Inducted: November, 9th 2019

Richard “Dick” Weissman

The most difficult part of inducting Richard Weissman into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame presented by Comfort Dental is crediting only one aspect of his long career as the catalyst for the inclusion. Weissman is an award-winning musician, a songwriter, and author of more than 22 books about everything from banjo instruction to music business in the current century, an educator who helped create the Music Business Program at the University of Colorado Denver and a historian.

Oh, and he’s also a mentor for hundreds, if not thousands, of former students and colleagues.

Weissman was born on January 21, 1935.  “I grew up in Philadelphia,” he says. “My parents had a commuter marriage: My mother was teaching public school in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and my dad was a pharmacist in Philadelphia, where he had a little drugstore…it was during the Depression and my mother didn’t want to quit her job because she was afraid of what happens if this drugstore goes under.”

As a child, his hobby was collecting travel booklets. “I had all of these Western booklets, so I had a box full of this stuff and I was pestering my parents about the West and when I was thirteen we went to Colorado and New Mexico. This would have been in 1948. That’s where I met this sort of old railroad worker at the State Capitol who wanted to talk to me…he fascinated me but frightened my parents. I talked to him for maybe ten minutes, but it was kind of a peak experience….That was my first interest in Colorado.” 

Early Career

Weissman attended Goddard College in Vermont, where he learned banjo from Lil’ Blos, whose father was an associate of Sigmund Freud. Like many musicians who came out of that era, Weissman was influenced by Pete Seeger and old 78 records, in his case both traditional mountain music and blues. In Vermont and later at the New School in New York City, after he moved to New York, Weissman took guitar and banjo lessons from Jerry Silverman, who led hootenannies. He even played banjo with the Reverend Gary Davis, who was also a mentor. Like many others, Weissman spent time at Tiny Ledbetter’s house, at her Thursday night gatherings; she was Leadbelly’s niece. Weissman was also influenced by Stuart Jamieson from New Mexico, who collected banjo music from artists like Rufus Crisp out of Kentucky.

In New York, Weissman began getting calls for recording sessions, in part because he hung out with other session musicians at a music store called Eddie Bell’s. His guitar and banjo chops got him to work with New York studio guitarists like Barry Galbraith and Al Caiola, who liked his distinctive, finger-style guitar playing.

When Weissman was 23, he got a major co-write with Dave Van Ronk titled “Bamboo,” which was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The album went multi-platinum and the song was later used for a shoe commercial in Germany.

In 1959 Weissman made his third visit to Denver (during an earlier stopover, he played music for unsuspecting travelers with Tom Paxton at the Denver bus station). This trip turned into a wild time that included a stay at Walt Conley’s house.

“His house was a 24-hour-a-day party,” Weissman recalls.“

Walt was booking the Satire Lounge and I ended up as one of the opening acts. Walt would do a set, and then the Smothers Brothers would do a set.  The Satire was a pretty wild and woolly place in those days. That was great fun for me. I can’t remember what I got paid — probably $10 or $15 a night, but I didn’t go out there to make money, I went to avoid hay fever.”

When Weissman returned to New York, he met John Phillips (later of the Mamas & the Papas), who was part of a band called The Smoothies at that time. Phillips introduced him to Scott Mackenzie (“If You’re Going to San Francisco” and “Don’t Make Promises”). Through a series of events, the three became the Journeymen. The act was signed by International Talent, the booking agency for the Brothers Four, Kingston Trio, The Limeliters and later Bob Dylan, and through International Talent, the musicians found management with MGM that then got them signed to Capitol Records. Though the Journeymen records were not great sellers, the band toured for almost four years.

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In 1964, just before the Journeymen broke up, Weissman recorded a solo album for Capitol, The Things That Trouble My Mind.

The label hoped that Weissman might provide competition for Dylan’s success at Columbia. The album and other songs that he wrote in this period met with considerable success, including a song about mining called “They Still Go Down” for Gram Parsons and “Medgar Evers Lullaby” that Judy Collins recorded.

