Eric Weissberg, Whose ‘Dueling Banjos’ Was an Unlikely Smash, Dies at 80

The soundtrack album for "Deliverance" spent three weeks at No. 1 and the single itself was No. 2 for four weeks in 1973.

Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine),
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Eric Weissberg, half of the duo that recorded “Dueling Banjos” for the film “Deliverance” in 1973, resulting in an unlikely smash hit single and album, has died at 80. Family members and friends said Weissberg had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for years.

Weissberg was a fixture on the New York folk scene before being enlisted to bring his banjo cover the traditional but largely unfamiliar instrumental with Steve Mandell for John Boorman’s adventure-thriller in 1972. When it was released as a single, it rose to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart and stayed there for four weeks in 1973, blocked from the top spot only by Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” (It did reach No. 1 on the Cashbox pop chart, however.) An album of Weissberg’s roots music that was rush-released as a soundtrack to “Deliverance” ran into no such hindrance — it topped the album sales chart for three weeks.

In a 2011 conversation with Chris Willman for the Los Angeles Times, actors and banjo players Steve Martin and Ed Helms discussed the song’s deep impact on them, speaking for many whose love for the style or instrument stemmed in part to its 1973 ubiquity.

“I’m from Georgia,” said Helms, “and when we were going to canoe the river where it was shot at summer camp, our counselor showed us ‘Deliverance’ to show us what we were in for on the trip. That movie got me excited about bluegrass. But I do think there’s a stigma attached to banjos, because of ‘Deliverance’,” Helms added, alluding to the unsavory behavior associated with the backward hillbillies who are seen gathering to hear the music in the film.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Martin replied. “Because that song was a hit, remember.” He mentioned other songs that had had a similar impact in the 1960s: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” popularized by “Bonnie and Clyde,” and Earl Scruggs’ “Beverly Hillbillies” theme. “I thought, ‘What did those songs have in common? Oh, they’re all from movies or television shows.’ When people heard it, they loved it. But they got to it from another medium.”

Mandell, who shared a Grammy Award for “Dueling Banjos” with Weissberg, died two years ago this month at age 76.

The story behind the recording of the song and especially the hit album that followed it has some interesting wrinkles. Weissberg was, by the early 1970s, a well regarded session player on multiple instruments as well as a member of the folk group the Tarriers. He recalled getting a fateful phone call from Warner Bros. Films’ head of music, Joe Boyd, and spoke with Craig Rosen, who wrote the 1996 book “The Billboard Book of Number 1 Albums: The Inside Story Behind Pop Music’s Blockbuster Records,”  interviewed Weissberg about what transpired next.

He said that after going into the studio to try rehearsing the song in a variety of ways, he and Mandell were called to the Burt Reynolds movie’s Georgia location, even though the music was to be mimed by actors. Then they went to nearby Atlanta to cut the tune, again with a number of alternative arrangements of the tune. It was composed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in the mid-’50s and originally bore the title “Feudin’ Banjos” — and had gotten some lesser mass-media exposure when the Dillards played it on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Weissberg was not particularly a fan of the Dillards performing it with a rhythm section and relished the chance to take it back to its drum-less bluegrass roots.

“About a year later, I was doing a jingle ses­sion and one of the singers told me he heard my record on the radio,” Weissberg told Rosen. “And I said, ‘What record?,’ because it had been 10 years since I did my own record.” A DJ had taken a pressed single that had been intended only as a bed for radio commercials and begun airing it without voiceover, helping spur an unforeseeable sensation. Weissberg said his attorney called Warner Bros. Records president Joe Smith and offered to have his client cut an entire album. “All of a sudden his eyes got real wide. He put his hand over the mouth­piece and said, ‘Joe says the album’s already out.’ I said that’s impossible. What album?”

As it turned out, Warner Bros. had taken a 10-year-old album that Weissberg and Marshall Brickman had recorded for Elektra, called “New Dimensions and Bluegrass,” and took off the first cut on each side and put both sides of the ‘Dueling Banjos’ single [the B-side being “End of a Dream”] on the album …They never told me anything about this, which really ticked me off, because one of the cuts they took off was a tune I wrote. I could have been getting publishing royalties for it.”

Weissberg is also famous among Bob Dylan buffs for his contributions as guitarist to the “Blood on the Tracks” album. He and his backing group, which were by then known as Deliverance, were called to back Dylan on the initial sessions for the classic album in September 1974. The band and Dylan didn’t quite mesh in any meaningful way on the session, and the singer-songwriter ultimately re-recorded most of the songs with other players, leaving only their contributions to “Meet Me in the Morning” intact on the finished album (even though they oddly received sole credit on the album sleeve). However, when a boxed set of the complete extant “Blood” sessions was released in 2018, the recordings with Weissberg’s band turned out not to be terrible, just not as remarkable as the ones that came later.

After growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, Weissberg attended the Juilliard School of Music for three years before succumbing to the call to be a full-time musician. (“It was with the school’s blessings, by the way,” he said. “They said, ‘Look, you have a job. We’re here to get musicians jobs; if it doesn’t work out, come back!'”) He was a member of Greenwich Village-based folk groups like the Greenbriar Boys as well as Tarriers in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Years before he ever met up with Boorman or Dylan, Weissberg played on albums by Judy Collins and Doc Watson, among others, moving on to sessions in the 1970s with Jim Croce, John Denver, Loudon Wainwright III, Melanie, Sha Na Na and Barbra Streisand.

“Dueling Banjos” won the Grammy for best country instrumental performance and led to Weissberg getting a recording contract with Warner Bros. that produced one album, “Rural Free Delivery.” In later years, he recorded as a session musician with Talking Heads, Aztec Two-Step, Nanci Griffith, Bette Midler, Herbie Mann, Richard Thompson and even Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Art Garfunkel took him out on the road and had him play “Dueling Banjos” as a part of his shows. He also toured as a co-headliner with Tom Paxton. The Beastie Boys sampled a song from his 1963 album, “Shuckin’ the Corn,” for their track “5-Piece Chicken Dinner.”

“Dueling Banjos” did not exactly instigate a bluegrass craze, per se, but it continues to be revered by musicians as a touchstone that raised awareness in pop culture and served as a cinematic and hit-record bridge between “Bonnie and Clyde” in the 1960s and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” at the turn of the century.

In a 2008 interview with Banjo News, asked about the future of the banjo, Weissberg said, “Sometimes I wonder how more can be gotten out of it. And yet it’s dependent on people yet unborn, probably.”