Bob Dylan's big break
One performance in 1961 transformed a scruffy Greenwich Village nobody into a rising folk star
It happened, positively, on fourth street. a celebrated stretch of Greenwich Village bohemia provisionally occupied by several generations of freethinkers and subversives, Fourth Street was taken over by the folkies at the dawn of the 1960s. Countless young men and women, drawn to homemade native music as an alternative to the period’s insipid pop, came crooning and strumming acoustic guitars, scuffling with an equality of anonymity befitting the scene’s Marxist bent — until a 20-year-old who called himself Bob Dylan played Fourth Street on Sept. 26, 1961.
No one in New York knew that his real name was Robert Zimmerman, or that he was the middle-class Jewish son of an appliance-store owner from Hibbing, Minn. ”He gave us all the dust-bowl Okie-hobo routine — he was completely phony,” says singer Jackie Washington about his old Village colleague’s early debt to Woody Guthrie. ”But Dylan did the best dust-bowl Okie-hobo routine. And we were all phony.”
After some nine months in New York stage-testing and reshaping his routine, softening the Guthrie, subtly strengthening the Dylan, he landed what was only his second billed appearance — as the opening act for the Greenbriar Boys, a bluegrass trio — at Gerdes Folk City, a gray little Fourth Street hole whose liquor license made it more popular with musicians than the coffeehouses. Dylan knew he had an important fan in the audience: Robert Shelton, a music critic for The New York Times who had heard Dylan several months earlier and promised to attend this show. ”Bobby gave a virtuoso performance,” recalls blues giant Dave Van Ronk, who was in the Gerdes audience that night. ”And he gave it for Bob Shelton.”
His Sept. 29 review, the first major Times piece about any of the new folksingers, heralded Dylan for his then-radical ragged singing and promise as a songwriter — kick-starting Dylan’s career almost overnight. (”A bright new face in folk music…,” Shelton began, ”Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months.”) As Susan Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend at the time, told writer Robbie Woliver, ”Robert Shelton’s review, without a doubt, made Dylan’s career.”
Less than a month later, Dylan signed with Columbia Records under the wing of A&R legend John Hammond. ”The night Dylan walked into Gerdes, he was one of us,” says Van Ronk. ”After that, every one of us hated him. Nobody else got that kind of praise. Nobody else got a record deal with Columbia. It took a long time for us to realize that nobody else had that kind of talent.”
September 26, 1997
HARPER LEE’S Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is No. 2 on the best-seller list. Though the 1962 film, with Gregory Peck, will be nominated for eight Academy Awards and win three, the racially charged book will later be banned from some schools. ON TV, the Old West is best: The top three shows are Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and Have Gun Will Travel. After a drought in the ’80s, Westerns mosey back with the 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove and, starting in 1993, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, both on CBS. THE HUSTLER, starring Paul Newman, opens in New York. Newman will get a Best Actor nod, but not until after the 1986 sequel, The Color of Money, will he win for his portrayal of pool shark Fast Eddie Felson. AND IN THE REAL WORLD, the Cincinnati Reds clinch their first National League pennant since 1940; they will lose the World Series to the New York Yankees in five games.