What Willie Duff Did For Leonard Cohen

[Willie Duff] was one of those rare musicians that play selflessly, and for pure and complete support.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


Wilie Duff is an 83 year old musician who is unknown to most Leonard Cohen fans despite recurrent  documentation of his rather remarkable contribution to Cohen’s first album.1

The most straightforward discussion of the Willie Duff and Leonard Cohen collaboration is a September 20, 1986 interview with John Hammond and Leonard Cohen on BBC that can be accessed at LeonardCohenFiles. I’ve excerpted the portion pertinent to our topic but the entire interview is a worthwhile read.

Leonard Cohen: When I first went into the studio [to record Songs of Leonard Cohen], John Hammond arranged for me to play with four or five, dynamite, New York, studio musicians. Those takes were lively, but I kept listening to what the musicians were doing. It was the first time I had ever played with a really accomplished band, and I was somewhat intimidated by this. I didn’t really know how to sing with a band. I really didn’t know how to sing with really good, professional musicians that were really cooking; and I would tend to listen to the musicians, rather than concentrate on what I was doing, because they were doing it so much more proficiently than I was.

Then, John Hammond got the idea that I would just lay down basic tracks, with an extremely sensitive musician by the name of Willie Ruff, a bass player, a man who had come out of Yale, classical background and jazz. We began to put down the basic tracks, just guitar and bass.

John Hammond: Well, Willie Ruff is a great, bass player and a French horn player. He teaches at Yale; he’s a full professor of music at Yale. He’s a black guy from Sheffield, Alabama, and 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. Willie had toured the world with a pianist called Dwike Mitchell, of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, and he was a linguist. Willie was a highly-sophisticated musician, not only as a jazz musician, but he was one of the best French horn players we had here. He never played French horn with Leonard, though. Willie was not upset by the fact that Leonard couldn’t read music, and he just realized this guy was a genius of his own kind.

Leonard Cohen: Willie Ruff kept the time, and his slides from one chord to another just kept the song moving forward; and I put down, I think the completed vocal track and bass of “Suzanne,” the “Master Song,” “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” and “Sisters of Mercy.”

I don’t remember anything, in particular, that went down between me and Willie, during those sessions, except that I was able to do them with a sense of confidence. The support that Willie Ruff brought to those sessions was crucial. I couldn’t have laid down those tracks without him. He supported the guitar playing so well. He could always anticipate my next move, he understood the song so thoroughly. He was one of those rare musicians that play selflessly, and for pure and complete support.

What Happened To Willie Ruff?

Well, he, like Leonard Cohen, appears to have achieved icon status. A recent article summarizing Willie Ruff’s career can be read at Jazz That Spans Generations by Phillip Lutzfeb. New York Times: Feb 28, 2015. Also see Professor Ruff’s profile at Yale School of Music.


  1. The same basic story can be found in Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life by Anthony Reynolds, The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music by Dunstan Prial, Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel, Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons, and many other publications. []

Signs Of Leonard Cohen: Ad For Songs Of Leonard Cohen 1968

bedLeonard Cohen in ad for the “Songs Of Leonard Cohen” album from The Beat, March 9, 1968. The text reads:

I’ve been on the outlaw scene since I was 15. I had some thing in common with the beatniks, and even more things with the hippies. The next thing may be even closer to where I am.

Why he is in bed is unclear.

Also see Leonard Cohen and His Crazy Dream In Print In 1968