Swan song ‘T-Bone' Wolk's death touches off wave of sorrow

Wednesday March 3, 2010

BRATTLEBORO -- Tom "T-Bone" Wolk didn't have to be how he was.

A true star in the music world, Wolk performed or recorded with a who's who of big-name artists, highlighted by a 30-year stint as a bass player and music director for Hall & Oates and for six years with the "Saturday Night Live" Band.

He had the talent and stature to be like so many in show business -- arrogant and aloof. But Wolk was the opposite -- friendly, down to earth, warm and unbelievably generous with his time, acts of kindness and music.

For those reasons, his death Sunday at age 58 of what is believed to be a heart attack, touched off a wave of sorrowful sentiments, around the world and locally, in the Brattleboro community that he adopted as his home and loved dearly.

"It's been really, really rough. It's such a shock to us. It's devastating," said Putney musician Derrik Jordan, whose 20-year friendship with Wolk included work on two of Jordan's CDs. "It's just so sad."

"I've just been kind of walking around in disbelief and reflecting on who he is and was," said local musician Lisa McCormick, who had Wolk's help as a bass player on two of her CDs. "It's tragic opportunity to think of him."

But thinking of him is a source of comfort for his many friends. Wolk was universally remembered for his generosity, caring and genuine appreciation for all people.

"For a guy who worked with all these great people, he was just a regular, wonderful warm guy ... Not like superstar," said producer and local resident Julian McBrowne.

"He somehow managed to move through our lives with unfailing grace, kindness and humor," wrote Will Ackerman, recording artist, producer and owner of Imaginary Roads studios. "I tend to think that people generally have to edit what they say when someone dies; focus on the good, forgive what was less so. With T-Bone, I don't believe there is anything you need to edit. He simply was a kind and good man."

Mike Hickey, who has known Wolk for a dozen years and served as his personal assistant and guitar tech, said Monday his e-mail in-box has been inundated with expressions of shock, sympathy and support from a who's who of music.

During a career which spanned four decades, Wolk performed or recorded with Elvis Costello, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Billy Joel, Shawn Colvin, Cyndi Lauper, Roseanne Cash, Jewel, Avril Lavigne, Chynna Phillips, Eileen Ivers, Greg Brown, Guy Davis, NRBQ, Robert Palmer, Samite ... the list goes on and on. He even helped former New York Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams get his music career off the ground.

But he was mainly known as bassist and later music director for Daryl Hall and John Oates and for his stint from 1986 to 1992 with NBC's "Saturday Night Live" house band when it was led by guitarist G.E. Smith.

But when he came in off the road, the Brattleboro area was his home for many years.

"He just loved everything about Brattleboro. He loved food, and he loved the co-op and every store on Main Street," said friend and musical collaborator Billy Shaw, owner of Soundesign Recording Studio, where Wolk often worked, both on his on projects and those of other local musicians.

"He just liked the charm of Brattleboro. He liked the New England vibe," said Hickey, who noted that Wolk's guitar picks said "I Love Vermont" on them.

Far from hiding out in Brattleboro to rest from the rigors of the road, Wolk threw himself happily into the town, connecting with people from all walks of life.

Stories are legion of his inability to walk down Main Street without stopping to talk to one person after another.

"We could never send him out to get dinner," said Shaw. "When people wanted to chat, he wanted to chat. He loved the whole small-town thing."

"We would be walking on the streets of Brattleboro, and he knew more people than I did ... and I've been here 30 years," said Jordan.

"If you had to walk to the co-op with him, you had to plan ahead," quipped Hickey.

In 1999, he and G.E. Smith played a memorable concert at the Latchis Theatre.

"That was the greatest thing. I just loved hearing him play to what he called his hometown crowd," Shaw said.

Another memorable moment came during the memorial service for children's music pioneer Gary Rosen. Wolk and Jordan played a moving rendition of The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun." Some weeks before, Wolk and Jordan had come to Rosen's house to play music for him. Stricken with Lou Gehrig's Disease, Rosen communicated by directing a laser pointer at letters. After they played, he spelled for them, "I still have joy."

