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The grandchild of Jewish-Russian immigrants, Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, where his father, Abe, worked for the Standard Oil Company. In 1947, the Zimmerman family moved to the small town of Hibbing, where an unexceptional childhood did little to hint at the brilliance to come.
Robert started writing poems around the age of ten, and taught himself rudimentary piano and guitar in his early teens. Falling under the spell of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other early rock stars, he started forming his own bands, including the Golden Chords and Elston Gunn and His Rock Boppers. According to the 1959 Hibbing high school yearbook, his goal was "to join Little Richard."
The young Zimmerman left Hibbing for Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1959. The sights and sounds of the big city opened new vistas for him, and he began to trace contemporary rock and roll back to its roots, listening to the work of country, rock, and folk pioneers like Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and Woody Guthrie.
Indeed, his interest in music had become so intense that he rarely found the time to go to class. He began to perform solo at local nightspots like the Ten O'Clock Scholar cafe and St. Paul's Purple Onion Pizza Parlor, honing his guitar and harmonica work and developing the expressive nasal voice that would become the nucleus of his trademark sound. It was around this time, too, that he adopted the stage name Bob Dylan, presumably in honor of the late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, though this is an origin he has continued to deny throughout his career.
The following year, he dropped out of college and went to New York with two things on his mind: to become a part of Greenwich Village's burgeoning folk-music scene, and to meet Guthrie, who was hospitalized in New Jersey with a rare, hereditary disease of the nervous system. He succeeded on both counts, becoming a fixture in the Village's folk clubs and coffee houses and at Guthrie's hospital bedside, where he would perform the folk legend's own songs for an audience of one.
Spending all of his spare time in the company of other musicians, Bob Dylan amazed them with his ability to learn songs perfectly after hearing them only once. He also began writing songs at a remarkable pace, including a tribute to his hero entitled "Song to Woody."
In the fall of 1961, Dylan's legend began to spread beyond folk circles and into the world at large after critic Robert Shelton saw him perform at Gerde's Folk City and raved in the New York Times that he was "bursting at the seams with talent." A month later, Columbia Records executive John Hammond signed Bob Dylan to a recording contract, and the young singer-songwriter began selecting material for his eponymous debut album.
Not yet fully confident in his own songwriting abilities, he cut only two original numbers, rounding out the collection with traditional folk tunes and songs by blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bukka White. The result (released early in 1962) was an often haunting, death-obsessed record that, culminating in Dylan's gravel-voiced reading of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," sounded as much like the work of an aging black blues man as a twenty-one-year-old Jewish folksinger from Minnesota.
Early in 1997, though, those who lived in hope of an artistically born-again Bob Dylan had cause for optimism: musician Jim Dickinson told a Memphis newspaper that he had played on some recent, Daniel Lanois-produced Dylan sessions featuring new material Dylan had composed while stuck at home in Minnesota during a blizzard. According to Dickinson, one cut was seventeen minutes long, and overall the material was "so good, I can't imagine he won't use it."
The seventeen-minute song turned out to be "Highlands," the closing cut on the critically acclaimed "Time Out of Mind," which was released in September and became Dylan's first gold record of the decade. The success of the album was noteworthy, but 1997 will go down as the year that Bob Dylan knocked on heaven's door, literally: in May, on the eve of a European tour, he was hospitalized with histoplasmosis, a potentially fatal infection that creates swelling in the sac surrounding the heart. Happily, the songwriter made a rapid recovery, and was back on the road by August and continued to tour through the remainder of the year, including a September date in Rome at the behest of Pope John Paul II.
In early December, Bob Dylan was one of five recipients of his country's highest award for artistic excellence, the Kennedy Center Honors.
Hits include: "Like A Rolling Stone", "Silvio",
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