While many, if not most, of his fans know Bob Dylan was bornRobert Zimmerman, fewer know that he has taken on a number of other identities throughout his career. Barely out of high school, Bob Dylan took the name Elston Gunn to play piano behind the early rock-and-roller, Bobby Vee. He played harmonica for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s 1964 album, Ramblin’ Jack, under the handle of Tedham Porterhouse. Around the same time he recorded an album of old folk songs as Blind Boy Grunt. When, in 1972, Dylan appeared on Steve Goodman’s Somebody Else’s Troubles, he was known as Robert Milkwood Thomas. Years later, as a member of theTraveling Wilburies, Dylan transformed into Boo Wilbury. Finally, as co-writer for the screenplay of Masked and Anonymous in 2003, he morphed himself into Sergei Petrov. He also produces music under the name Jack Frost.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.