15 Freewheelin' Facts About Bob Dylan

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Facts and Bob Dylan have always made for strange companions. Though he achieved worldwide fame as The Voice of a Generation—a young man hailed in part for his honesty as he sang of both the hard truths of social injustices as well as his own personal romantic anguish—he did so as Bob Dylan, not as Robert Zimmerman, the name he was born with and went by growing up in Minnesota.

Even today, more than 50 years after he first began kicking around the Greenwich Village club scene, Dylan remains an elusive figure who has at times been accused of making career choices specifically to obfuscate and muddle his identity. With that in mind, and in honor of the icon's birthday, here are some truths about the man behind the man who wrote some of the most important songs in music history.

1. HE DIDN'T SHOW UP TO HIS OWN HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION PARTY.

Robert Allen Zimmerman graduated from Minnesota's Hibbing High School in 1959. Under his yearbook picture, his life goal reads “to join Little Richard.” The teenager likely had a 1956 school talent show incident in mind when he decided on that caption: as he played keyboards and sang a Little Richard song with his band, the school principal cut them off and pulled the curtain. By graduation night, he was ready to leave.

2. HE USED TO GO BY THE NAME OF ELSTON GUNNN.

Yes, with the extra N. In the summer after his high school graduation, Zimmerman was working as a busboy at a Fargo, North Dakota cafe when he conned his way into future music star Bobby Vee’s band, The Shadows, by claiming he had just been on the road with Conway Twitty and only showcasing his piano skills in the key of C. The stage name Zimmerman gave himself was Elston Gunnn. The group arrangement didn’t last for very long, due to lack of funds for all involved, and Zimmerman/Gunnn left for Minneapolis at the end of the summer to attend the University of Minnesota.

3. CHARLIE CHAPLIN IS ONE OF HIS BIGGEST INFLUENCES.

Dylan was quoted as early as 1961 as saying he is “always conscious of the Chaplin tramp.” Early in his performing career, the musician would use his hat as a prop, just as Chaplin did in his films. In 2006, Dylan released an album titled Modern Times, an obvious nod to Chaplin's classic 1936 film of the same name.

4. HE WAS AN OPENING ACT FOR THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS, BEFORE THEY GOT HIM FIRED.

That happened in Denver in 1960, a few years before Dylan or the Smothers brothers were famous. Neither the siblings nor the audiences liked Dylan’s obscure songs, and Tommy wasn't keen on the musician’s near-homeless look.

5. JOHN H. HAMMOND SIGNED HIM TO COLUMBIA RECORDS AFTER HE HEARD HIM PLAY HARMONICA ON A CAROLYN HESTER ALBUM, WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM HIS BOSSES.

The same John H. Hammond signed Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and (later) Bruce Springsteen, so Dylan was in talented company. Though Columbia's vice president said Dylan’s voice was “the most horrible thing he'd ever heard in his life," Hammond signed him anyway (he did the same thing a few years later with Leonard Cohen). When Dylan’s self-titled debut album, which consisted mainly of covers, only sold 5000 copies in its first year, his signing became known as “Hammond’s folly.” Hammond always contended that the so-called flop of an album only cost $402 to make anyway.

6. HE BROKE AN UNWRITTEN RULE OF FOLK MUSIC BY RECORDING A COVER OF "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN."

Dylan learned the song from fellow folk musician Dave Van Ronk, who was the inspiration behind the Coen brothers' movie Inside Llewyn Davis. Dylan asked Ronk for permission to record the song with Ronk’s guitar arrangement on his first album—after he had already done so. Ronk was upset because he had plans to record his own version for his album, and soon he stopped performing the song entirely because people believed he got it from Dylan. Karmically, Dylan himself had to stop playing “House of the Rising Sun” after The Animals came out with their definitive version.

7. JOHNNY CASH WAS A VERY EARLY ALLY.

Cash and Dylan hung out together as early as 1962, when Columbia was openly discussing dropping Dylan before he even had the chance to record his famous second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. John Hammond claimed it was Cash’s endorsement of Dylan that helped to convince Columbia not to make a colossal mistake by dumping Dylan. In 1969, Dylan returned the favor by making his first television appearance in three years to perform on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show.

8. FOR YEARS, PEOPLE BELIEVED THAT HE STOLE "BLOWIN' IN THE WIND" FROM A NEW JERSEY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT.