After twelve years in New York doing everything from producing records to writing songs and touring, Weissman decided to make the move to Denver. In 1972 he enrolled in the fledgling music business program at CU Denver. In the Mile High City, Weissman found a rekindled passion for banjo; most of his session work in New York had involved the guitar. The Denver Folklore Center, opened in 1962 by Harry Tuft (inducted in 2011), was the hub of the folk and bluegrass community and that included Kim King of Lothar & the Hand People (signed to Capitol between 1965 and 1970); members of Magic Music with Chris Daniels and later Nick Forster; and Tim O’Brien, who founded Hot Rize, Colorado’s premier neo-traditional bluegrass band.

While he attended UCD and taught lessons, Weissman was also making the transition to family man.

From 1975 to the early 1980s, he played in bands, raised a family, taught at Colorado Women’s College and composed music for a number of films and commercials. In 1979, he recorded a solo album on Kicking Mule titled Modern Banjo – Mountain Style.  Weissman also began his career as an author, writing a biography about Wesley Westbrook, a black songwriter who left Arkansas and came to Denver to escape the oppression of that era. While cleaning airplanes for United Airlines, Westbrook wrote several songs for the Staples Singers, including the hit “You Don’t Knock.”

Though that book was not picked up by a publisher, it started Weissman on a career that would include more than 22 titles, including instruction books for guitar and banjo. His first major book, The Folk Music Source Book, was published by Knopf Press and won the ASCAP Music Critics Award.  As Weissman describes this time in his career: “I was writing instruction books, for a couple of years I taught at Swallow Hill, I did gigs with The Main Event, and I did what gigs that I could get.   And I taught at Colorado Institute of Art for a year.  I started teaching at UCD in 1990. While I was there, there was a union called the Oil, Coke, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, and I ended up doing music for two of their conventions, a CD and some of the music which led to a play about Karen Silkwood.  I did music for a play by a professor named Larry Bograd who was then at Metro about the Ludlow Massacre.”

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During this time, Weissman also began writing grants to fund special educational experiences for his students.

“I brought Peggy Seeger here with a grant, I brought Len Chandler, who was a black protest singer who was arrested like fifty times,” he recalls. “I brought a Native American artist, Vince Two Eagles, from Montana…. I got a grant that set up the (college) label CAM Records. The last thing I did at UCD was a class on Advanced Record Production.”

I brought three kids in from Jamaica — I had taught at a Jamaican governmental trade show and then at two songwriting boot camps while I was at UCD. So we selected three writers, they came here, the orchestra was a combination of UCD students and faculty, and the producers were students. It’s a good experience for people.”

Between 1990 and 2019, Weissman recorded seven albums, from 1990’s New Directions, which included a quintet with Tim O’Brien, Mollie O’Brien and Bob Rebholz playing everything from flute to sax, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, dobro and electric bass, to 2008’s double album, Four Directions. Weissman’s music is always evolving. In 2016 he recorded and released Night Sky, comprising sixteen instrumental pieces, including a five-part instrumental suite based on the folksong “The Golden Vanity” (also known as “Willow Tree”). These albums appeared on several labels, among them Folk Era, Wind River and Long Bridge.

Today Weissman is as creative and busy as he was in the 1960s.

Over the past few years, he’s been elected to the Denver Musicians Association four times. In 2016 he put out the book The Music Never Stops. And in 2019 he’s coming out with a new book, History of American & Canadian Folk Music. He also just released an album, No Ceiling, which includes seventeen instrumentals and four lyrical pieces; the songs are sung by Mollie O’Brien and Harry Tuft. And with all that going on, he continues to be a sought-after speaker and consultant.

There are very few musicians in the world who are also authors, educators, producers, and historians, and we are fortunate to have one of the most talented and knowledgeable of these rare individuals in this state. The Colorado Music Hall of Fame presented by Comfort Dental is proud to induct Dick Weissman as part of the Class of 2019.

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“There are very few musicians in the world who are also authors, educators, producers, and historians, and we are fortunate to have one of the most talented and knowledgeable of these rare individuals in this state.”

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