Singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw performs regularly at the Birchmere in Alexandria. But for his show this month, he’ll be shaking things up — playing some of his own hits, such as “Someday, Someway” and “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” but also a number of songs associated with the late producer Tom Wilson (1931-1978), who worked with such artists as Bob Dylan, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mothers of Invention and Velvet Underground.
It’s all to further the name of Wilson and raise money for a documentary Crenshaw hopes to make about the influential African American producer.
Crenshaw, 62, spoke recently from his home in New York about the projects.
Q: How did you get interested in Tom Wilson?
A: A friend of mine, the musicologist Irwin Chusid, launched this website called Producer Tom Wilson [producertomwilson.com] in October 2013, and I just got pulled down into the rabbit hole. I just got lost in this thing.
I’d seen Tom Wilson’s name on records before. Everybody who has any rock records has one or two with his name on them. But I wasn’t super conscious about him, I didn’t know that much about him. And I looked at this website and realized this guy is an absolute giant, he’s like an essential figure in popular music of my lifetime.
Irwin said he put the site up in the hopes that an author or a filmmaker would pick up on the story and do something with it. After 10 days or so, I realized I was seeing the movie in my mind, and this notion I should go forward and make the documentary myself just lodged itself in my brain.
Q: Have you done any filmmaking? And why a film and not a book? You’ve written books before.
A: Never. I don’t know. I just started to visualize it that way.
Q: How did Wilson’s career start?
A: He graduated Harvard in 1954 cum laude and was a real figurehead on the Boston jazz scene at the time. Then he started his own record company called Transition Records. He recorded the first two Sun Ra albums. No jazz critics took him seriously back then, but Wilson did. Same thing with Cecil Taylor, who was met with as much scorn as praise. But Wilson produced three of the first four Cecil Taylor albums.
Tom Wilson is someone who opened Pandora’s box about six different times and let something wild out in the world that still resonates. Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor are the first two examples, but he was a jazz producer and produced a lot of albums that were a lot of classics before he got hooked up with folk singers or rock musicians.
Q: He was at the birth of folk-rock, wasn’t he?
A: He got hired by Columbia Records in 1962 and it looks strange in retrospect when the first thing he did was “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” which was halfway done when Wilson came on board.
Q: Did he put his mark on it in any way?
A: Wilson was Dylan’s producer during the time when Dylan “went electric.” He certainly had some kind of mentorship role during that period. Wilson himself took credit for his going electric, which might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but he was not a passive kind of person. It was a watershed period for Bob Dylan.
Q: He also put the drums and rock guitars on Simon & Garfunkel’s failed folk album to make it a hit, right?
A: Yeah. From what I’ve learned, there would have been no Simon & Garfunkel without Tom Wilson. It goes deeper than Wilson putting the electric instruments on “Sound of Silence.” When the first Simon & Garfunkel album was finished, Wilson was debating whether to call them Landis & Garfunkel because Paul Simon had made some records under the name Jerry Landis. He really enabled them all the way.
Same thing with the Velvet Underground, whose entire experience of record companies was Wilson. They also sought him out. They wanted him to work with them, so it was like no Wilson, no Velvet Underground records.
Q: His work with the Mothers of Invention was a surprise.
A: When they were doing “Freak Out,” Wilson said, “You’ve got to do a double album for your debut and get the artwork” and gave Frank Zappa this big, expensive platform for his first album. The band didn’t have the power to do that, no way. It was Tom Wilson.
Q: Is there film footage of Tom Wilson?
A: There’s a lot of unseen footage from the Bob Dylan movie “Don’t Look Back” with Wilson in it. There’s a Frank Zappa movie called “Uncle Meat” that has a snippet of film with Tom Wilson. I have every reason to think that there’s more in their vaults. There’s a lot of stuff, it turns out.
Q: What is your “Tom Wilson’s World” show at the Birchmere going to be like?
A: About 60 percent of it is going to be me playing my own stuff. Then we’re going to do a couple of Bob Dylan songs and some Velvet Underground, a Mothers of Invention tune. Eric Burdon and the Animals also — Wilson produced most of their hit records.
I’m having to actually learn these songs and figure out how to arrange them for a trio. But I’m really excited about it. We’re not going to take it on the road or anything. I’m just doing this because I can’t not do it. I do feel a sense of mission about it.
Marshall Crenshaw Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. Tickets: $25. 703-549-7500 or birchmere.com.