Bob Dylan’s talent is well accounted for. Since he rose to prominence in the early 1960s, barely a day has passed when some unsuspecting muso hasn’t stumbled upon The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Blonde On Blonde, or Highway 61 Revisited and had their life completely changed. The world is filled with people for whom Dylan represents the absolute pinnacle of creative genius. But what of the musicians who helped Dylan craft his records in the studio?
If no man is an island, then genius surely cannot exist in isolation. While Dylan’s songwriting is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of his success, he also relied upon a network of highly-trained professional musicians, without whom tracks like ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, Homesick Subeterannean Blues’ would simply fall flat.
Bob Dylan’s early acoustic hits relied on a certain clarity of expression. One wonders if ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ would have come to soundtrack the civil rights movement if it hadn’t been one man singing to the uncounted masses. As a folk singer, his songs begged for sparse arrangments. These tracks needed to retain a sense of intimacy even after being pressed on wax records, they needed to feel like conversations between friends. But Dylan’s decision to go electric was intentionally divisive. It was an attack on the consciousness of middle America, and he needed an army.
That’s where the likes of Robbie Robertson, Al Kooper, and Charlie McCoy came in. Here we’ve put together a list of the greatest session musicians Dylan recorded with throughout his career in an effort to build up a picture of the backstage personnel who shaped the career of one of the most iconic musicians of all time.
The 10 greatest session musicians to work with Bob Dylan:
Nashville legend Charlie McCoy is one of the only musicians to have played blues harmonica on a Bob Dylan record aside from Dylan himself. Clearly, Bob had a great deal of respect for the Country Music Hall of Famer – and little wonder. As well as playing those lyrical acoustic guitar licks on ‘Desolation Row’, he served as Dylan’s bassist on John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait.
His greatest strength in the studio was his supreme confidence in his own ability, hence his famous motto: “Say yes – and then figure it out!”. McCoy’s skill has seen him play with pretty much every iconic country, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll artist out there. As well as contributing to 13 Elvis albums, he’s played for Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, Ringo Starr, Kris Kristofferson, Linda Rondstadt, Leonard Cohen and even Ween. Yep, McCoy’s seen it all.
With his exuberant organ melodies, Al Kooper essentially defined the character of Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. He’s best known for playing the brilliantly off-kilter organ on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and is rumoured to have loved ‘I Want You’ so much that he begged Dylan to record it every day during the Blonde On Blonde sessions. Dylan’s response? To refuse him night after night.
Kooper was absolutely essential to the creation of Blonde on Blonde, staying with Dylan while he wrote the songs in his hotel room and then rushing to the recording studio to prep the rest of the band for the session. That way, all the musicians would know what they were supposed to be playing before Dylan arrived. In fact, the only reason Dylan agreed to record ‘I Want You’ was because Kooper had taught the other musicians the song without asking Dylan’s permission. Kooper knew how to get things done.
Besides releasing solo albums under the moniker ‘Brown Sugar’, Clydie King worked as a backing vocalist for some of the biggest names in the music business, including Ray Charles, Steely Dan, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. She even contributed backing vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.
King recorded with Dylan during his born-again Christian phase, contributing to the likes of Infidels. “She was my ultimate singing partner,” Dylan once told Rolling Stone. “No one ever came close. We were two soulmates.” The pair would often perform duets during live shows, sharing the mic for renditions of ‘Heart of Mine’ and Jimmy Webb’s ‘Let’s Begin’.
Bruce Langhorn is one of the most important and least-known Bob Dylan collaborators. The guitarist became a popular session musician on the Greenwich Village folk scene, recording for the likes of Richie Havens, The Clancy Brothers, and Joan Beaz. On first hearing Dylan’s first scratchy recordings, he nearly laughed out loud. But on learning Dylan’s songs, he realised the young musician’s true potential.
