Deliverance’s ‘Dueling Banjos’: An Unlikely Hit

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‘Dueling Banjos’ cover

In an era for unlikely Top 40 radio hits, it was as surprising as they come. The instrumental song was, “Dueling Banjos,” released in December 1972, and prominently featured in the film, Deliverance, released earlier that year.

The thriller, based on a 1970 novel by James Dickey, starred Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, with Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, as four friends who go on a canoe trip in remote Georgia. The plot quickly positioned them as “city boys” with several locals they meet, setting the tone for a deadly encounter that will occur later.

There’s a famous scene showing the backwoods character Lonnie (Billy Redden) and one of the adventurers, Drew Ballinger (Cox), picking a song in a country setting.

The actual performance was by Steve Mandell and Eric Weissberg, who plays the banjo on the recording. Despite its title, the hit recording features guitar and banjo, not actual “dueling banjos.” (As the actors did not play instruments, they were shown miming to the Weissberg-Mandell recording.)

“Dueling Banjos” was written in 1954 by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith under the title “Feudin’ Banjos.” Smith recorded it the following year, accompanied by bluegrass banjoist Don Reno, but its first wide-scale airing came in 1963 when the song was performed on The Andy Griffith Show by a group called the Darlings, who in actuality were the popular acoustic music group the Dillards.

“Dueling Banjos” reached #1 on February 17, 1973

The recording by Weissberg and Mandell was released on Warner Bros. Records and debuted at #92 on the singles chart on January 6, 1973. Rising quickly, it reached #1 on Record World on February 17 (staying on top for a second week).

The song won the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental. (Smith successfully sued the film studio for using the song without his permission.)

Related: What were some of the other surprising radio hits of the ’70s?

Mandell, the guitar-playing half of the duo that scored a Grammy and a gold record for “Dueling Banjos,” died March 14, 2018, of prostate cancer at his home in Owings Mills, Md. He was 76.

Steve Mandell

He learned to play guitar at age 12 and then the banjo and other instruments. He played in a band with future mandolin star David Grisman and then backed Judy Collins, with whom he remained until 1974.

Weissberg, born August 16, 1939, began playing with a folk group, the Tarriers, while a student at New York’s Juilliard School of Music. He later became a session musician for such varied artists as Melanie, Billy Joel, Jim Croce, Talking Heads and Frankie Valli.

Mandell and Weissberg toured to capitalize on their duet hit, under the name Eric Weissberg and Deliverance.

Listen to Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s hit rendition of “Dueling Banjos.” What a scene!

Related: Our obituary of Burt Reynolds, who died in 2018

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