It Was 50 Years Ago — ‘Dueling Banjos’ Was A Powerhouse Instrumental Duo
By Randal C. Hill
Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell
In the early months of 1973, Top 10 recording artists included such hipsters as Carly Simon, Elton John, War, Steely Dan and Roberta Flack.
In their midst, though, appeared the unlikely duo of Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell, a powerhouse instrumental duo behind the million-seller “Dueling Banjos,” which for four straight weeks locked in the No. 2 position on the Billboard singles chart.
Weissberg and Mandell supported themselves as session musicians, working with such leading lights as Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and John Denver — until a request arrived one day for the pair to record a track for the upcoming Burt Reynolds movie “Deliverance,” a horrific tale of four Atlanta businessmen who canoe down an isolated Georgia river (that’s about to become dammed and made into a lake), with dangerous, churning rapids and mayhem and murder awaiting downstream.
Five minutes into the film, at a dilapidated backwoods gas station, we experience a spontaneous jam session between city slicker Drew (former stage actor Ronny Cox) and a provincial lad — apparently mute — named Lonnie (local high-schooler Billy Redden).
“Dueling Banjos” unfolds between the pair as a musical conversation. Lonnie, initially reticent, slowly picks up the tune, tosses in a bit of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” then, much to Drew’s delight, shifts into high gear. The musical pace builds to a high-octane finish as a grinning local man dances an ad libbed jig.
Cox was a good guitarist but Redden couldn’t play a note. During the filming, Billy had to wear a customized shirt that allowed a local musician named Mike Addis to play the banjo while hiding his own arms in Redden’s sleeves.
Weissberg and Mandell didn’t write “Dueling Banjos.” That honor went to ace instrumentalist Arthur Smith in 1954 when he composed “Feudin’ Banjos,” which he recorded later with fellow banjoist Don Reno. Smith’s original work — a forerunner of the rapid-fire rock ‘n’ roll instrumental — was appropriately named because the track seemed to be just that: an argument of sorts between two banjos. The 1973 hit single, though, featured not two banjos but a banjo and a guitar.
“Dueling Banjos” on Warner Records rose next to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and reached No. 5 on the country charts. Its placement in the latter might have been the impetus that helped Weissberg and Mandell garner a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance the following year.
But not everybody appreciated the success of “Dueling Banjos.” Arthur Smith had not given permission for the usage of his creation nor did he receive the credit for writing the hit. Eric Weissberg was listed as the sole creator.
Smith filed a lawsuit, which was settled two years later in his favor when he received the abundant royalties that were due him. Just how abundant? The first thing Arthur purchased was a 42-foot yacht.
Smith’s creation was parodied when comedian Martin Mull released his own instrumental argument called “Dueling Tubas.” The silly single sold enough copies to send it soaring to No. 92 on the Hot 100 chart.