Dylan wrote the iconic tune himself, based on an old spiritual called “No More Auction Block.” However, Lorre Wyatt performed the song for his school 10 months before Dylan’s recorded version of “Wind” was released. This was made possible due to the fact that Dylan’s music arrangement and lyrics were published in Broadside magazine a year before Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan came out, and it was a magazine Wyatt read. In November 1963, Millburn High School students told Newsweek  that they believed Wyatt wrote the song, even after their fellow student denied it, thinking Dylan paid him $1000 for the rights to it.

9. SUZE ROTOLO WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR MANY OF HIS CLASSIC SONGS.

Rotolo was an artist and Dylan’s girlfriend from 1961 to 1964, and the woman on his arm on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It was Rotolo who told Dylan the story of Emmett Till, which led him to write "The Ballad of Emmett Till." "Boots of Spanish Leather," "One Too Many Mornings," "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," "Ballad in Plain D," and "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right" were all about Rotolo, sometimes about their separation when she briefly lived in Italy, and other times about their final break-up. Even though she suspected that Dylan exaggerated things, she was still upset to discover his real name only after his draft card fell out of his wallet one day. She nicknamed him “RAZ” as playful revenge for hiding his true identity, as well as “Pig.”

10. ROTOLO’S MOTHER NEVER TRUSTED HIM.

Mary Rotolo was never happy with her daughter’s decision to date Dylan, after Dylan told her in one of their initial meetings that he was suffering from a degenerative eye disease that would gradually result in blindness. He was clearly lying.

11. AN EXECUTIVE WANTED HIM TO PLAY HOLDEN CAULFIELD.

In 1962 an agent from the talent agency MCA told Hammond that his company had the movie rights to The Catcher in the Rye, and after seeing Dylan, they felt that they had their leading man.

12. HE REFUSED TO APPEAR ON THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.

Ed Sullivan himself actually had no issue with Dylan playing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”; it was a CBS executive who decided, hours before Dylan was set to appear, that the Birch organization could possibly sue for libel. After being told that he had to either change the lyrics or play a different song entirely, Dylan responded by asking the executive if he was out of his “f***in’ mind” before choosing option C: walking away and never coming back.

13. HE GOT THE BEATLES INTO POT.

On August 28, 1964, Dylan met The Beatles for the first time at The Delmonico Hotel in New York City. Dylan believed the group was familiar with marijuana, mishearing the lyrics to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as “I get high” instead of “I can’t hide.” The Beatles tried marijuana four years earlier one night in Germany before deciding it wasn’t for them (their “drug” of choice was scotch and Coke). After Ringo bogarted the first joint, the other three joined in, and soon after became full-fledged pot smokers.

14. DYLAN DIDN’T SPEAK FOR ONE WEEK AFTER ELVIS PRESLEY DIED.

The King passed away on August 16, 1977. Dylan, who was going through a divorce at the time, was at his Minnesota farm with his kids and their art teacher, Faridi McFree, who told him the news. Dylan later said that once he heard, "I went over my whole life. I went over my whole childhood. I didn't talk to anyone for a week after Elvis died. If it wasn't for Elvis and Hank Williams, I couldn't be doing what I do today."

15. HE CO-WROTE AND DIRECTED A NEARLY FOUR-HOUR MOVIE.

The 1978 film Renaldo and Clara was a 235-minute-long French New Wave/Beat Generation-inspired collage of concert footage, documentary, and dramatic fiction. After almost universally negative reviews, its limited release in theaters in major U.S. cities was stopped. Rolling Stone insisted: “This is meant to work at the level of Freud, but it is a lot closer to fraud.” In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote, "It’s what Louis and Marie Antoinette might have done at Versailles if only they’d had the cameras.” Dylan played Renaldo.

12 Shiny Facts About Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

CBS
CBS

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, and by now you certainly know Rudolph as well. But Rudolph wasn't always the star of the show—he didn't even exist until 1939, while the rest of Santa's coursers have been around since Clement Moore's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, which was written in 1823. Here are 12 other facts you might not know about the world's most famous reindeer.

1. Rudolph was created for Montgomery Ward.

In 1939, execs for the Montgomery Ward department store decided they needed a character for the freebie coloring books they were handing out to kids who visited Santa. That character ended up being Rudolph, who was an immediate hit with the kiddies. Montgomery Ward gave out 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in the first year alone.

2. The writer who created Rudolph was grieving the loss of his wife.

Robert May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward’s mail order catalog division, was the employee tasked with writing a story and creating a marketable character for the coloring book. May started the process in early 1939, but that summer, his wife died from cancer, leaving him a widower with a 4-year-old daughter. Though his boss tried to reassign the project, May insisted on finishing it himself. “I needed Rudolph more than ever,” he later admitted. He completed the story in August. Though Montgomery Ward could have kept the copyright for themselves, they handed it over to a financially struggling May in 1947.

