, and later played with Tom Paxton and Art Garfunkel, among others, but he became less active as the 1990s gave way to the 2000s. One notable exception was his appearance, in 2009, at the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Gala Concert at Riverside Church in Manhattan, along with, among others, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College orchestra and chorus.

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1985, Weissberg is survived by his son, Will, and two grandchildren.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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