Often considered “a musician’s musician throughout his career”—according to Richard Skelly on the All Music Guide website—David Bromberg has logged up many impressive credits both as a backing musician and solo act. Over the years he has played everything from the guitar and banjo to the violin for a wide range of well-known artists, ranging from Bob Dylan and Jerry Jeff Walker to John Denver and Blood, Sweat, and Tears. His work as a sideman can be heard on over 100 albums that clearly demonstrate the incredible range of his artistry. However, his varied musical interests during his career may have limited his fame. As Skelly wrote, “[Bromberg’s] musical eclecticism over the years may have cost him some fans, but a typical Bromberg concert can be a musical education.”
Bromberg has often been cited for his mastery of numerous musical styles on stringed instruments. “Proficient on guitar (primarily acoustic), violin, mandolin and banjo, Bromberg’s music took in elements of folk, blues, bluegrass, rock, comedy and lengthy narrative stories often stuck in between choruses,” noted the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. His flair as an entertainer has been duly noted by many reviewers. Bromberg’s “delivery, a combination of deadpan seriousness and weird, twisted humor, kept the crowd entertained and off balance as he changed pace and direction with his songs and stories,” wrote Jerry Vovc-sko in the Worcester Evening Gazette about the performer’s rendition of “I Was Framed” at the West Main Street Cafe in Northboro, Massachusetts, in 1988.
David Bromberg took up guitar while ill with the measles at age 13, according to Irwin Stambler in the Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music. He soon developed an interest in blues and folk music, becoming a big fan of recordings by Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Josh White, Django Reinhardt, and Big Bill Broonzy. Stambler claimed that White’s Josh White Comes Visiting album, which also featured Broonzy, was a major inspiration for Bromberg. While in high school, Bromberg developed skills with other instruments, then began majoring in musicology after entering Columbia University. School proved no match for the lure of performing in the fertile folk music scene of New York City’s Greenwich Village, however, and Bromberg dropped out of college to devote himself to gigs in small clubs and coffeehouses.
Key to Bromberg’s musical development was meeting Jerry Jeff Walker in the mid-1960s, whom he backed as a musician for four years. Bromberg’s guitar work can
For the Record…
Born September 19, 1945, in Philadelphia, PA. Education: Columbia University; Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making.
Studied to become a musicologist in college, 1960s; played backing guitar for Phoenix Singers, early 1960s; performed as session artist for numerous artists in New York City, 1960s; worked frequently with Jerry Jeff Walker, 1960s; contributed session work on over 80 albums, 1960s-70s; performed at Isle of Wight Festival, 1970; signed recording contract with Columbia Records, 1971; released first album, David Bromberg, 1971; signed contract with Fantasy Records, 1976; formed own backing group, 1970s; contributed to Hillbilly Jazz, 1977; stopped performing and dedicated himself to repairing violins and other instruments, 1980; formed David Bromberg Big Band, 1980s.
Addresses: Record company —Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge MA 02140. Residence— Hyde Park, NY.
be heard on Walker’s famed recording of “Mr. Bojan-gles.” Recommendations by Walker and folk singer Tom Paxton helped Bromberg break into session work. “The first time I was in the studios was either with Screamin’ Tony McKay or Rusty Evans,” he told Guitar Player March of 1973. “I didn’t get paid for it as it was just going in for the thrill of being able to record. And that’s where I found out that studio situations are tricky and that recording is not always the same thing as playing.”
Developing a reputation as a multifaceted musician, Bromberg became one of the most sought after studio musicians in New York City. His eclectic mix of frontmen during the late 1960s and early 1970s included Jay and the Americans, Rick Derringer, Chubby Checker, Carly Simon, Mississippi John Hurt, Ringo Starr, John Prine, and Richie Havens. He performed on Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait and New Morning albums in 1970 and 1971, respectively, and by the middle of the decade had logged up credits on over 80 albums.
Bromberg landed a recording contract with Columbia Records after a highly regarded performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. His first release, the self-titled David Bromberg, came out the following year. Bromberg was never able to attract a wide audience, but earned steady critical acclaim for his recordings and performances as a frontman. He was also able to enlist many noteworthy performers as contributors to his works. His Demons in Disguise and Wanted Dead or Alive albums featured appearances by members of the Grateful Dead, and his Midnight on the Water’s stellar list of credits included Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Dr. John, Jesse Ed Davis, Bonnie Raitt, and Ricky Skaggs.
In 1976 Bromberg switched labels to the San Francisco-based Fantasy Records. The next year he contributed to a highly acclaimed album called Hillbilly Jazz, which featured other acoustic musicians such as Vassar Clements and D.J. Fontana. Eventually he formed his own regular backing group that he called “The World’s First Folk Orchestra,” according to Stambler. “The band just crept on me,” said Bromberg about the group, according to Stambler. “I started out with just a bass player. Wherever we played, musicians I’d met on the road would come and sit in.”
Following the release of his You Should See the Rest of the Bandln 1980, Bromberg broke up his group and announced that he would no longer perform live. That same year he moved to Chicago to study at the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making, and began devoting himself to the repair of instruments. Later in the 1980s, Bromberg rematerialized onstage with his David Bromberg Big Band, which offered a mix of country, blues, rock, New Orleans-style brass, and bluegrass, as well as other musical styles. “Bromberg works hard and pulls it all off with his string playing, offbeat charisma and a very effective support of a tight, resourceful band,” wrote Fernando Gonzalez in the Boston Globein his review of the band’s 1987 reunion tour performance at Nightstage in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Following a moratorium on recording that lasted nearly a decade, Bromberg resurfaced with his Sideman Serenade on Rounder Records in 1990. Confirming his varied musical tastes, the album was split between a side of city songs and one of country songs. “The city songs run the gamut from blues to a surprisingly effective instrumental samba, while the country tunes stay closer to home but offer surprises in personnel,” said reviewer Michael Point in the Austin American-Statesman.
Throughout the 1990s Bromberg has continued to retain a loyal following, and he performs at regular intervals in selected clubs. Every year he makes a highly anticipated appearance at the famed New York City club, the Bottom Line. Despite being heralded over the years for his skill as a musician, Bromberg has always maintained his modesty on the subject. “Anything I do, I have to really work on,” he was quoted as saying by Stambler. “Some people are just disturbingly brilliant on the guitar without much work, but with me, I have to practice and practice, just sitting down and getting locked into it.”
David Bromberg, Columbia, 1971.
Midnight on the Water, Columbia, 1975.
How Late’II Ya Play ’Til?, Fantasy, 1976.
Reckless Abandon, Fantasy, 1977.
Sideman Serenade, Rounder, 1990.
Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989, p. 159.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 1, Guinness Publishing, 1992, p. 558.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin’s Press, 1983, pp. 72-73.
Austin-American Statesman, November 3, 1989.
Boston Globe, February 24, 1987; July 12, 1990, section CAL, p. 8.
Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1989, section 5, p. 3.
Guitar Player, March 1973.
New York Times, February 16, 1992, section WC, p. 16.
Sweet Potato, March 18, 1988.
Worcester Evening Gazette, July 15, 1988.
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