“The reason man created stringed instruments. David touched them with a lover’s fingers and they moaned that true love right back at him. Wood and wire and flesh spoke.” – Jerry Jeff Walker on David Bromberg
He’s played with everyone, he’s toured everywhere, he can lead a raucous big band or hold an audience silent with a solo acoustic blues. Here’s the story of David Bromberg, or at least some of it . . . .
Born in Philadelphia in 1945 and raised in Tarrytown, New York, “as a kid I listened to rock ‘n’ roll and whatever else was on the radio,” says Bromberg. “I discovered Pete Seeger and The Weavers and, through them, Reverend Gary Davis. I then discovered Big Bill Broonzy, who led me to Muddy Waters and the Chicago blues. This was more or less the same time I discovered Flatt and Scruggs, which led to Bill Monroe and Doc Watson.”
Bromberg began studying guitar-playing when he was thirteen and eventually enrolled in Columbia University as a musicology major. The call of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the mid-’60s drew David to the downtown clubs and coffeehouses, where he could watch and learn from the best performers, including primary sources such as his inspiration and teacher, the Reverend Gary Davis.
Bromberg’s sensitive and versatile approach to guitar-playing earned him jobs playing the Village “basket houses” for tips, the occasional paying gig, and lots of employment as a backing musician for Tom Paxton, Jerry Jeff Walker and Rosalie Sorrels, among others. He became a first-call, “hired gun” guitarist for recording sessions, ultimately playing on hundreds of records by artists including Bob Dylan (New Morning, Self Portrait, Dylan), Link Wray, The Eagles, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, and Carly Simon.
An unexpected and wildly successful solo spot at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in Great Britain led to a solo deal with Columbia Records, for whom David recorded four albums. His eponymous 1971 debut not only included the mock-anguished “Suffer to Sing the Blues,” a Bromberg original that became an FM radio staple, but also “The Holdup,” a songwriting collaboration with former Beatle George Harrison, whom he met at his manager’s Thanksgiving dinner festivities. Harrison also played slide guitar on the track. Through Bromberg’s manager, Al Aronowitz, David also met the Grateful Dead and wound up with four of their members, including Jerry Garcia, playing on his next two albums.
Bromberg’s range of material, based in the folk and blues idioms, continually expanded with each new album to encompass bluegrass, ragtime, country and ethnic music, and his touring band grew apace. By the mid-’70s, the David Bromberg Big Band included horn-players, a violinist, and several multi-instrumentalists, including David himself. Among the best-known Bromberg Band graduates: mandolinist Andy Statman, later a major figure in the Klezmer music movement in America, and fiddler Jay Ungar (who wrote the memorable “Ashokan Farewell” for Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “The Civil War”).
Despite jubilant, loose-limbed concerts and a string of acclaimed albums on the Fantasy label, Bromberg found himself exhausted by the logistics of the music business. “I decided to change the direction of my life,” he explains. So David dissolved his band in 1980, and he and his artist/musician wife, Nancy Josephson, moved from Northern California to Chicago, where David attended the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making. Though he still toured periodically, the recordings slowed to a trickle and then stopped.
After “too many Chicago winters,” in 2002 David and Nancy were lured to Wilmington, Delaware, where they became part of the city’s artist-in-residence program and where David could establish David Bromberg Fine Violins, a retail store and repair shop for high quality instruments. Frequent participation in the city’s weekly jam sessions helped rekindle Bromberg’s desire to make music again, as did the encouragement of fellow musicians Chris Hillman (The Byrds, Desert Rose Band, Flying Burrito Brothers) and bluegrass wizard Herb Pedersen, and David’s manager, Steve Bailey. The jams also led to the formation of Angel Band, fronted by Nancy and two other female vocalists, with David serving as an accompanist.
With the release of Try Me One More Time, his 2007 solo return to the studio, David continued his musical revitalization, playing shows on his own, backed by (and supporting) Angel Band, his own David Bromberg Quartet, and reunions of the David Bromberg Big Band, the configuration depending on the circumstance.
Four years later he has come out with a much different project. The aptly titled Use Me (2011) is the result of an unusual collaborative effort: Bromberg contacted some of his favorite songwriters (Levon Helm, Tim O’Brien, Keb’ Mo’, Los Lobos, Dr. John, and John Hiatt, among others) and asked them to write songs for him. The result is a completely entertaining and at times thrilling program of material in a wide variety of styles: “Old Neighborhood” finds Bromberg collaborating with Widespread Panic in a soul-funk vein; “Bring It with You When You Come” is a charming excursion into jug-band skiffle with Helm on drums; “The Long Goodbye” is a tender waltz with Los Lobos. Singing has never been Bromberg’s strong suit, but over the years he has learned to make the most of his limited vocal instrument - notice how he uses his low range and his natural quaver to endearing effect on the old Brook Benton weeper “It’s Just a Matter of Time” (on which he’s assisted by Linda Ronstadt). There’s a pervasive sense of mutual affection and musical respect throughout this album that makes it a pleasure to listen to even in those moments when its other elements don’t quite come together perfectly.