Stephen A. Mandell, Grammy award-winning guitarist for "Dueling Banjos," dies
Frederick N. Rasmussen
Stephen A. Mandell, who shared a Grammy award with Eric Weissberg for their "Dueling Banjos" performance used in the 1972 movie "Deliverance," died March 14 from prostate cancer at his Owings Mills home. He was 76.
“Steve was the consummate professional and always fun to play music with,” said Marc Horowitz, a fellow musician and friend for 56 years. “He was always the lead singer when we had a bluegrass session. He had a good voice and solid rhythm.”
“He was a perfectionist when it came to playing bluegrass,” said Mr. Horowitz, of Staten Island, N.Y. “He was a traditionalist who did not like anything newfangled that came along. He liked Earl Scruggs and the other guys like him who came up in the 1940s and 1950s.”
Stephen Arnold Mandell was the son of I. Edward Mandell, a dental technician, and Anne Mandell, a homemaker. He was born in Philadelphia and raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and New Rochelle, N.Y.
He graduated in 1959 from New Rochelle High School, then received an associate’s degree in history from the State University of New York at New Paltz.
His interest in music started when he was 12. An uncle gave him a guitar and, by his late teens, he had switched to banjo. By the late 1950s he was a regular bluegrass performer at Washington Square Park in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where musicians gathered on Sunday afternoons.
Mr. Mandell’s first band was the Garrett Mountain Boys, which he established in 1961 with David Grisman, Fred Weisz and Frank Benedetto.
His musical abilities caught the attention of folk singing legend Judy Collins, who asked him to join her band. He toured with Ms. Collins from the early 1960s. He took two years off from 1964 to 1966 when he was in the Army, then rejoined the band and remained until 1974.
Mr. Horowitz recalled meeting Mr. Mandell: “I had a girlfriend who was a peacenik, and she took me [to] Washington Square Park one Sunday in 1962. Steve was one of the first people I met there. He was wearing his Army uniform.”
The two became close friends, and Mr. Horowitz later filled in for Mr. Mandell for several months on Ms. Collins’ tour.
“He took me under his wing, and we went to a lot of bluegrass shows in the Northeast. It was a magical time,” said Mr. Horowitz.
It was while touring with Ms. Collins that Mr. Mandell met his future wife, Terry A. Steinberg, at an August 1973 concert at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. The concert drew an audience of 20,000. She was 18 and attended with a friend.
“We were both newbie Judy Collins fans,” said Ms. Mandell, now a collection manager for the Ciena Corp. “He was accompanying Judy on the guitar as part of her backup band.
“We were sitting in the front row,” she told The Jewish Times in a 2013 interview. After the concert, she and her friend stayed and watched the band pack up. “Steve glanced over, took a look at my Jewish star, and yelled ‘Lantzman!’ ’’ The phrase generally means “countryman.”
“Steve invited the two girls up to the stage where he chatted them up,” Mr. Horowitz said. “Steve invited Terry to come to dinner that night that someone was giving for Judy. It was obvious he was smitten.”
They maintained a long-distance relationship as Mr. Mandell continued touring with Ms. Collins. The couple married the next year.
Mr. Weissberg, who was known for his banjo playing, received a call in 1972 to play “Dueling Banjos” for the film “Deliverance.” The song was a traditional bluegrass tune, originally composed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in 1954 with the title, “Feudin’ Banjos.”
“They asked me if I could play that song and they wanted a guitar and a banjo, so I called Steve Mandell,” Mr. Weissberg told author Craig Rosen for the 1996 book “The Billboard Book of Number One Albums.” After playing it 25 different ways — sad, slow and fast — they were told they had passed the audition.
The two traveled to Clayton, Ga., where the movie was being filmed and directed by John Boorman. Local Clayton actor Billy Redden, who played the character Lonnie, a banjo-playing teenager, did not know how to play the instrument. A musician hiding behind a special shirt actually did the fingering, Ms. Mandell said, and the memorable scene was accomplished by using selected camera angles.
It took nearly four days to film.
“Movies are generally scored after they are finished. In this case, the movie was filmed to the music,” Ms. Mandell said.
The song became a “left-field smash,” said a 2011 article in The Washington Post.
The two men formed the band Eric Weissberg & Deliverance, and toured the country for the next year promoting the movie. The song won a Grammy in 1973.
After “Deliverance,” he continued to tour with Judy Collins.
Mr. Mandell also performed in the 1970 Broadway hit “Purlie,” and performed onstage in “The Robber Bridegroom.” In addition, he did studio work for John Denver, Oscar Brand, Theodore Bikel, Tom Paxton and Lou Reed. He even did advertising jingles, including “You Deserve A Break Today” for McDonald’s.
He also worked at J&R Music World and Grand Central Radio in New York City and later, after moving to Maryland, at Circuit City and Best Buy. He retired in 2006.
“Steve never gave up his day job and worked in audio and video sales in New York, and after moving in 1988, in Owings Mills,” Ms. Mandell said. “That was his tune. He never gave up his day job and played music at night.”
Last year, when Ms. Collins performed at the James Rouse Theatre in Columbia, Mr. Mandell and the folksinger were reunited backstage, his wife said.
Mr. Mandell and his wife became involved at Baltimore’s Temple Emanuel when they formed an arts group that also included music. The couple brought concerts to the synagogue, which closed in 2016.
“Entertainment ranged from bluegrass to folk to Appalachian to jazz and classical guitar,” Ms. Mandell said.
In addition to music, Mr. Mandell enjoyed traveling, photography and watching Baltimore Ravens games with his son.
“Steve was very humble and he never intended to be a front man or star,” said his wife. “He liked being behind the scenes in the recording studio. He never wanted nor sought fame. He just loved music.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” she said.
Funeral services were held Friday at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.
In addition to his wife of 43 years, Mr. Mandell is survived by his son, Joshua Mandell of Arbutus; and a sister, Elaine Stiles of Randallstown.