“Billy (Lee Riley) was a son of rock ‘n’ roll, obviously. He was a true original. He did it all: He played, he sang, he wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You just don’t stand a chance.
So Billy became what is known in the industry — a condescending term, by the way — as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him. And Billy’s hit song was called “Red Hot,” and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it. Change your life. He did it with style and grace.” (Bob Dylan, speech at Musicares Person of the year Awards, 2015)
Bob Dylan´s love of rock´n roll is widely known. This was the music he grew up with, this was the music he played in those early high school bands, “The Shadow Blasters” and “The Golden Chords”, Robert Zimmerman playing wild piano. It was ironically during the song “Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay” the principal cut the sound because they played to loud.
In the high school yearbook, Robert Zimmerman´s goal in life were quite specific: “To join Little Richard.” In an audio tape from around the same time the young Bob explains to his friend that listening to Little Richard makes him wanna cry. And you can´t blame him, there is no wondering this crazy rocket of a person without boundaries would make an impression on the teenagers of the gloomy and war-fearing fifties. Robert Z was sixteen when “Lucille” was shown on television.
And, of course, then it was the ultimate poet of rock´n roll, Chuck Berry. Impossible to not be influenced by.
“In my universe, Chuck is irreplaceable. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock ’n’ roll for what it was and what it represented — not least of all being a black-and-white thing.”
Chuck Berry´s spirit was especially visible on Dylan´s album “Bringing It All Back Home”, where he was obviously extending the lines from “Too Much Monkey Business” to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Tombstone Blues”.
And then it was Jerry Lee Lewis: “Jerry Lee Lewis came in like a streaking comet from some far away galaxy. Rock and roll was atomic powered, all zoom and doom. It didn’t seem like an extension of anything but it probably was.” (Bob Dylan, 2017)
It must obviously have been a very special moment for Bob when Jerry Lee Lewis recorded his version of “Rita May”.
This great little rock´n roll song, both in music and lyrics, was never on an album, but made it to the B-side of a single released from “Desire”, the sessions where it was recorded. Let´s hope it will make it to one official compilation in the future.
A few years ago Jerry Lee Lewis also made his rock´n roll version of Dylan´s “Am I Your Stepchild”.
Even if all those heroes were important for Dylan, there is no doubt there was something special about Elvis Presley: “When I first heard Elvis´ voice I just knew I wasn´t going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss….Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”
Dylan also told Rolling Stone that his favorite cover version of one of his songs were Elvis´take on “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” – that Elvis covered one of his songs were one of the highlights of his career, he said.
There is no doubt that Bob Dylan´s version of “Blue Moon” on “Self Portrait” is greatly influenced by and a homage to Elvis´version of the same song.
Elvis Presley also recorded a funny improvised rockabilly version of “Don´t Think Twice, It´s All Right”.
When Bob Dylan got seriously ill in 1997, he, when he got better, described the situation in those words: “I’m just glad to be feeling better. I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon.”
Dylan also recorded a tribute to Elvis, though it never was released – the beautiful “Any Way You Want Me”:
Long before this, the young Bobby Zimmerman also played piano on a couple of dates with rock´n roll singer Bobby Vee in 1959, then under the name Elston Gunnn, even singing back-up vocal on some songs, at least one time to Bobby Vee´s big surprise!
When Bobby Vee attended Bob Dylan´s show at Midway Stadium in 2013, Dylan made a extremely touching tribute to Vee, at this time diagnosed with Alzheimer´s disease. Wonderful!
Even if Bob Dylan was known for going electric in 1965, he also recorded rock´n roll songs, but none of them made the revolutionary folk album “Freewheelin´Bob Dylan”. The single “Mixed Up Confusion” was released on a single, but “That´s Alright Mama” was first released on the 1962 Copyright Extension collection in 2002.
Bob Dylan himself was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, inducted by Bruce Springsteen: “The way Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind.”
Contrary to his speech in 2015, Dylan´s speech were short, but he thanks Little Richard and gives him credit: “I don´t think I´d even started out without listening to Little Richard.”
In 1995 the tribute album to the late great Doc Pomus was released, the creator of so many great songs for so many great voices. Bob Dylan´s choice was his rockabilly version of “Boogie Woogie Country Girl”, a version quite close to Big Joe Turner´s own version of the song, even with the same shouts that Big Joe Turner used. “Now she digs that music with a beat / Rock ‘n’ rollin’ is her need.”
In 2001 the Sun Tribute Album “Good Rocking Tonight” were released, and Dylan´s contribution was a heartfelt version of the Warren Smith classic “Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache”:
During the 1986 “True Confessions” tour with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Dylan introduced a string of rock´n roll songs in his set, among them Warren Smith´s “Uranium Rock”, but also songs like Ricky Nelson´s “Lonesome Town” and other rock´n roll songs like “Justine”, “Let the Good Times Roll” and “Unchain My Heart”.
He also made his own rock´n roll songs from time to time, like “Unbelieavable” from the album “Under The Red Sky” in 1990, this time even with a video companion.
During the everlasting tour from 1988 until today, there has been literally hundreds of cover versions from Dylan, among them also Buddy Holly´s “Not Fade Away”.
He also made a stab at Buddy Holly´s “Heartbeat” in the little swedish tv special, playing for just one person in the audience, in the fall of 2014.
Buddy Holly made a great impression on the young Robert, so much that he, in the speech after receiving Grammy for Album of the Year in 1998, “Time Out Of Mind”, mentioned the memory of attending a Buddy Holly show just few days before the plane crash that ended Holly´s life.
In his last interview with Bill Flanagan he even compares his songs from the great american songbook like this: “These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.” He elaborated on the theme even more, showing us that all come together full circle in his newest project, going back to the days before rock´n roll:
“Rock and roll was indeed an extension of what was going on – the big swinging bands – Ray Noble, Will Bradley, Glenn Miller, I listened to that music before I heard Elvis Presley. But rock and roll was high energy, explosive and cut down. It was skeleton music, came out of the darkness and rode in on the atom bomb and the artists were star headed like mystical Gods. Rhythm and blues, country and western, bluegrass and gospel were always there – but it was compartmentalized – it was great but it wasn’t dangerous. Rock and roll was a dangerous weapon, chrome plated, it exploded like the speed of light, it reflected the times, especially the presence of the atomic bomb which had preceded it by several years. Back then people feared the end of time. The big showdown between capitalism and communism was on the horizon. Rock and roll made you oblivious to the fear, busted down the barriers that race and religion, ideologies put up. We lived under a death cloud; the air was radioactive. There was no tomorrow, any day it could all be over, life was cheap. That was the feeling at the time and I’m not exaggerating. Doo-wop was the counterpart to rock and roll. Songs like “In the Still of the Night,” “Earth Angel,” “Thousand Miles Away,” those songs balanced things out, they were heartfelt and melancholy for a world that didn’t seem to have a heart. The doo-wop groups might have been an extension, too, of the Ink Spots and gospel music, but it didn’t matter; that was brand new too. Groups like the Five Satins and the Meadowlarks seemed to be singing from some imaginary street corner down the block.” (Bob Dylan, 2017)
In Bob Dylan´s life, rock´n roll was always here to stay.