John Simon, who contributed to a series of important moments by the Band, offers his thoughts on their early successes together, sweeping post-production re-edits made to The Last Waltz and the lingering debate over songwriting credits between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson.
Simon was a close collaborator from the Band’s earliest moments, in particular on 1969’s The Band, which found Simon and Robertson completing the song cycle in Hawaii before sessions began. Simon also contributed musically, notably taking up the tuba for “Rag Mama Rag.” He added electric piano to the album-closing “King Harvest,” as well.
As for 1968’s Music from Big Pink, Simon can be heard on baritone horn during “Tears of Rage.” But the popular conception has been that much of that earlier album was already completed by the time Simon arrived — having been sorted out through a workshop process that was later celebrated with 1975’s The Basement Tapes. Not so, says Simon: “I always get involved in pre-production writing, even on Big Pink. All the music gets filtered through my musical tastes.”
Together, they crafted two late-1960s albums that not only defined the contours of the Band’s legend, but helped shift popular music toward a more organic sound. Some credit that period with launching the Americana genre.
As the group became more confident in the studio, however, Simon had less and less to do with the Robertson-era output from the Band — though he did return to assist with 1978’s The Last Waltz. He essentially served as musical director, a role that included helping to manage the rehearsals, and then assisted with some notable post-production work. In fact, Simon says the completed Last Waltz underwent a massive reworking, as they cleaned up “playing mistakes, out-of tune singing, bad horn-balance in the remote truck. Only Levon’s part was retained in its entirety.”
Along the way, Simon’s career wouldn’t be limited to working with the Band. He also produced Simon and Garfunkel, Steve Forbert, and Blood Sweat and Tears; worked with Leonard Cohen on his highly regarded debut; and oversaw Cheap Thrills from Big Brother and the Holding Company — though Simon went uncredited on that album.
“Prior to that album, (Chicago filmmaker) Howard Alk (with whom Simon had worked on You Are What You Eat) and I had agreed that ‘credit corrupts’ — i.e, influences art too much. So we each vowed not to take credit for our next project. Cheap Thrills was that project for me. Afterwards I changed my tune and resumed taking credit. That’s the truth, despite what (late Janis Joplin publicist) Myra Friedman refuses to believe.”
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the last time that the issue of credit came up on a Simon-produced project.
After a turn-of-the-1980s haitus, the Band reformed without Robertson, and then continued forward after the shocking suicide of Richard Manuel. They were ready to record a comeback album by the early 1990s, and Simon returned to produce the well-received Jericho. A rift between Robertson and Helm would go public through this period, as Helm questioned songwriting credits from the Band’s classic-era recordings — which routinely went to Robertson alone.
Simon, so intimately involved in the genesis of the Band, has a unique perspective. He says he was “not surprised” that the debate erupted, since “Robbie was working on the old Rodgers and Hart, ASCAP model.” By that, Simon means: “The writer is the writer. Levon was seeing other bands with less talented writers taking group credit for a cobbled-together song.”
In the end, however, Simon says: “I side with Robbie on that one.”
Featured photograph of the Band’s Rick Danko, John Simon and Levon Helm, taken circa 1991, is by Dion Ogust.