1961 was a pivotal year in the life of Bob Dylan, one that transformed him from an unknown 20-year-old kid in Minnesota in the brave artist willing to take the giant leap for the lures of New York City. Following his move to the Big Apple in the hope of living out his bohemian dreams, it didn’t take Dylan long to become one of the leading names in Greenwich Village. Shortly after his arrival in New York, the budding singer-songwriter gave his first-ever recorded interview, a clip in which he is incredibly candid as he discusses the surprising name that he labels as his idol.
The interview in question was conducted by Billy James, a young Columbia Records publicist and one of the few executives that Dylan trusted and undoubtedly played a part in why he signed with the label. Greenwich Village was a hotbed for talent at this time and even though the competition was fierce, Dylan immediately emerged with having that special something. Judging from the interview, it’s clear that the travelling troubadour feels at ease with James and it offers an interesting insight into what Dylan was like before he developed a character to hide behind.
Perhaps the most interesting remark that Bob makes in the interview is who he considered to be his idol at this point in time, which isn’t Woody Guthrie and instead from left-field, “If I’m on stage, even my idol—my biggest idol on stage—the one that’s running through my head all the time, is Charlie Chaplin,” Dylan surprisingly said. “And, uh, it takes a while to explain it, but he’s one of the men,” he continued.
Chaplin was the biggest star on the planet at one point and remains one of the most iconic entertainer’s of all time. A former stage comedian, his talent for physical comedy was soon noticed by the burgeoning Hollywood studios, and he was offered a contract when he was 25. His career gained momentum almost immediately after he developed the character known as The Little Tramp, first seen in the 1914 short film Kid Auto Races at Venice, in which the Tramp, attending a race, makes a nuisance of himself by compulsively getting in front of the movie camera set up to film the race which led to the world universally falling into a fit of laughter.
He was without equal in making a scene funny without sound, using a combination of slapstick, facial expression, and gesture that remains effective to this day. It was a skill that caused fellow comedian W. C. Fields to say dismissively (or perhaps enviously): “The man’s nothing but a goddam ballet dancer!”. His comic ability, combined with a talent for screenwriting and directing as well as his willingness to provide social commentary between the lines, made him for some time the most popular and well-paid film star in Hollywood.
Dylan was one of the millions who was brought up on a diet of Charlie Chaplin films and he wanted to bring the spirit of the comic into his own work, even if they couldn’t be any more different on paper. It wasn’t just his art of entertaining that made Bob fall in love with him but it was more than it was his introduction into the world of film, art and escapism. This took him in out of his small town, even if only momentarily — which Dylan would go on to do replicate with his own art.
“I seen some of his films,” Dylan noted. “I just sort of knew who he was and that kind of stuff. Vaudeville, that kind of thing. Will Rogers. And I never really met anything—I never really came across anything that changed my mind about this. I never lived in a big city until I lived in New York. I don’t think it’s got the best of me,” the singer admitted.
“At least I know it hasn’t got the better part of me. I don’t think it touched me. It might have touched me a little bit. In fact, it has touched me a little bit, but I never lived in a city that was more than 15,000 people. And there’s an awful lot of difficulty here,” Dylan went on to say.
Another fascinating point in the interview came when Dylan refuted claims that he was a folk-singer, saying that he wasn’t like Woody Guthrie who he couldn’t escape from comparisons within his early days and instead of proclaiming he was much more than that.
“I play the piano. I used to play the piano. I used to play great piano, very great. I used to play piano like Little Richard’s stuff, only one octave higher,” recalls the singer. “And everything came out. He made a big mistake, his records were great records but couldn’t have been greater records. His great mistake was he played low. If he had played high, it would’ve compensated.”
He then went on to ask James if he listens to Little Richard, bizarrely, even though he worked at Columbia Records he said he doesn’t to Dylan’s bemusement. “Little Richard’s something else,” he praisingly suggested. “He’s a preacher, now. But I sort of played the piano in his style. And I played everything high and it amplified it,” he added.
This interview with Dylan is a shining example of him always wanting to be different from what people assumed him to be. After listening to his comments, it comes as no surprise that only four years later at Newport Folk Festival that he would go electric as he proved to the world that they couldn’t pigeon hole a talent as mercurial as him.
Listen to the remarkable audio of Bob Dylan’s first interview, below.