Charlie McCoy, Al Kooper and David Bromberg reveal all about the recording sessions for Dylan's Self Portrait album
Virtuoso guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who studied his craft with the Rev. Gary Davis, Bromberg was a key figure in the Self Portrait sessions and New Morning.
The Self Portrait sessions were the first time I played with Dylan. At first, when I got a phone call from him – he called me himself – I thought it was a joke, somebody playing a trick. But I realised fairly swiftly that it actually was Bob Dylan on the phone. He’d come to various clubs in the Village where I was playing guitar for Jerry Jeff Walker, and I’d always assumed he was only there to hear Jerry Jeff. But I guess he was listening to me, too.
The way he put it to me was that he wanted me to help him “try out a studio.” It became clear to me pretty quickly that we weren’t just trying out a studio – we were recording. But I was too much in the moment to worry about what was going to happen in the future. So “trying out the studio” turned out to be making Self Portrait and then New Morning.
Most of what I remember is that it was just Bob and me in there. For several days straight, maybe even a couple of weeks, just the two of us, sitting across from each other playing and trying things. I had some really nasty cold thing going on all through that – I had a fever, and I’d work all day, come home and fall asleep in my clothes, wake up, take a shower and then head back into the studio and do it all over again. The songs that I did with him, as much as I can recall, were mostly folk songs. I’m not sure I remember seeing any Sing Out magazines, but Sing Out published a couple of songbooks, and I remember that Bob had one or two of those. But he knew those songs. He might have referred to the Sing Out books just to get a lyric here and there, but he knew those songs. Bob, as we all know, came up through the folk clubs, and he was really great at singing this music.
There was not a whole lot of discussion or direction. I think he liked how I played, and wanted to see what I’d come up with. Then he listened to the results, and what he really liked he used, and what he didn’t, he saved.
New Morning was quite different. There were quite a few musicians in the studio, a whole group. Russ Kunkel was on that, playing drums, and playing with him was a big thing for me, because I was always a huge fan of the way he plays. Of course, Bob doesn’t pick any losers. Ron Cornelius, was there, a fine guitar player. Ron played electric on that record, and I played acoustic and dobro.
In 1992, I produced another set of sessions with Bob in Chicago, and the great majority of those songs haven’t been heard yet, although a couple turned up on the Bootleg Series record Tell Tale Signs. On those sessions, I would have loved to have done some tunes that Bob wrote – but he didn’t want to do those. And, in fact, he did a few tunes that I had written. In a strange way, I was almost relieved that they didn’t come out, because people would have accused me of forcing Bob to do my songs. But let me just tell you: you don’t force Bob to do anything.
Recording sessions are all different. Bob has his own way of doing things, and it’s one that requires the musicians to be intuitive. And, in a musical sense, that’s one of my strengths. In a more prosaic sense, it’s one of my weaknesses: you know, if we’re going to do something, and I’m not told what we’re doing, I generally won’t figure it out. But when it comes to music, even if I haven’t been told where we’re going, I will figure it out. I’ll see ahead. And that’s kind of what’s required on Bob’s sessions. Perhaps the most important aspect of the process with Bob is that, Bob is very careful not to exhaust the material. And, as a result, there’s a spontaneity that’s present in all of his work. You’ll do a song once or twice, and that’s it: you’ve either got it or you don’t.