Bruce Langhorne, Guitarist Who Inspired ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ Dies at 78
By BILL FRISKICS-WARRENAPRIL 16, 2017
Bruce Langhorne, far left, in an image from a YouTube video with Carolyn Hester, Bob Dylan and Bill Lee in 1961 in a studio in New York. Brucelanghornemusic, via YouTube
Bruce Langhorne, an intuitive guitarist who played a crucial role in the transition from folk music to folk-rock, notably through his work with Bob Dylan, died on Friday at his home in Venice, Calif. He was 78.
A close friend, Cynthia Riddle, said the cause was kidney failure.
From his pealing lead guitar on “Maggie’s Farm” to his liquid electric guitar lines on “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “She Belongs to Me,” Mr. Langhorne was best known for his playing on Mr. Dylan’s landmark 1965 album, “Bringing It All Back Home.” He also contributed hypnotic countermelodies to tracks like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
“Bringing It All Back Home” proved a harbinger of ’60s folk-rock. Mr. Langhorne’s empathetic accompaniment, always stressing feeling over flash, animated all 11 of the album’s tracks.
In his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles,” Mr. Dylan said of Mr. Langhorne, “If you had Bruce playing with you, that’s all you would need to do just about anything.”
Mr. Dylan credited Mr. Langhorne with inspiring “Mr. Tambourine Man,” recalling in 1985 that the song came to him after seeing Mr. Langhorne arrive for a 1964 recording session with an oversize Turkish drum arrayed with bells. (“In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you,” Mr. Dylan sang.)
Mr. Langhorne had not set out to become a guitar player. A student of the violin, he had to forgo a career in classical music after losing two fingers and most of the thumb on his right hand in an accident involving homemade fireworks when he was 12. He took up the guitar at 17, developing a unique call-and-response approach to the instrument.
“Since I have fingers missing, some styles of guitar playing were forever unreachable for me,” he told an interviewer. “I really needed someone who had a thread going to really do my job,” he continued, alluding to his musical collaborators. “Because then they could generate a couple of lines of polyphony, or a rhythmic structure, and then I could enhance that.”
Besides his work with Mr. Dylan — which also included the track “Corinna, Corinna” on the 1963 album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” — Mr. Langhorne played electric guitar on influential folk-rock albums like Richard and Mimi Fariña’s “Celebrations for a Grey Day” and Joan Baez’s “Farewell, Angelina,” both from 1965.
He appeared on many folk albums on the Columbia, Elektra and Vanguard labels. Among these was Tom Rush’s 1968 album, “The Circle Game,” a precursor to the 1970s singer-songwriter movement led by, among others, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, both of whom contributed compositions to the Rush album.
Mr. Langhorne recorded with a wide variety of musicians, including the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji and the American folk singer Odetta.
He and Odetta performed Aug. 28, 1963, at the March on Washington, just before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Mr. Langhorne was born on May 11, 1938, in Tallahassee, Fla. His father taught English at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, a historically black land-grant university; his mother was a librarian.
Mr. Langhorne’s parents separated when he was 4. His mother moved to East Harlem in Manhattan, where she raised him. He attended the private Horace Mann School in the Bronx, but was expelled after he was accused of being involved with street gangs.
His first professional work came with the folk singer Brother John Sellers, who at the time was the M.C. at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. Mr. Langhorne was soon backing others at Gerde’s and was invited to play on recordings like Carolyn Hester’s 1961 self-titled album, which featured Mr. Dylan on harmonica.
Mr. Langhorne also became friends with a fellow guitarist, Sandy Bull, with whom he shared an enthusiasm for African and Middle Eastern music, as well as for the reverb-steeped guitar of Roebuck Staples, the patriarch of the family gospel group the Staple Singers. Mr. Bull lent Mr. Langhorne the Fender Twin Reverb amplifier into which he plugged his acoustic 1920 model Martin guitar to create the electrifying sounds that helped give birth to folk-rock.
In 1971, the actor Peter Fonda, to whom Mr. Langhorne was introduced by Mr. Masekela, invited Mr. Langhorne to compose the music for his movie “The Hired Hand,” an austere soundtrack that featured banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar. He later worked with the director Jonathan Demme on music for movies like “Fighting Mad” (1976), which starred Mr. Fonda, and played on Mr. Dylan’s soundtrack of Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (1973), whose cast included Mr. Dylan.
Not suited to the pace of Hollywood, to which he relocated from New York in the late ’60s, Mr. Langhorne moved to Hawaii in 1980 to farm macadamia nuts. He returned to Los Angeles in 1985 and, in 1992, learned that he had Type 2 diabetes. His diagnosis inspired him to create Brother Bru-Bru’s Hot Sauce, an organic, low-sodium salsa.
Mr. Langhorne gave up the guitar in 2006 after having a stroke. He played percussion and keyboards on his first and only solo album, “Tambourine Man,” featuring Caribbean-style music, which was released in 2011.
He is survived by his wife of 29 years, Janet Bachelor.
Among the many performers with whom he worked over the years, Mr. Langhorne spoke with particular relish about his collaborations with Mr. Dylan.
“The connection I had with Bobby was telepathic, and when I use that word, I mean it,” he said in a 2007 interview. “Between the two of us, the communication was always very strong.”