April 14, 2017 – Bruce Langhorne was born on May 14, 1938 in Tallahassee, Florida.
At age 4 he moved with his mother to Spanish Harlem, New York. When he was a 12-year old violin prodigy living in Harlem in the fifties, he accidentally blew several of his finger tips off with a cherry bomb that he held onto for too long. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Bruce looked up at his distraught mom and said, “At least I don’t have to play violin anymore.” In a gang fight, he got involved in a stabbing and left the country for Mexico for 2 years. By age 17 he started to pick the guitar.
As a result of his childhood finger misfortune, which obviously limited the range of techniques he could master, Langhorne developed a distinctive economic playing style that acted as the response half of a call-and-response with singer/songwriters’ vocals, often using rapid triplets of notes.
He began accompanying folk singer Brother John Sellers, who worked as an MC at Gerde’s Folk City club, as well as at other clubs in Greenwich Village. As a result of his constant exposure at these clubs, he began sitting in with numerous Greenwich Village musicians and finding work as an accompanist both live and in the studio.
As a result he first recorded in 1961, with Carolyn Hester, a session which also included a then-unsigned Bob Dylan on harmonica.. He later said of Dylan: “I thought he was a terrible singer and a complete fake, and I thought he didn’t play harmonica that well….I didn’t really start to appreciate Bobby as something unique until he started writing.” From then on they were tight. In 1963 he accompanied Dylan on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and in 1965 was one of several guitarists on the album Bringing It All Back Home.
The title character of Bob Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man” was inspired by Langhorne, who used to play a large Turkish frame drum in performances and recordings. The drum, which Langhorne purchased in a music store in Greenwich Village, had small bells attached around its interior, giving it a jingling sound much like a tambourine. Langhorne used the instrument most prominently on recordings by Richard and Mimi Fariña. The drum is now in the collection of the Experience Music Project, in Seattle, Washington.
When folk music morphed into folk-rock, Langhorne used an acoustic guitar with a pickup, running it through a Fender Twin Reverb amp that he borrowed from guitarist (and fellow multi-instrumentalist) Sandy Bull. Influenced by Roebuck Staples of the Staple Singers, he would set up a tremolo effect in time with the song. The result was a sound, both acoustic and electric in color, well-suited to the period in which rock and folk music were crossing.
Bruce Langhorne became one of the most important New York based session guitarists of the 1960s, particularly in the early years of folk-rock. He is most famous for playing on some of Bob Dylan’s records, particularly 1965′s Bringing It All Back Home. However, more than that, he actually played with numerous musicians who were making the change from folk to folk-rock in the second half of the 1960s, including Tom Rush, Richard & Mimi Fariña, Richie Havens, Gordon Lightfoot, Eric Andersen, Fred Neil, Joan Baez, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
His mastership on all guitar, bass, violin, mandolin, piano and percussion made him for many years Dylan’s first choice for concerts and important guitar parts on his albums, including “Bringing It All Back Home.” Bruce played all these instruments, working the strings with mostly nubs instead of his missing fingertips.* His playing earned him a devoted following and Dylan’s nickname “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Obviously Langhorne’s biggest fame came from just a few days of sessions in early 1965, for Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home album. Langhorne is heard throughout that LP, coming especially to the fore on “She Belongs to Me,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
As spelled out in the liner notes to Dylan’s box set Biograph, Langhorne is Mr. Tambourine Man. In the track commentary, Dylan is quoted as follows: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” I think, was inspired by Bruce Langhorne. Bruce was playing guitar with me on a bunch of the early records. On one session, (producer) Tom Wilson had asked him to play tambourine. And he had this gigantic tambourine. It was like, really big. It was as big as a wagon-wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind. He was one of those characters…he was like that. I don’t know if I’ve ever told him that.”
For all the impression Langhorne apparently made on Dylan, he didn’t record with him again (other than on the soundtrack of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973), though he did play live with him at least once, for a 1965 appearance on Les Crane’s television show.
Langhorne was much more than an interesting footnote in Dylan’s career, though.
In the mid- to late ’60s he was in the studio all of the time, adding particularly important contributions to the two Vanguard albums by Richard & Mimi Fariña. He made other notable appearances on Tom Rush’s first electric album, Take a Little Walk With Me; John Sebastian’s first album; Joan Baez’s Farewell, Angelina; and numerous other LPs. He also produced Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s first major-label album, 1968′s Young Brigham.was a folk musician who was very active in the Greenwich Village folk movement of the 1960s, primarily as a session guitarist. He also worked with the Chad Mitchell Trio, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Peter LaFarge, Gordon Lightfoot, Hugh Masekela, Odetta, Babatunde Olatunji, Peter, Paul and Mary, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Steve Gillette, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Lisa Kindred, Eric Andersen, Hoyt Axton, David Ackles, Mike Bloomfield, John B. Sebastian and Bobby Neuwirth. and Tom Rush, among others.
By the early ’70s his session work was becoming less frequent, though he continued over the next few decades to work in movie soundtracks. Langhorne composed the music for the Peter Fonda western film The Hired Hand (1971), which combined sitar, fiddle, and banjo. He also provided the scores for Fonda’s 1973 science fiction film Idaho Transfer and his 1976 vigilante movie Fighting Mad. Other films featuring Langhorne’s scores include Stay Hungry (1976), Melvin and Howard (1980) and Night Warning (1982). Besides composing he also worked as a live accompanist, and co-running a recording studio with Morgan Cavett.
He lived some time in Hawaii with his wife Janet, where they adopted dozens of stray and orphaned dogs. In 1992 he became a business man, introducing a hot-sauce company, Brother Bru-Bru’s African Hot Sauce. The hot sauce is unique for containing “African spices” and all-natural or organic, no-sodium or low-sodium ingredients.
In 2015 he suffered a debilitating stroke that forced him into hospice from where Bruce Langhorne made the move to the other dimension on April 14, 2017. He was 79
There is an interview with Bruce Langhorne done by Richie Unterberger that lays out a fascinating background of the early 1960s when folk slowly turned into electric folk-rock in the New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. Well worth a visit to understand that there was a lot more than only Bob Dylan that stood at the crib of rock and roll’s expansion into a generational culture change.