I looked it up.
There’s a phrase that can almost sum up my entire life. This past May 24th marked the 78th birthday of Bob Dylan. In honour of the occasion, I attempted to compose a Tweet and was immediately flummoxed; how do you sum up the career of Bob Dylan in 280 characters?
Never mind that; 280 words. I knocked a Tweet out anyways and felt OK about it. Then – I looked him up. When I did, I realized that Dylan’s achievements in the recording industry are singular and remarkable. The length and breadth, the impact of his career really knows no parallel.
Those that know me may be raising an eyebrow. Yes, I am a Sinatra/Presley/Wilson guy from way back. Those three artists are not only my favourites but they are giants; easily the most influential figures in music. But looking up Zimmy made me stop and consider.
For those who don’t know, shame and you. And…Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth and made folk records in the early 60s. The influence of these early recordings was immense and Dylan became a primary figure with his songs of social commentary. When he moved away from pure folk and into an electrified rock sound, it sent tremors through the industry and astonished the record buying public. He released albums and songs that have reached truly iconic status. Music that is emblematic of an era almost more than those of any other artist. Indeed, when you talk Sixties, you talk the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
But the Beatles packed it in in 1969. Dylan kept making albums. Good albums. Successful albums. Landmark albums. As I looked into his discography I realized that at every juncture of his long career, Dylan has been making music of colossal import and high stature. So, who compares to him? Using criteria like longevity, critical acclaim, Grammy awards and chart position, let’s see how Dylan stacks up. And let’s start at the top.
Frank Sinatra enjoyed one of the longest recording careers in music history. He cut “All or Nothing at All” with Harry James in 1939 and released two hugely successful but awful albums of duets in the early 90s. Like Dylan, Frank enjoyed success from the very beginning of his career, through the middle/heyday segment and even on into later life; Frank was in his late 70’s when the Duets albums were released. Unlike Dylan, Sinatra made perhaps only one album of consequence – 1981’s She Shot Me Down – in the last 24 years of his life. And even that fine album didn’t chart nor gain Grammy attention. Of course, Sinatra did win several Grammys, score many #1 albums and his influence on pop music and his stature in the business is second to none. Historically, culturally, when all facets of media are accounted for, sure, FS has Zimmy beat.
I’ve always maintained that RCA Records handled Elvis Presley terribly. When I think of what could’ve been… Presley had a relatively short recording career that had astounding peaks and forgettable nadirs. His 1954-1957 period and the effect those recordings had on the business and on society are seismic in proportion and EP probably stands alone with Sinatra – perhaps on the other side of the coin – in the influence department. Like Sinatra, Presley had mass appeal; his music was accessible and he gained a legion of followers. Presley was not embraced by the Grammys, winning none for secular recordings, but he did have countless #1 records. While Presley also may loom larger in history than Bob Dylan, the King did not release significant albums in the last seven or eight years of his life.
Michael Jackson is a different animal. His recording career was certainly unique. Between 1979 and 2001, he released only six albums. All of them – save 1979’s Off the Wall – went to #1 and most of them are among the biggest selling records ever. Thriller…is Thriller. Biggest selling album ever and multi-Grammy winner. The other albums won Grammys, yes, but “small” ones, for Engineering. While he was influential, what Jackson lacks, unfortunately perhaps, is respect from at least some of the record-buying public. Onward…
If we’re talking about longevity, only the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones have been around as long as Bob Dylan. The Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones became bands with those names weeks apart in 1961, the Beach Boys finding success on the charts a year later – the same year Dylan released his first album. The Stones became popular worldwide during the British Invasion of 1964. The Beach Boys fractured as a band and could not maintain their high standard of quality after the retreat of their leader Brian Wilson in 1967. The band went on to other successes but not the type that compares to Bob Dylan. Brian Wilson eventually reemerged and holds a storied place in music today but his record releases don’t generally chart or garner Grammy awards.
The Rolling Stones, however, are still something of a force. At virtually no point in the band’s life have they been inconsequential. Their albums through the 60s and 70s always charted and sold well although they certainly were not a Grammy-type band. They had a string of #1 albums in their prime and, in their later days, every album they’ve released since 1983 has peaked in the Top 5. 1994’s Voodoo Lounge won the Grammy for Best Rock Album and their most recent record, 2016’s Blue and Lonesome, won for Best Blues Album. All significant achievements. But while they have always been rightfully hailed as “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” and they influenced a generation of rock musicians, their best music did not exactly change the landscape. Not like Dylan’s best records. And, I have to say; over the years, there have been a number of “Rolling Stones”. Mick and Keith and Charlie Watts have been joined by many others. Bob is just Bob.
Back to the solo acts, let’s look at maybe the greatest hitmaker who ever lived; James Paul McCartney. His success and influence as a Beatle we need not go into. He also enjoyed massive success as a solo act. Macca has won 18 Grammys and has written or co-written 32 #1 songs. Hello! But let’s look at the “albums of consequence later in life” stat: his last five albums have all reached the Top Ten on the charts and three have been nominated for Grammys. 2012’s album of standards, Kisses on the Bottom, won the Tony Bennett Award; Best Traditional Pop Album Grammy. And that’s about it. I always put it a bit roughly when talking about the Stones and the same could be applied to McCartney: no one – critics or record buyers – really care too much about the recent albums. That is not so with Dylan.
