1967: When Leonard Cohen Met Willie Ruff
Singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen first attracted attention in the early 1960s as a writer of novels and poetry. No one thought of Cohen as a singer, and perhaps we might still not know Leonard Cohen as a singer if not for his chance meeting with the bassist Willie Ruff, in 1967. By then, Cohen had turned his attention to songwriting, albeit with little success. He migrated from Montreal to New York City, trying to get the ear of singers and producers, but was having little luck. That all changed when he sang and played for Judy Collins (over the phone) his song “Suzanne.” She immediately made the song her own. As a result, the name Leonard Cohen began to attract a bit of attention, though he was still not recognized as a singer/guitarist.
In 1967, the producer John Hammond brought Cohen into a New York studio to work through some of his songs with a number of the best studio players on the scene. It was an awkward situation for Cohen. He had never played with a band. He was overwhelmed by the musicians around him, stalling Hammond's project. That's when Cohen and Hammond decided upon a much simpler approach. How about just Cohen's guitar and a bass player? Hammond knew of a struggling musician, a graduate from Yale, who played both French horn and bass. Hammond described Willie Ruff as a great bass player.
“He’s a black guy from Sheffield, Alabama,” recalled Hammond in a 1986 interview on BBC. Continued Hammond, he was “somebody I trusted immediately. Leonard always needed reassurance, of some kind, and he recognized that Willie was a supreme musician; and it was a wonderful combination, the two of them.”
The result of that 1967 collaboration between Leonard Cohen and Willie Ruff was the album “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” This became a cult favorite in the US, as well as in the UK where, according to Wikipedia, it spent over a year on the album charts.
On this week's Classics a la Carte, Friday evenings from 7-9 on KPAC and KTXI, James Baker will continue sharing a recent interview with Willie Ruff as part of KPAC's ongoing celebration of Black History Month. Mr. Ruff will remember Duke Ellington and Duke's quiet alter-ego, Billy Strayhorn. We will also hear about Strayhorn's composition of a suite for horn and piano, one of his final pieces as he struggled through his final battle with cancer. This week's segment with Willie Ruff will climax with a recording of Strayhorn's “Suite for Horn and Piano,” featuring the Dwike Mitchell-Willie Ruff Duo. 2015 is the Billy Strayhorn Centennial.