The Thump of Strings on Wood
Dick Rosmini – A Personal Retrospective
Dick Rosmini passed away in 1995. His legacy is firmly embedded in the fabric of the folk music revival of the late fifties and early sixties. Tributes to this innovative and remarkable guitar player can easily be found with the magic of Google, etc. YouTube will also yield samples of Dick’s brilliance on the six–string and twelve–string guitars and on the banjo. A few samples appear below for those who have either never heard him or of him, and for those like me who refuse to forget him and continue to use his playing as a benchmark to judge themselves if they are players, or others who might be. Dick and I were friends.
I don’t remember the first time I ever heard Dick play, but I know that it was in the late fifties while I was a college freshman who was spending too much valuable time downtown in Greenwich Village when I should have been cracking the books uptown on Morningside Heights for the next day’s classes. When darkness fell on Manhattan, I’d find myself haunting the late-night Village theaters and clubs, joining the crowd that followed names like Josh White, Will Geer, Brownie and Sonny, etc., who appeared sooner or later in those late-night venues. To a young student fresh from high school it was a coming-of-age experience, history playing out before eyes and ears.
After the concerts, the loyal would gather on street corners to talk about what they had just seen and heard and perhaps someone would say: “hey, let’s all meet at (insert name here)’s place.” – and often, we’d end up sitting on the rug or leaning against the wall in a flat close by, while others you didn’t know took turns singing songs dredged up from the vast reaches of the American ‘outback’ – the Appalachians, the Ozarks, the deep south and the western ranges and deserts – by collectors and anthologists like John and Alan Lomax.
I remember the night I sat on a living room rug, and this guy with a large bodied Martin guitar, 12 frets to the neck (most all of Rosmini’s guitars were built that way with extra wide fingerboards), sitting not more than three feet from me, banged out the Lead Belly song Whoa Back Buck. That’s all it took. I had never heard anyone play the guitar like that. He had massive hands, thick fingers. One glance gave you the impression that he could crush a rock with them if he chose to. His playing was precise. The notes flew by like lightning, but each note was surgically clear, no fuzz between them. Over and over the chorus lifted me off the rug and I knew that I had to become his friend. I also knew that I would probably never be able to play like that, but it never stopped me from trying.
As time went on, I made sure to be there any time and any place he was playing. When Bob Gibson appeared in the Village, Dick was his back-up guitarist but I don’t remember his name ever being on a marquee. Nor do I remember him being a featured performer, but among the growing legion of guitar aficionados of the day, Dick Rosmini was God. It’s funny how there are certain artists who change the entire flavor of the music. I’m sure now that in the annals of music history there is an elite group of musicians who never enjoyed the spotlight but who, in their way, changed the flavor and direction of the public’s taste.
It goes without saying that when Paul Potash and I formed our duet Art and Paul, Dick was the first person I called to show him what we had done and arranged. And when we signed the contract for our first album on Columbia Records in 1959, Dick was already our backup guitar and banjo person.
Rosmini played on every track of that first album. My guitar playing was simple and basic and Dick provided the orchestral flair. No overdubs back then. Just me, Paul and Dick in the legendary 30th Street Columbia studios in New York recording directly to a piece of four-inch tape. Those recordings still amaze me for their clarity and presence. Dick’s fluid folk style is beautifully demonstrated in our rendition of John Riley.
He was born and grew up on Jane Street in Greenwich Village to a mother who played barrel house piano and a father who was a recognized graphic artist. His mom hosted itinerant musicians the likes of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston when they were in town. Dick grew up in the world of art, acoustic music and the blues. His love of photography and photo chemistry inspired by his dad, gained him employment as Tiffany’s principal jewelry photographer in the fifties and the early sixties. But his primary passion was music. After hearing folk music being played in Washington Square, he decided that the folk community was for him. Within months he learned to finger-pick the 12-string guitar with such precision, he was nicknamed ‘The Sabicas of the 12 String Guitar’. He was in demand immediately by performers and listeners alike.
