Grammy Award Winning Baltimore Bluegrass Picker Steve Mandell Dies at 76

Steve Mandell, right, with his ‘Dueling Banjos’ partner Eric Weissberg at the annual New York Bluegrass Reunion in Washington Square. (Provided by Terry Mandell)

Steve Mandell was not only a beloved presence in the local bluegrass, folk and country music scene, but also in the Jewish community. The Owings Mills resident and accomplished musician, best known as the guitarist on the recording of “Dueling Banjos” from the 1972 film “Deliverance,” died on March 14 after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 76.

Mandell, who was born in Philadelphia but raised in Mount Vernon and New Rochelle, New York, started playing music as a child. It was a passion that stayed with him throughout his life. Those familiar with Steve from his time in the Baltimore bluegrass scene all said the same thing: He was always smiling, and he was always the first in line so he could be in the front row at concerts.

“Music gave him life,” said Terry Mandell, Steve’s wife of more than 43 years. “But he was a very humble, very private kind of person. He did not accept the accolades for a long time.”

Along with his early arrival to bluegrass shows, the humility Terry described was another of Steve’s universally recognized qualities.

“He would’ve never said, ‘I’m Steve Mandell and I played on ‘Dueling Banjos’ and I toured with Judy Collins,’” said Ken Kolodner, a locally renowned bluegrass fiddle and hammered dulcimer player. “He introduced himself to me as ‘Steve.’ I had to kind of coax who he was out of him.”

The opening to “Dueling Banjos,” which is actually a guitar and a banjo, is an iconic melody known to many, even those who haven’t seen “Deliverance.” Those who have seen the film remember the pivotal scene in which Drew, played by Ronny Cox, has a short jam session with a country boy played by Billy Redden.

Cox is still a touring musician, and said his ability to play guitar likely landed him the role. Director John Boorman wanted the jam scene to be as authentic as possible and asked Steve Mandell to teach Cox the guitar part.

“Steve taught it to me note for note. If you go back and look at the film, I’m playing all the right notes,” said Cox. “Is that me on the soundtrack? No.”

The performance heard in the film is Eric Weissburg on banjo and Steve Mandell on guitar. That performance won the duo a Grammy in 1974.

The summer before, Steve met Terry after performing in a Judy Collins concert at Southern Illinois University.

“My girlfriend and I got front-row seats in an outdoor venue with 20,000 people,” said Terry. “As the throngs were leaving, she and I decided to stay back. Steve looked down as he was packing up his instruments, saw my Jewish star and said, ‘Lantzman!’ He was shocked that in the middle of nowhere Illinois, there was this nice Jewish girl who liked folk music.”

They lived together in New York City and married in June 1974. In 1988, they moved to Baltimore, after the performance and recording scene in New York became “synthesized,” as Terry put it. In 1990, they became members of Temple Emanuel (which was ultimately absorbed by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation) and in 2011, they began the Temple Emanuel Studio Cooperative of Arts.

“We were trying to enrich the lives of people going through life-cycle events,” said Terry, noting that many of the congregants who took to the program were b’nai mitzvah students.

TESCA’s initial focus was on visual arts like pottery and textile design, but then Steve came up with the idea of a concert series. “He said, ‘Look, we can pull some music in here and make some more money for the congregation,’” recalled Terry.

The couple organized and promoted 14 concerts between the years 2011 and 2015, including performances by Flavio Sala, The Reisterstown Jazz Band, Al Petteway & Amy White and Ronny Cox.

“We hadn’t seen each other for over 30 years,” said Cox. “Then the last four or five years we saw each other four or five times. The relationship Steve and I had in the last five years has been much richer than in the ’70s.”

In his later years, Steve Mandell didn’t perform often. This didn’t, however, diminish his love for bluegrass.

“He was always the first one in line to pretty much all of our events,” said Phil Chorney, the CEO and co-founder of the Charm City Bluegrass Festival. “He went and supported all of the other musicians all the time.”

Adam Kirr, the chief marketing officer of the Charm City Bluegrass Festival, seconded Chorney’s notion. “He still loved going to bluegrass shows and jams of all different sorts,” said Kirr. “He was just a welcome, smiling face in the scene.”

For many, Steve’s love of bluegrass — the picking, the melodies and, according to Terry, especially the harmonies — was contagious. Terry said before meeting her husband, she was much more interested in folk and country music. But by falling in love with Steve, she fell in love with bluegrass. She laughed, “I married into bluegrass.”

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