Jordan said he and Wolk talked about what a profound moment that was for them.

"It's a bit unusual for someone in that world to be so successful and so caring," Jordan said.

Wolk expressed his love for Brattleboro in many ways. He loved the people and the pace of life. And he loved the food -- savoring everything from gourmet food from the co-op to fresh produce from local farms to Frankie's pizza.

But his appreciation for Brattleboro found its best expression in his generous support for local musicians. Wolk's discography was voluminous -- his Web site lists more than 60 albums he worked on -- and that doesn't even include all the local musicians he helped.

McCormick remembers asking Wolk simply to play a little bass on her album "Talisman Groove."

Instead, "he showed up with a van full of instruments that took him half an hour to unload," she recalled.

Scott Ainslie had a similar recollection during the sessions for his "Thunder's Mouth" CD. "It didn't matter that I wasn't famous or rich enough to pay him what he was worth. We found a date that worked, and he showed up with a truck full of stuff which we moved into the house. Most of it wound up being used in the sessions," Ainslie e-mailed Monday from the road.

"He poured himself into your music," said McBrowne. "He was the best to work with. He really made you feel like he was your friend."

And he didn't just help established, professional musicians with their projects. In his last weeks, Wolk had taken an interest in a rock band three local high school students had put together. Shaw had recorded some tracks and wanted to play them for Wolk. Before even hearing them, Wolk said he would help produce their CD.

His earnest interest in helping other musicians was a real part of who he was, Hickey said.

"He was a rare person that was super, super generous. I think part of it was the basic love of creating, but there's a lot of key people in his past who have helped him."

An art student at Cooper Union Art School, Wolk turned full-time music, getting an early break with a chance to play with Billy Vera and Big River. Lonnie Mack was another early mentor, and an early success was his playing on the first-ever rap gold record by Kurtis Blow. In 1981, he joined Hall & Oates' band in time to be on the "Private Eyes" album.

"Daryl (Hall) used to refer to him as the ampersand in Hall & Oates," said the duo's manager Jonathan Wolfson, adding both members of the duo were crushed by the loss.

"It's not if I will go on, but how," Hall said in a statement. "T-Bone was one of the most sensitive and good human beings that I have ever known."

Oates called him "peerless."

Indeed, for all the hard work and help from key people along the way, Wolk was simply musically gifted. Growing up in the New York City suburb of Yonkers, his family played the accordion, he told Guitar Digest in 2003, and he won a statewide championship on the instrument at age 12. But it was seeing the Beatles perform on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, he said, that led him to talk his father into buying him an electric guitar.

He later turned to bass, but contributed throughout his professional career on a variety of instruments -- acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, accordion, pump organ.

"Any instrument that he touched resonated with a sensitivity and skill level that I have never experienced while playing with any other musician," Oates said. "He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of styles and musical history which he referenced to support all the artists that he played with over the years."

"His musicianship was just from another planet," said McCormick. "He just came into the this world making music."

"He was always just spot-on, miraculous," Jordan said.

He was busy to the end. In recent weeks, he had worked with Shaw on tracks for his first solo recording.

And he died Sunday in New York hours after completing a recording session for a solo recording Hall was working on.

A private service for his wife Pam and close family and friends is scheduled for later this week. Other remembrances for the thousands of friends and musicians that are part of his larger family are still in the works, Hickey said.

Jordan said he would like to see some tribute put together here in Brattleboro.

In the meantime, his friends have been filling their days privately thinking of ways to deal with the sad news.

"For now, I'm going to listen to ‘Thunder's Mouth' and weep over his loss," wrote Ainslie. "In my life, T-Bone was all good. All."

"Generosity. That's what comes to mind when I think of him," said McCormick. "How I would carry that forward is hopefully working with musicians I could be helpful to."


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