When we, Art and Paul, met him, Dick had recently finished a stint of work playing behind Bob Gibson, and we caught him during a period when Gibson was off to other endeavors in the Midwest and Rosmini was available and eager to work in New York, the city of his birth. In the late fifties and early sixties, Bob Gibson represented the bridge between the old and the new, and Rosmini’s time with him added the grit Gibson wanted for his smooth delivery. Sure, The Kingston Trio had captured the imagination of a generation, but their music smacked of a group of college kids entertaining at a Fraternity party, clearly a commercial venture, often shunned by the so called ‘folk purists.’ Bob Gibson, even when singing favorites that had emerged from the Appalachians, etc., demonstrated a flair for the romantic, and his willingness to play to the crowd while maintaining a deep respect for history put him in a special category. Rosmini was right there behind Gibson, providing the flair that the original backwoods families did not have in their home-made presentations. Gibson was almost single handedly responsible for making what was then called ‘ethnic’ into commercial music that could fire up the imaginations of a generation of young college students who had just come through an era of high school pop music that left the imagination wanting. Rosmini once commented to me that Gibson’s E minor chord instead of the G on the word ‘row’ in the second line of the C major song Michael Row The Boat Ashore, changed folk music forever and made it dramatic. I still think that is true. If any of you players who are reading this want to, try it. You’ll see.
Back to Art and Paul and Rosmini. We did several gigs together while we were promoting our first and even our second albums. Dick did Art and Paul a great favor by introducing us to Albert Grossman who at the time was assembling the roster for the first Newport Folk Music Festival in 1959. Our album on Columbia was either already out or in the works and we showed up to sing for Grossman. I think about the scene from Inside Lllewyn Davis when I think about that audition. You know, the part where the Chicago club owner (clearly modeled after Grossman of course) says: “I don’t see money here.” He didn’t like us much at all. We weren’t ethnic, we didn’t fit any category that he saw and besides, we were part pop, part folk, part classical, with a touch of Broadway thrown in (if that’s possible). Once the festival was launched, Dick informed us that he was returning to Bob Gibson’s world and that was the end of our professional relationship with him but not the end of our friendship.
Any casual search of Dick’s history will reveal a long list of artists he worked with, achievements in the fields of audio engineering: multi-track innovation and his enormous contributions to the creation of the Teac Tascam line of products. Throughout the seventies, eighties and early nineties, I spent many an evening at his home in Pasadena where he and his wife Chris lived. Actually, I was with him the night he met her. It was a double date and his side of the drama clicked and stuck. I don’t even remember who my date was (forgive me if you are reading this), but Dick and Chris became inseparable after that.
As is easily discovered, he made more than a few solo recordings. Again, a YouTube search of his name will provide any guitar player endless entertainment. A good example is Little Brown Dog, a typical and classic Rosmini piece of music. Listen:
Notice something else? His tempo is perfect. The guy had a metronome built into his fingers. If you are a player, you know how much it takes to accomplish this.
There’s so much more, but if you want to hear just plain natural rock-solid finger picking, spend a night on YouTube with him. I’m sure he’d appreciate it.
That’s about it. Oh yes, I never mentioned the Rosmini dry wit and attitude. The guy held nothing back in his opinions of other musicians and lots of folks were afraid to ask him what he thought of them for fear that he’d tell them. His command of English was exceptional, and the efficiency in his choice of words was remarkable. I remember phoning him one day to ask how he was doing. His response was:
“Putt putt putt.”
I was living in Central California, embroiled in a business venture that was taking all my focus and energy when word drifted my way of Dick’s illness. Dick and I were born two days apart in the same year in the same city, but fate chose to take him early. Dick died of ALS on September 9th of 1995. He was 59 years old and I never got to say goodbye. I think if I had to choose the three most influential people in my career, he’d be up there, maybe higher.
I still listen to his music when I think I’ve gotten better and need some perspective. I play his music on my radio show at KPFK and every time someone shows me a clever guitar lick my first thought is always: “Sure, there are players with flash, and players with speed, color and theatrics, but when it comes to grit and the thump of strings on wood that reaches inside you and wallops you good, you should hear Rosmini.”
Art Podell was one half of the iconic Greenwich Village duo “Art and Paul” before moving to L.A. in 1961. An original member of the New Christy Minstrels, Art wrote songs for many of the artists of the day. He continues to perform and write and he rotates as a host of KPFK’s Roots Music and Beyond.