Langhorn became Dylan’s first electric guitarist, offering up his services for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1962. His finest hour was during the recording of ‘Mixed Up Confusion’, on which you can hear his 1920 Martin 1-21 shining through the mix. To compete with a full band, Langhorn placed a pickup on the soundhole and hooked up the ancient guitar to a Fender Twin amp. It’s possible this piece of studio ingenuity planted a seed in Dylan’s brain that came to fruition three years later when he went electric. Langhorn also played on tracks like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘She Belongs to Me’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.
I would happily have placed each and every member of The Band in this list, but that wouldn’t be fair to the diverse range of musicians Dylan recorded with over the years. Robertson and Rick Danko contributed guitar and vocals to Blonde On Blonde and toured with Dylan as part of The Band after he went electric, meaning they saw the vitriolic response of Dylan’s acoustic-loving crowds first-hand.
Like Kooper, Robertson saw the songs on Blonde on Blonde germinate in that New York hotel room. Remembering that prolific period, Robertson told The Guardian: “The television was on. There was music playing. The phone was ringing. There were people coming and going – and he was writing away on his typewriter. I thought, ‘I don’t even understand how somebody can close off the outside world like that and concentrate. This guy is from another planet.”
Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins
One of the most revered session musicians from Nashville’s A-team, Robbins recorded for the likes of Dolly Parton, Ween, Miranda Lambert and, of course, Bob Dylan.
Famed for his dexterity, Robbins gained a reputation as one of the most soulful pianists in Nashville. You can hear his tender blues piano on Dylan’s ‘Pledging My Time’. His greatest strength was probably his humility. For Robbins, the song always came first, and he provided exactly what the song required time and time again. It’s for this reason that he was in demand right up until the end of his life in January 2022.
One of New York’s most celebrated session pianists, Griffin’s career began in the late 1950s when he started playing the organ in King Curtis’s band. After gaining a reputation for reliability and skill, he became a sought-after session player, playing keyboards on some of the most era-defining pop records of the 1960s and ’70s.
As well as contributing to recordings by Dionne Warwick, The Shirelles, Solomon Burke, Wilson Picket, Steely Dan, and Aretha Franklin, Griffin offered up his services for Dylan’s first electric records. You can hear his gospel piano lines in the background of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, but his finest moment on Highway 61 Revisited is perhaps ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, for which he provides a gloriously jaunty honky tonk backing.
Kenneth A. Buttrey
The name Kenny Buttrey is synonymous with Nashville. The session musician, band-leader and arranger recorded with thousands of recording artists during his time in America’s musical mecca, including Elvis, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, the Pointer Sisters and Kris Kristofferson.
After forming the instrumental group Area Code 615 with fellow Nashville session musicians Weldon Myrick, the fiddle player Buddy Spicher and Charlie McCoy, he was hired by Dylan to record Blonde on Blonde in 1966. He went on to offer up his drumming for John Wesley Harding in 1968 and Nashville Skyline in 1969. In this way, he helped define the sound of the countercultural age, also providing drums for Neil Young’s 1970 album Harvest Moon.
Pedal Steel guitarist Pete Drake was possibly the busiest session musician of the 1960s and ’70s. After visiting Nashville for the first time when he was 18, he fell in love with the sound of pedal steel and, on his return to his native Atlanta, bought a used single neck for $38. After mastering the instrument, he established himself as a working session musician, recording three sessions a day with everyone from The Beatles to Peter Frampton.
Drake’s pedal steel gave Dylan’s late ’60s recordings a new country flavour, foreshadowing albums like Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding, the latter of which saw him featured on ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’. His work on that classic track is surpassed only by his contribution to Dylan’s fabulously inventive 1973 album Self Portrait.
Tony Terran is partly responsible for the mariachi-infused instrumental ‘Wigwam’. The trumpeter was part of ‘The Wrecking Crew’, a group of Hollywood session musicians who came to define the sound of the 1960s, performing on tracks by The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Neil Young, The Carpenters and countless other artists.
Terran was one of the leading musicians’ in The Wrecking Crew and took it upon himself to mentor new trumpet players. Tommy Todesco is just one session musician who owes their career to Terran.