If I titled this story “The Strange Life & Times of Richard Alderson,” chances are:
a) My readers wouldn’t be too excited
b) You probably wouldn’t read past the title, and…
In fact, this article is, in part, about the strange life of a NYC record producer named Richard Alderson, and his experiences in the NYC music scene in the sixties. He is the piece that ties it all together.
To make this all the more convoluted and fascinating, I will add this:
In 1965, I was in my first band. It was a 3-piece with Paul Herman on drums, a Chinese kid who lived across the street from me, named Bing Gong, on vocals, and me (my born name was John Segall).
We called ourselves John, Paul & Bingo!
We rehearsed 2 songs for an 8th grade school talent show:
Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and the Fugs “I Couldn’t Get High.”
Needless to say, halfway through “I Couldn’t Get High” my guidance counselor stopped the show and threw us off the stage. I guess that a 13-year-old singing about not getting high wasn’t exactly appropriate for a 13-year-old!
At that very moment (fall of ‘65) I was thrown off stage at the “Battle of the Bands,” Richard Alderson was soon to get a call to be Dylan’s live sound engineer on his 1966 European tour, and, ironically, he had just produced the song “I couldn’t Get High” for the Fugs.
At 13 years of age, although I didn’t know Richard at the time, I crossed some kind of path with Richard Alderson.
Now that, my friends, is some kind of coincidence. But wait…there’s more.
Richard went on to marry one of my oldest and dearest high school friends, Jane Raab. Jane has gone on to produce major TV shows like “Sex & The City” and currently, “Blue Bloods.”
Over the years, over dinners, Richard would tell me stories about The Village in the early ‘60s. About seeing Dylan perform for the first time at the Gaslight Café when Richard was just 24.
Richard was doing live sound for Harry Belafonte, who was one of the few artists who traveled with his own sound system.
Richard was also an archivist who just so happened to be at the right place, at the right time, in music history.
Here is an excerpt of my interview with Richard:
JJ: When you saw Dylan at the Gaslight for the first time, I presume the manager Albert Grossman wasn't yet involved. Do you remember hearing that Dylan had signed with him?
Richard Alderson: When I recorded Bob at the Gaslight, he had just signed with Grossman. I knew both Bob and Grossman from The Village about a year before I recorded him at the Gaslight. I was at the Gaslight a lot; I knew the owners Clarence Hood and his sons. I had built the Gaslight a simple sound system, and I also built a larger sound system for the Village Gate at that time.
JJ: Did Dylan go back and forth from the Gaslight to Gerde's Folk City?
RA: No idea. Dylan was writing songs at Chip Monck’s digs behind The Village Gate when I was there, and Bob was given some attention from Adele Suhl, a coffeehouse waitress, who would eventually become my 2nd wife.
As fate would have it, sometime in October of 1962, Richard brought his Nagra mono tape recorder to the Gaslight, and, on the second of a 2-night stand, Dylan debuted his newly written material.
This is where Richard (and the rest of the world) heard, for the first time, in front of maybe 25 people, songs like “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” Dylan debuted the songs he wrote at Chip’s place, and everyone at the Gaslight that night was gobsmacked! This was the night that Dylan became “Dylan”!
In 1966, Albert Grossman called Richard because he really liked the way that Harry Belafonte sounded live. He offered Richard the job of mixing Dylan’s entire Australian and European tour, billed as Bob Dylan & The Hawks, that April and May. The Hawks consisted of Robbie Robertson on guitar, Richard Manuel on piano, Garth Hudson on organ, Rick Danko on bass and vocals, and Mickey Jones on drums.
Richard recorded all of those shows, that were somehow forgotten for many years by Columbia Records, but were finally found and released in a 36-disk box set on Sony Legacy, in 2016, with Richard finally getting the recognition he so richly deserved!
As legendary as that Dylan tour was to the ongoing myth of Bob Dylan, what I didn’t know, until recently, was a story about Richard meeting the Beatles in England during Dylan’s tour.
The Beatles loved Dylan and some members came to the Royal Albert Hall shows. During the bands time in London, Richard accompanied Dylan to one of the Beatles’ flats to hang out. During that afternoon, they all listened to the Beach Boys' “Pet Sounds” and were all blown away, just like all the stories reported (I can’t even imagine what it must have been like), except Richard was there!
Richard then asked to go to Abbey Road to check out how recording was done in the UK, and went by himself.
As he was part of Dylan’s inner circle, he was allowed into a Beatles recording session.
Richard was a producer and was as interested in the gear being used. As he was walking around the studio while the Beatles were recording, Lennon quipped (in a very Lennon like fashion), “Come to check out our wires, eh?”
After hanging out for a while, the session ended and Richard asked them if they wanted to go back to the hotel and hang out with Bob.
John & George took up the offer, and offered Richard a ride back to the hotel with them.
As they were driving to the hotel, they were smoking so much hash in the car that the windows were fogged over. A small roadster pulled up next to their car, and the window came down to reveal Mick Jagger driving alone. Having recognized the car that John & George were in, Mick tapped on the window (with smoke billowing out) and asked where they all were going.
According to Richard, it was commonly known in the inner sanctum of the hierarchy of the British music scene that Dylan did not like Mick Jagger, personally. Moreover, John also knew that and teased Jagger with this, saying, “We’re going over to Dylan’s hotel to hang out. Wanna join us?”, knowing full well that Jagger would come up with some excuse. And he did…he said, “Can’t at the moment, I’m off to a recording session.” According to Richard, Lennon replied, “Call us if you need a real rhythm section!”
Richard, who still builds sound systems and recording studios, produced legendary underground artists, such as the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine, and was responsible for producing almost the entire output of the artists on the ESP label.
Richard Alderson has had an amazingly full life. You can read all about his incredible musical journeys in his forthcoming new book, co-written by Joe Hagan (the author of Sticky Fingers, The life & times of Jann Wenner, and Rolling Stone Magazine), called Open The Door, Richard! Also, Sony Legacy will soon be releasing Dylan at the Gaslight on CD.
[Incidentally, the header pic above is Richard Alderson---Ed.]