Fred Weisz, noted fiddler and graduate of the 1960s bluegrass scene in New York city, died last week in Everett, WA. He was 71 years of age and had been suffering from both mental and physical illness for some time.
He was a childhood friend of David Grisman, who credits Weisz with showing him his first guitar chord when they were school chums in Passaic, NY. The two performed together in the Garret Mountain Boys while still teens, and then as members of the Even Dozen Jug Band in the ’60s. That group marked their first recording sessions, and they even made it on to the Hootenanny television program.
Fred was actually born in Trinidad in 1944, a way station after his Austrian Jewish parents had fled the rise of the Nazis in ’38. In 1947 the family made the move to New Jersey where classical violin lessons were imposed on the young boy at 11. But once he discovered Bill Monroe (and Chubby Wise) records a few years later, bluegrass music captured the young Weisz’s imagination.
He played bass on sessions that Grisman was producing around New York during the ’60s, and they worked together again in the New York Ramblers. That group was the winner of the bluegrass band competition at the Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention in 1964, with Grisman on mandolin, Weisz on bass, Winnie Winston on banjo, and both Jody Stetcher and Sandy Rothman on guitar. They also performed at the first Carlton Haney festival in Fincastle the following year, and at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65, and each went on to have a notable career in bluegrass and acoustic music.
Surely Fred’s career highlight was as fiddler for Goose Creek Symphony, where he was billed as “Flyin’ Fred.” Goose Creek rode the country rock wave in the 1970s and had a radio hit covering Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz. Weisz stunned live audiences with his super-fast fiddle lines, then uncommon in pop music, and gave the band a legit air of authenticity.
But around this time he began to suffer again from the schizophrenia which had been diagnosed in his teens. He received treatment, but felt that the medication he was given served as a block to his fiddling, preventing him from playing at the speed and with the freedom he had once taken for granted.
After being accepted for disability assistance, he would occasionally be seen as a street musician in Everett where he lived the later years of his life. Folks in town loved seeing him on the street where he played when he felt up to it, as did congregants of Temple Beth Or where he attended and performed traditional Jewish music. Services for him were held there this past Sunday.
Grisman remembered his friend with a posting at Mandolin Cafe shortly after Fred passed on March 18.
“Fred Weisz had a tough life with many trials and tribulations, but through it all he always looked at the bright side and spread much joy to all who knew him. I don’t think I ever heard him complain about anything except being out of tune! His friendship was, and continues to be, a true inspiration to me and I will carry his spirit with me for the rest of my days.”
R.I.P., Fred Weisz.