This afternoon my dear friend Happy Traum called to tell me that Eric Weissberg had passed away. Although I knew that Eric had been suffering from dementia for the past 3 or 4 years it still came as a shock. I have known Eric for nearly 60 years! He was barely 20 years old when Bill Keith and I met him back in 1961. He was already a professional musician working with the popular folk group The Tarriers. Eric was one of the first Scruggs style banjo players in New York and Bill Keith was in awe of him. Before long we all became good friends. No trip to New York was complete without Eric taking us to his favorite Chinese restaurant, Sam Wo’s, after a jam session in Washington Square or at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center. Then Eric and fellow Tarrier Marshall Brickman would come up to Cambridge to hang out with Bill and me at the Club 47, jam ‘til all hours and adjourn to my favorite Chinese restaurant The Golden Gate in Boston.
Sometime in the Spring of 1969 I was living in New York, working for the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals, and Izzy Young asked me if Bill Keith and I would do a concert at the Washington Square Church. By this time Bill had taken up the pedal steel in addition to the banjo, and we thought it might be fun to do a split concert of bluegrass and country music. Both of us immediately thought of Eric, who by this time had become one of the top session musicians in New York. He could play banjo and mandolin on some things and electric guitar on others. Eric was up for it and we quickly threw together a couple of sets. On the afternoon of the concert we were rehearsing in the church when Richard Greene poked his head in the door. Richard was fresh from playing fiddle with Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys and was in the process of putting together SeaTrain with Peter Rowan. We invited Richard to join us on the spot. We were so happy with the results that I got in touch with a couple of record labels and before we knew it Warner Bros. Records signed us to do an album. We called ourselves The Blue Velvet Band. Our album Sweet Moments with The Blue Velvet Band became one of those underground cult favorites and Eric, who had played on literally thousands of recording sessions, always said that it was his absolute favorite of all the records he had played on.
Many years later I was playing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on my own. Many musicians came up to me and were going on about our old album, so much so that I thought it might be time to resurrect the Blue Velvet Band. Richard Greene was not available so the great fiddler from New York, Kenny Kosek jumped in, and the New Blue Velvet Band came into being. Touring all of the major folk festivals in Canada, Europe, Britain, Ireland and the Northeast was when I really got to appreciate what a wonderful person Eric was. He was never down. He wouldn’t let you be down. In addition to that, his playing was never stale, his singing was always full of energy. Audiences loved him, and he loved them.
Traveling with Eric you also became aware that under this carefree exterior was a very talented, well-schooled, totally professional musician of the highest order. He had gone to the High School of Music and Arts in New York (where he met Happy Traum), had learned how to play the banjo from Pete Seeger, studied bass at Julliard—all while a teenager. He could arrange on the spot, which made him much in demand for jingles. The great choral arranger Robert Decormier called on Eric to perform some of his most difficult pieces live. Artists like Judy Collins, John Denver and Art Garfunkle insisted that Eric play on their records and join them on tour. He loved to travel—a lot of it on motorcycle—across America, across Europe—the Rockies, the Alps—he loved it all.
Probably most people identify Eric with “Dueling Banjos” from the movie “Deliverance.” Of course, no one, least of all Eric, knew what a colossal hit that would become. For him it was just another session to which he invited his friend Steve Mandel to play guitar on. Eric was always getting his friends in on sessions. He spread a lot of work around. When the record hit, he had to throw a band together fast, so he asked me to do it because he knew I knew a lot of songs that we could do pretty much on the spot. I’ll never forget the night when the record was #1 in the country, we were in Boston. The record company was paying for everything. We could have gone to the fanciest restaurant in town. We had a limo at our disposal. But where did Eric want to go? Jack & Marian’s Delicatessen in Brookline. Had to have some pastrami and matzoh ball soup!
In Woodstock for several years there was a weekly bluegrass session at the Harmony restaurant. Bill Keith did it until his health started to fail and then Eric stepped in. This was not about money or playing to a large audience, it was about playing and singing for the sheer joy of it and the camaraderie. Eric never lost that. Even after he was unable to play, Brian Hollander and the guys from the Harmony would come to Eric and Juliette’s house to have a session. When we could, Happy Traum and I would join them. I would sing many of the songs from the “Sweet Moments” album, and Eric would mouth the words under his breath, always keeping time with his hand or his foot. Sometimes at the end of a song he would let out a big YEAHHH! When I would sing “Hitchiker” a song he had written, he would sometimes ask, “Whose song?” I would say, “Your song. You wrote it.” and he would smile his big smile, “ME?” “Yes, Eric, You.” Every time when I was leaving I would give Eric a big hug and sing in his ear, “I Love You So Much It Hurts Me,” and he’d flash me a big smile. Tonight it really hurts, but Eric’s smile won’t let me stay down. Thanks for that, my friend.