3. Rudolph could have been Rollo or Reginald instead.

Images of cookies and milk left for Santa and Rudolph
Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images

Other names were considered before May settled on the name we know today. Rollo was rejected for sounding too sunny and happy; Reginald sounded too British. Romeo and Rodney were also in the running.

4. Robert May's original Rudolph story is a bit different than the song.

In the story May told in that original coloring book, Santa finds Rudolph while delivering presents to the reindeer village. In the story, Santa often had problems delivering gifts because no one remembered to leave lights on for him—and in Rudolph’s dark house, Santa “tripped on the rug, and fell flat on his back.” When he discovers Rudolph and his glowing nose, a light bulb of his own goes off, and he invites Rudolph to help him with the rest of his drop-offs. Dutiful Rudy leaves his parents a note, then helps save the day.

5. Rudolph almost used a different method to guide Santa's sleigh.

Instead of having a red, glowing nose that cut through the fog, May considered giving Rudolph large, headlight-like eyes that would light the way. After much consideration, he decided mean kids would be more likely to make fun of a red nose than huge eyes.

6. People in Finland know Rudolph as Petteri Punakuono.

Petteri is Rudy's Finnish counterpart. The Finnish legend of Santa Claus (a.k.a. Joulupukki) doesn't name his reindeer the same way we do—Dasher, Dancer, Donner, and so on—so the beginning of the song doesn't start out the same way. Instead of running through the laundry list of reindeer, the Finnish version translates to something like, "You remember Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood and the Grey Wolf, but this reindeer is often forgotten."

7. Rudolph has a son named Robbie.

At least he does according to the BBC. They developed three cartoons based on Rudolph's offspring, but the name of Robbie's famous dad is never actually mentioned. The plot line tells us that the villain of the series, Blitzen, can't stand to hear Rudolph's name. In reality, it's because the BBC couldn't get permission to use it (or didn't want to pay to use it).

If you haven't seen the British version but still remember Robbie, that's because Fox Family ran the show for a few years in the early 2000s with redubbed voices, including Ben Stiller as Robbie, Hugh Grant as Blitzen, Britney Spears as Donner, and Brad Garrett as Prancer.

8. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the song, was recorded a decade after the character was invented.

It was May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, who wrote the lyrics for the famous song; Gene Autry recorded it. Autry nearly passed on the tune, but his wife urged him to give it a shot. Since Autry recorded it, the tune has sold more than 150 million copies.

9. Songwriter Johnny Marks specialized in Christmas songs.

We have him to thank for Rudolph, obviously, but also "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Silver and Gold," and "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (in addition to a bunch of lesser-known Christmas songs). The irony? Marks was Jewish.

10. Rankin/Bass wasn't the first production company to feature Rudolph onscreen.

Though the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV special is the longest-running holiday special ever, it wasn't the first to bring Rudolph to the screen. That honor goes to Fleischer Studios, which copyrighted a cartoon in 1948 as more advertising for Montgomery Ward.

11. The puppets featured in the Rankin/Bass TV special were lost, then rediscovered in 2006.

When they resurfaced, they did so on Antiques Roadshow in 2006. Well, not all of them—just Santa and Rudolph. A woman who worked for Rankin/Bass had stored them in her attic since at least the 1970s. Prior to that, she let her kids play with them. Rudolph lost his red nose, and let’s not even talk about how Santa lost his eyebrows. The puppets were fully restored after their trip to Antiques Roadshow and have since been displayed at the Center for Puppetry Arts.

12. The "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" song is still copyrighted.

Along with "Jingle Bells," "Deck the Halls," and "Silent Night," “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a Christmas staple. Unlike those other three songs, however, “Rudolph” is still copyrighted and his image is trademarked. The makers of Rudolph’s Reserve ale found this out the hard way in 2003. They later changed the name to “Rude Elf’s Reserve.”

10 Fab Facts About George Harrison

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

You probably know George Harrison as a Beatle, the lead guitarist of the most famous band in the world. We’re guessing that there’s a lot you don’t know about the youngest of The Fab Four, who was born on February 25, 1943.

1. George Harrison was only 27 when The Beatles broke up.


Fox Photos/Getty Images

George Harrison turned 27 on February 25, 1970, less than two months before Paul McCartney told the world he had no future plans to work with the Beatles. It had been 12 years since Harrison had joined John Lennon’s band, The Quarrymen—shortly after McCartney, his Liverpool schoolmate—in 1958.