Elton John released his first record in 1969. From 1972 to 1975, all six of the albums he released went to #1. Several Grammy noms through the 70s but no wins. Starting with his “comeback” album – 1988’s Reg Strikes Back – and going through until the most recent, his albums have been moderately received while charting in the Top 30. Elton’s persona and history are what keep him going. A highly anticipated biopic doesn’t hurt. But Reg hasn’t made much of an impact – critically, culturally – with his last dozen records.
I have to throw in the Red-Headed Stranger. Willie Nelson’s debut album came out the same year as Bob Dylan’s and Willie is still releasing records today. So let’s look. Willie’s early successes came as a songwriter (“Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Pretty Paper”, “Crazy”) and it took him ten years to make a splash as a recording artist. He moved to Atlantic Records in 1973 and began to make noise. He arrived as an artist with 1975’s The Red-Headed Stranger. He released several successful albums throughout the 70s and 80s and then really ramped things up after he got into trouble with the IRS. After he realized he owed the government a bundle, he began to release albums like a madman! On any and every label that would have him. Willie Nelson is certainly prolific and signifiant as a musical figure but the sales, the chart position and the Grammys just aren’t there.
OK, so, what about Bob? His first album didn’t chart – the rest of his 38 albums have up to and including his most recent, 2017’s Triplicate (#37). Remarkably, his next ten albums after his first made it into the Top 10 in the UK. Stateside, his early albums were nominated for folk Grammys and charted in the Top 30. And then – starting with 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited and 1966’s Blonde on Blonde – Dylan changed the rules. This run of landmark albums is equalled only by Presley’s initial run and – maybe – the Beatles’ output in 1966-67.
Try to comprehend what I’m telling you: between 1965 and 1985 – twenty years, an incredible amount of changes in music – Bob Dylan released 17 records. None charted lower than #33, 14 landed in the Top Ten and 3 went to #1.
Like most artists, he had a dip. ’86 to ’93. Unlike most artists, he reemerged. And not for simply a victory lap. Dylan no less than regained his position as a preeminent force in rock. In 1997, Bob was 56 years old and released Time Out of Mind. The album reached #10 and won three Grammys including Album of the Year. No other artist of Dylan’s vintage or pedigree had won the Grammy for Album of the Year with a record of original material with minimal or no guest stars since Paul Simon in ’87. And this Grammy win came six years after Bob won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. His next album, “Love and Theft”, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and his next two went to #1 with one of them a Grammy winner. His most recent three albums have all been albums of standards and although his voice now is closer to a bullfrog with the misery than Vic Damone these albums have still all been nominated for Grammys and two of them were Top Ten records. As I said, Triplicate only reached #37 but it is a triple album.
Consider this: In 1963, Dylan released an album that went to #22 in the US, #1 in the UK. The album would eventually be ranked as the 97th greatest album ever and become one of the first to be added to the Library of Congress. Then, in 1997, 34 years later, Dylan released an album that the Recording Academy honoured as the best album of the year, bestowing on it an award that marked it’s “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence”, earning it’s “most prestigious award”. That’s major achievements many years apart, in two different eras. This is akin to the legendary Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters in 1963 and again 23 years later in 1986. Dominance over multiple generations.
Not content with over 100 million records sold and 10 Grammy awards stretching from 1972 to 2006, Dylan has also won a Golden Globe, an Oscar, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in 2016, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature! And consider this quick example: his 2012 album Tempest reached #3 in the US and was a Top Ten album in 14 countries worldwide. Rolling Stone called it the fourth best album of the year. This from Bob Dylan in his 50th year in the business, his 35th album. He was 71 years old.
In the influence department, you cannot beat Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. I won’t listen to your argument. With their differing musical styles and their infinite accessibility, they can be said to have influenced EVERY musical artist that came after them. Every single note of music you hear at any moment of the day on any radio station in the world can be traced back to either of those two men. But Dylan.
The case for Bob Dylan speaks for itself. The numbers don’t lie. From the very beginning, all through his heyday and into his twilight years, Dylan continues to make music that matters. The critics are still agog at his work and his records still reach the upper levels of the charts and are recognized by the Recording Academy. Bob puts all the criteria together; with the possible exception of accessibility. His recent records are not for the general public. He is, after all, pushing 80, he doesn’t make glamourous duets records like so many other legends and apparently in concert he is a nightmare. And all this is where Sinatra and Presley have him beat. Even me; I’ll give Zimmy credit. His CV is second to none but give me Sinatra’s Capitol records or Presley’s American Sound recordings.
But as we mark Bob Dylan’s 78th birthday you have to admit; taking everything into consideration, there is no body of work that compares.
Dylan didn’t deliver his Nobel Prize speech in person but sent an audio recording of it. The picture wrongly captioned was taken when he gave his MusicCares speech.
You are absolutely right, Fred. Thanks for that. I will make the change.
I enjoyed this piece! Something else Dylan, Presley and Sinatra have in common — each of them reinvented himself, and presented like no one before or since. I never much liked Frank’s persona, but you gotta admit he was an icon who made such worthies as Tony Bennett and Al Martino seem like hacks (which they were not). Elvis, well, have you looked at pictures of Elvis with his buddies just before he got famous? They look old-fashioned, he looks like a modern alien. And of course Dylan made himself up pretty much from scratch. Before anyone in New York knew his background, Bob learned in the middle of a restaurant with a bunch of other people present that Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was raised in Brooklyn as Elliot Adnopoz. The former Robert Zimmerman rolled around on the floor in hysterical laughter, they say, and refused to say why …
Yes! I love your point about reinvention and you are bang on right. Perhaps only the greats have that “in their locker”; the ability to adapt and change and still conquer. Thanks a lot for your comment.