By Richie Unterberger

When Tom Rush's self-titled album appeared on Elektra Records at the beginning of 1965, the recent university graduate was already an established veteran of the Cambridge, Massachusetts folk scene. A popular performer at local venues such as Club 47 and the Unicorn, he had already recorded three albums, the first of those a private production done live at the Unicorn, the next two for the Prestige label. Tom Rush marked a step up for the artist, moving him to a label that was actually more prestigious than Prestige, and filling out his sound with an all-star squad of accompanists. The music, though, remained much as it had been on his previous LPs: warm, affable interpretations of a diverse range of folk songs.

    It was an age when there seemed to be a sort of mini-competition among various prominent folkies in trying to select the most eclectic repertoire possible, always accompanied by liner notes that meticulously documented the sources, as a testament to their assiduous choices and diligent folkloric research. In this respect Rush could more than hold his own, rambling through country blues by Kokomo Arnold and Bukka White, Woody Guthrie compositions, and traditional folk songs of indeterminate origin, some learned from peers such as Dave Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt, Geoff Muldaur, and Ian Tyson. There was even a cover of a Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller composition that had been recorded by the Coasters, a daring move at a time when some purists were trying to keep the gap between rock and folk as wide as possible. And, naturally, there were diligent notes about the songs and how Rush had learned them, penned by the singer himself.

    Moving from Prestige to Elektra along with Tom was producer Paul Rothchild, one of the top folk producers of the day, and soon to become a top rock producer at the helm of Elektra recordings by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Love, Tim Buckley, and the Doors. This helped create a confusing situation where Rush's Elektra debut actually hit the stores before his second Prestige LP, which had been recorded prior to Tom Rush. "I made one album for Prestige with Paul," Rush told me in early 2001. "He went to Elektra. Prestige said, 'You owe us another album.' I said, 'I won't make it without Paul.' They said, 'That's impossible.' I said, 'We'll see.'

    "[Elektra founder and president] Jac Holzman actually approached me about signing on with Elektra. And I said, 'Well, there's a problem. I've got to make another album for Prestige, and I don't want to do it without Paul.' It was a prickly situation, 'cause he didn't want to give Paul back to Prestige, and Prestige didn't really want Paul back, 'cause he'd dumped them." Rothchild had made an astute move, as it turns out, since Prestige would curtail its folk recordings in the mid-1960s, concentrating on soul-jazz records throughout the rest of the decade.

    "But I forced the issue. So we, back-to-back, cut my second album for Prestige, and my first one for Elektra. And Elektra actually got to the marketplace first. So my second commercial release was on Elektra; the third was on Prestige, again."

    Despite the mini-logjam of competing product, Rush was happy to be with his new company. "When I first signed on with Elektra, it was a very small label. There were a few people, Holzman being of course the kingpin. They had developed a very good reputation for themselves. I remember being struck by the idea that people would buy an Elektra record because it was on Elektra. They would buy a Tom Rush record, never having heard of this guy, simply because the record was on Elektra, and they trusted Elektra. I think we didn't see that again until, probably, Windham Hill, which isn't really a fair comparison, but it's another label where people would buy the music because of the label. Jac was really dedicated to making high-quality records, with high-quality artwork and high-quality pressing and printing and all the rest. He was doing stuff that he really enjoyed himself."

    Washtub bassist Fritz Richmond, another mainstay of the Cambridge folk scene, had provided the sole accompaniment to Tom's vocals and guitar on Rush's final Prestige LP. Richmond played on a couple of tracks on Tom Rush too, but the record also employed the cream of New York's mid-1960s folk session players, including Bill Lee on bass, a pre-Lovin' Spoonful John Sebastian on harmonica, future Cream/Youngbloods producer Felix Pappalardi on guitarron, and John Herald, playing under the pseudonym "Daddy Bones," on second guitar. Ramblin' Jack Elliott, fittingly, contributed to a song by his role model Woody Guthrie, "Do-Re-Mi."

    The fuller, yet not electric, folk sound was in keeping with the approach then being pioneered on Rothchild-Elektra sessions; the producer also enlisted Sebastian and Pappalardi around this time for support on a crucial early folk-rock milestone on Elektra, Fred Neil's Bleecker & MacDougal. Pappalardi and Herald were also important sidemen on sessions by Ian & Sylvia that likewise were vital in expanding folk music's sonic canvas. Elaborated Rush in a 1998 interview with Wally Breese (for Joni Mitchell's website), "When Paul and I sat down to make these two albums, we put the more traditional, I should say, simpler material on the Prestige project. We weren't really high-grading for Elektra, but we put the stuff that sounded best solo or solo with a washtub bass, which is how I recorded the first one, on the Prestige album, and the stuff that lent itself to more backup was on the Elektra album."

    Tom Rush was still very much a folk record, though, and not a pop or rock one. None of the songs were written by Rush himself, who leaned most toward blues numbers such as "Milk Cow Blues" and the Robert Johnson-derived "If Your Man Gets Busted," as well as ageless folk tunes that had been around the block many times, like "The Cuckoo" and "Solid Gone" (also sometimes called "The Cannonball"). Certainly the most inventive cut was the eight-and-a-half-minute closer, "The Panama Limited, " which strung together several Bukka White songs. Another standout was the solo performance "Poor Man," with D modal tuning and a darker atmosphere than was typical for what was largely an upbeat, good-time collection.

    If only in hindsight, the most significant track might have been "When She Wants Good Lovin'," taken from the B-side of a Coasters single. Rush, as well as collaborators Sebastian, Pappalardi, and Rothchild, would be heading full steam into the folk-rock revolution within a year, and Tom would devote most of an entire LP side of his next Elektra album to electric rock treatments of such rock'n'roll oldies. That story is told on the CD reissue of that album, Take a Little Walk with Me, also available on Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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