Bob Dylan made his debut more than 50 years ago, and today he's considered, if not the most, at least one of the most influential artists in modern music. If that was ever in doubt, he was just named the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature. Below, we look back at how he got here. More specifically, we look at how 10 key moments elevated him from struggling folk artist to pop icon, all within the span of one decade — the '60s.
Moves to New York, visits Woody Guthrie
One of Dylan’s biggest influences was folk legend Woody Guthrie. So much so, that in 1961, a young Dylan travelled to New York City in the hope that he could visit his ailing idol in the hospital. “I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie's greatest disciple," he wrote in his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One. He not only visited the “The Land is Ourt Land” singer, but he also befriended another Guthrie disciple, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, which began Dylan’s immersion into the Greenwich Village folk scene.
This review, which appeared in the New York Times on Sep. 29, 1961
“A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde's Folk City. Although only 20 years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months.”
Signing with Albert Grossman
In 1962, Dylan signed with manager Albert Grossman, who continued to manage him until 1970, and who’s larger than life personality made sure people knew who his client was. "He was kind of like a Colonel Tom Parker figure,” Dylan says in the Martin Scorsese documentary, No DIrection Home, drawing comparisons to the man largely credited with kickstarting Elvis’s career. That same year, Dylan released his self-titled debut album.
Changing his name
Early on in his career, Robert Zimmerman started introducing himself onstage as Bob Dylan, taking his stage name from the poet Dylan Thomas, who he was heavily influenced by. In 1962, he changed it legally. "You're born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free," he said in an interview with 60 Minutes.
'Blowin’ in the Wind'
Two songs will always define Dylan’s career, and this is one of them. Released on his second album, the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in 1963, the song marked a stylistic shift in conventioanl songwriting by posing a series of rhetorical questions in a stream of conscious style. Peter, Paul and Mary covered it, making it Dylan’s first hit song, but certainly not his last.
'Like a Rolling Stone'
In 1965, Dylan went electric, and even though “Subterranean Homesick Blues” came first (it was released as a single in January and included on the album Bringing It All Back Home), it was “Like a Rolling Stone,” released in June of the same year as the lead single to Highway 61’ Revisited, Dylan’s first official rock album, that changed everything. "That snare shot sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind," Bruce Springsteen said of the song at Dylan’s inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” As Dylanologist Paul Williams put it in his three-part series on the the musicians, Bob Dylan: Performing Artist: “Dylan had been famous, had been the center of attention, for a long time. But now the ante was being upped again. He'd become a pop star …”
Meeting the Band
In 1965, Dylan was looking for a band to tour with and play his new electric songs. A demo tape of Toronto rocky band the Hawks made its way to him, so on Sept. 15, Dylan travelled to the Friar’s Tavern on Yonge Street to watch them perform. As the story goes, they jammed all night in what Time magazine called “the most decisive moment in rock history.” Their controversial world tour together, which split the show into two parts — one acoustic, one electric — was noted for how it divided fans of his folk music, including the famous show in Manchester in which an audience member yells out “Judas!” right before they performed “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan’s response was to reply, “"I don't believe you, you're a liar," before telling the Band to “play it f--kin’ loud.”
In 1966, Dylan returned to his home near Woodstock, New York, physically and mentally exhausted, but with pressures still mounting (a TV show, book and another tour were all in the works at the time). On July 29, he crashed his Triumph motorcycle and was injured, claiming to have broke several vertebrae. "I had been in a motorcycle accident and I'd been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race,” he wrote in his autobiography. He was joined by the five members of the Band, who had taken up at Robbie Robertson’s home nearby, nicknamed “Big Pink.” in 1967, they began recording in Robertson’s basement, amassing over 100 tracks, including original works, covers, traditional folk, gospel and blues songs. It became known as the Basement Tapes, and is one of the most storied recording sessions in music history. Their fusing of so many traditional American genres preceded the Americana movement, and the Band included songs from the sessions on their debut album, Music from Big Pink. It also marked a change in Dylan’s style, who followed the sessions up by releasing two country influenced albums, John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969).