2. Harrison invented the megastar rock benefit concert.

Before Harrison organized the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, there were performances for charity, of course. But when his friend, the great Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, told him about the plight of Bangladeshi refugees, victims of both war and a devastating cyclone who now faced starvation, Harrison felt compelled to devote himself to the cause. He recruited stars like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Badfinger, and Leon Russell, and together they played two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971. Harrison then arranged for the release of a concert album and film. The ventures had raised more than $12 million by 1985, and profits from sales of the movie and soundtrack continue to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.

3. He wrote "Crackerbox Palace" about his quirky mansion.

Harrison nicknamed his 120-room Friar Park mansion “Crackerbox Palace” after a friend’s description of Lord Buckley’s tiny Los Angeles home. The 66-acre property, about 37 miles west of London, was first owned by Sir Frank Crisp, a lawyer who lived there from 1889 to 1919. Harrison bought the estate in 1970—and quickly penned “The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp,” which appeared on his first solo album, All Things Must Pass, also in 1970.

Friar Park was a strange place, with gnomes, grottos, a miniature Matterhorn, and lavish gardens, which Harrison loved to tend. According to the Victoria County History website, the house itself “is an architectural fantasy in red brick, stone, and terracotta, mixing English, French and Flemish motifs in lavish, undisciplined profusion.”

4. He loved hanging out with Bob Dylan and The Band.

All four Beatles were Dylan fans, and first met him in 1964. But Harrison felt a special bond with him, and spent weeks at Dylan’s Woodstock, New York home in the fall of 1968. The Band was there, too, and Harrison loved the collaborative atmosphere. During this time Dylan and Harrison co-wrote “I’d Have You Anytime,” which appeared on 1970's All Things Must Pass. The two would become bandmates in the Traveling Wilburys, and maintained a close, lifelong friendship.

5. The "Quiet Beatle" wasn't so quiet.

"He never shut up," friend and fellow Traveling Wilbury Tom Petty once said of Harrison. "He was the best hang you could imagine."

6. When he lost his virginity, the other Beatles cheered.

The Beatles at the EMI studios in Abbey Road, as they prepare for 'Our World', a world-wide live television show broadcasting to 24 countries with a potential audience of 400 million.
BIPs/Getty Images

During the band’s early years, they had extended runs as a house band in Hamburg, Germany, and were paid so poorly (and had to be on stage for so many hours) that they shared a small room in the club’s basement. Hence the witnesses to George’s deflowering, at age 17. "We were in bunkbeds," Harrison recalled. "They couldn't really see anything because I was under the covers, but after I'd finished they all applauded and cheered. At least they kept quiet whilst I was doing it."

7. Without him, there may not have been a Monty Python's Life of Brian.

EMI Films, Life of Brian’s original backer, withdrew funding for the Monty Python comedy classic just before filming began, scared that the religious subject matter would be too controversial. Harrison, a big fan and friend of the Pythons, set up his own production company—Handmade Films—to fund the project. Why? "Because I liked the script and I wanted to see the movie,” he explained. Harrison not only saw the film, he appeared in it, as Mr. Papadopolous, "owner of the Mount.” Monty Python’s Life of Brian, released in 1979, was a huge hit in both the UK and U.S., and was ranked as the 10th best comedy film of all time in 2010 by The Guardian.

8. He was the first ex-Beatle to simultaneously top both the singles and album charts.

Harrison began recording the songs that would comprise All Things Must Pass at Abbey Road on May 26, 1970, just weeks after the Beatles broke up. The triple album was released in late November, along with “My Sweet Lord,” the first single from the album. Both the record and the single spent weeks at the top of the Billboard and Melody Maker charts in early 1971, while receiving rave reviews.

9. The first song he wrote was inspired by a desire to tell people to get lost.

Harrison wrote “Don’t Bother Me,” his first first solo composition, while sick in bed at the Palace Court Hotel in Bournemouth, England, in the summer of 1963. It “was an exercise to see if I could write a song,” Harrison said. “I don't think it's a particularly good song ... It mightn't even be a song at all, but at least it showed me that all I needed to do was keep on writing, and then maybe eventually I would write something good." “Don’t Bother Me” appeared on With The Beatles, their second studio album.

10. He was the first Beatle to visit, and play, in America.

In the fall of 1963, Harrison traveled to Benton, Illinois to visit his sister, Louise, and her husband, George Caldwell. During his 18-day stay, Harrison also became the first Beatle to play in the U.S.—appearing on stage with The Four Vests at the VFW Hall in Eldorado. He played the second set with the band, taking over lead guitar and singing "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Your Cheatin' Heart."

This article originally ran in 2017.

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