Mar 22, 2020: Eric Weissberg, ‘Dueling Banjos’ Musician—Obituary

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‘Dueling Banjos’ cover

Multi-instrumentalist Eric Weissberg, half of the duo (along with Steve Mandell) that scored an unlikely #2 hit in 1973 with “Dueling Banjos,” popularized in the hit film Deliverance, died March 22, 2020, at a nursing home near Detroit, Mich. The cause was Alzheimer’s disease. Weissberg was 80.

The film, 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.

In the film, 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 Mandell and 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.)

Listen to Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s hit rendition of “Dueling Banjos”

“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.

Eric Weissberg (left) and Steve Mandell in an undated photo

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 the Record World chart on February 17 (staying on top for a second week).

The album Dueling Banjos From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Deliverance And Additional Music, credited to Weissberg and Mandell, reached #1 on the Billboard LP chart in 1973. (According to Wikipedia, “The album was made up mostly of tracks which Weissberg had recorded on New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass [1963], with Marshall Brickman and Clarence White.”)

The title song, produced by Joe Boyd, 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 recorded “Dueling Banjos,” died March 14, 2018, of prostate cancer at his home in Owings Mills, Md. He was 76.

Weissberg, born August 16, 1939, joined the folk group the Greenbriar Boys in 1958-59, then began playing with a folk group, the Tarriers, while a student at New York’s Juilliard School of Music. The Tarriers accompanied Judy Collins on a European tour and the singer used Weissberg as a musician on her Fifth Album (1965). Weissberg was also a prolific session musician, accompanying such varied artists as Bob Dylan (Blood on the Tracks), Melanie, Billy Joel, Jim Croce, Talking Heads (Little Creatures), Richard Thompson and Frankie Valli. In addition to banjo, Weissberg played fiddle, guitar, Dobro and mandolin, and he sang.

Mandell and Weissberg toured to capitalize on their duet hit, under the name Eric Weissberg and Deliverance. Weissberg continued to perform at folk festivals until the onset of his illness.

Listen to “Shuckin’ the Corn,” by Eric Weissberg and Deliverance

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

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