By Richie Unterberger
Tom Rush's second album for Elektra Records, Take a Little Walk with Me, appeared in 1966, only a little more than a year after his Elektra debut, Tom Rush (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music). In that short time, the entire world of rock and folk music had turned upon its axis.
The Byrds had made folk-rock the hottest trend in pop. Singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Richard & Mimi Fariña, and Fred Neil had made the transition from acoustic folk backing to full-fledged electric band arrangements. John Sebastian -- in early 1965, a session harmonica player on Tom Rush, a pure acoustic folk album -- was now the leader of the Lovin' Spoonful, bringing good-time jugband-influenced folk-rock to the top of the charts. Debates raged among folk and pop audiences over the merits of folk musicians going electric, who were on one hand reaching a far greater listenership than they ever had as folkies, and on the other enduring scorn from purists who felt they had sold out.
Take a Little Walk with Me was Rush's decisive entry into the foray, and one that straddled the threshold of both camps. Like Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home, it was split into two LP sides, one electric, one acoustic. Like Dylan, Rush tapped the first tier of New York session players to midwife his transition into rock music. In fact, all of the musicians accompanying Tom on the electric side -- including Al Kooper (lead electric guitar, celesta, piano), Bruce Langhorne (guitar), Harvey Brooks (bass), and Bobby Gregg (drums) -- had played on 1965 Dylan electric recordings.
It was side one, comprised of a half-dozen electric rock tunes -- all but one covers of 1950s rock'n'roll oldies -- that excited the most comment among listeners, and remains the half of the record that is most fondly remembered today. Kooper was Rush's chief lieutenant for the project, organizing the band, planning the record with Tom by listening to about twenty of his '50s interpretations, and even writing the liner notes. It is also Kooper, by the way, who is the "Roosevelt Gook" credited with piano on side one. For years, rumors circulated that this was a pseudonym for Dylan, particularly as the ludicrous nom de plume was in keeping with a guy who had already used the fake name of Blind Boy Grunt on some Broadside and Folkways recordings.
"We went into the studio and just rocked our asses off, having one hell of a time and getting paid for it to boot," wrote Kooper in his autobiography, Backstage Passes & Backstage Bastards. "Take a Little Walk with Me was one of the most enjoyable recording experiences I've ever had." That sense of looseness and joy comes through on Rush's covers of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, and Buddy Holly. Tom adapted an uncharasteristically low and playful growl for Diddley's "Who Do You Love," graced by early fuzz guitar distortion. He put a tasteful overlay of pop production on Holly's "Love's Made a Fool of You," which, with its celesta and backup harmonies, might have made a reasonable choice as a single, though the Bobby Fuller Four had their own Top Forty hit with the song around the time the album was released. There was also a credible blues-rocker from the pen of Rush himself, "On the Road Again." It must have come as quite a shock to those Rush fans weaned on his acoustic folk shows in such Cambridge haunts as Club 47. Or was it?
"Folk is an umbrella that covers an awful lot of disparate audiences," notes Rush. "It goes all the way from Celtic to Delta blues to Cajun...audiences that wouldn't be caught dead in the same room with each other. Most of the performers around the Cambridge scene were specialists. There was a guy that did mainly Woody Guthrie tunes, and another guy would do Delta blues, and somebody would do Appalachian ballads, and then there were the bluegrass guys. They basically were interested in traditional music.
"There were a few exceptions, and I think I might have been one of them. 'Cause I would slip in a Bo Diddley tune. I was more of a generalist. I graded the songlist, and I'd take a tune from here and a tune from there, and mix 'em up. So my audience wasn't really coming to me for purity. They were coming to me for, I think, good songs done in an enthusiastic way. And diversity." Which may have enabled Tom Rush to cross the bridge from folk to rock with less fuss than most, as "when I extended the diversity another notch, it didn't upset them too much. My audience didn't seem to be particularly pissed off [about him going electric], in general. Or at least, I wasn't hearing about [it] if they were.
"My formative years, musically, were the late '50s. The late '50s were just marvelous. It was all that wonderfully energetic, rebellious shit on the radio. Chuck Berry and Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Little Richard. There were a lot of very different sounds. It wasn't like they were all cut from the same cloth. But they all had the same energy. And it was great. I've always had a fondness for that music, and basically, I was running out of folk tunes to do. I couldn't find any more that really excited me. There's a limited number of traditional songs. You can't write a traditional [song]; it has to already be there.
"I felt that I had sort of fished that pond out. So I was looking for something else to do, and I said, well, I'll go back and touch base with my roots. It was kind of halfway in between the original event of the late 1950s and the official [rock'n'roll] revival, which happened somewhat later on. So there's some debate about whether I was prophetic or retarded, 'cause I was kind of halfway in between. But basically, I was just looking for good songs that I had fun playing, and that's where I found 'em."
On side two, Rush went back to the acoustic folk-blues format, covering the classics "Statesboro Blues" and "Sugar Babe," as well as a couple of songs by fellow Cambridge folkie Eric Von Schmidt. Even these, however, had a more contemporary feel than the blues-folk songs he had put on 1965's Tom Rush, due largely to the excellent, distinctively fluid guitar work of Bruce Langhorne, one of the top folk-rock session players of the mid-1960s. "Bruce is good enough that he could, the first time through, play the song like he'd been doing it his whole life," Rush points out with pride, though Tom acquitted himself well with his own slide guitar on "Galveston Flood." Bill Lee, another ubiquitous folk session sideman who was already familiar with the singer via work on Tom Rush , filled out the sound on the acoustic cuts with string bass.
The one ingredient Take a Little Walk with Me was missing to compete with the top layer of folk-rock singer-songwriters, if only in retrospect, was the near-total absence of Rush originals, or even any covers of contemporary songs by other composers. That would be rectified with his next record, The Circle Game, Rush's best-known album, which featured songs by himself and emerging talents like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne. Take a Little Walk with Me, however, was a vital stepping stone to Rush's passage into the rock era. -- Richie Unterberger
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