While folk music might have made Bob Dylan the subject of worldwide success in the early 1960s, his first love in music was rock ‘n’ roll. Having learned the piano as his first instrument from a young age, Dylan decided he would form a band so he could emulate his biggest heroes of the rock and roll world, including Little Richard and Elvis Presley.
As his first school rock group, The Golden Chords, disbanded as they left school and set their sites in college, Dylan found a new love for folk music centralised in his key muse: Woody Guthrie. With a strong desire to leave his familial roots in the dusty mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan followed his nose to Minneapolis and later New York in a romantic search of life as a folk-singing troubadour.
As we now know, Dylan’s time as a pure folk artist was limited. By the mid-60s, he was looking to stretch his legs and grabbed an acoustic guitar to fold some rock elements into his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home – much to the exasperation of some die-hard folkies at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65.
It transpired that Dylan’s roots in rock had never parted him, and once he had tried his hand with folk, he wanted to lift his chin to the horizon. Moving into the ’70s and beyond, Dylan continued to blend ideas from country, folk and rock tradition into new and intriguing material. He would also frequently collaborate with rock musicians, including Mike Bloomfield, George Harrison, Mark Knopfler and Tom Petty.
One such collaboration opportunity that cropped up in the early ’70s was one that Dylan would never dream of missing out on; unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
As a huge lifelong fan of ‘The King’, Dylan was understandably light-headed and a little over the moon when he heard that Presley had covered his songs ’Tomorrow is a Long Time’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ during his career resurgence in the late 1960s and early ’70s. After the establishment of mutual respect between the two icons, it was long rumoured that they would collaborate on a song or two together in the 1970s.
Dylan had attended an Elvis Presley performance in Madison Square Garden with George Harrison in 1972. Following their acquaintance at the concert, there were rumours that the three would meet up to record a song in the studio soon thereafter, but Presley never showed up.
In a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan, Dylan was asked whether this was true. “He did show up,” Dylan said, supposedly confirming the intentions. “It was us that didn’t”.
It seems strange that Dylan and Harrison would miss out on the opportunity to record with one of their biggest idols. Either they either got waylaid in some bad traffic, or Dylan may have been making one of his famous jokes to keep the matrix of a rumour that shrouds his persona very much alive.
Whether it was Elvis who stood Dylan up or vice versa, it seems the pair had definitely tried in vain to collaborate throughout the 1970s and when Presley died in 1978, Dylan was particularly affected by the news. “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,” Dylan said of Presley’s death a few years later.
With Presley one of the key influences on Dylan’s life and career, doubtless, he was full of grief at the time; perhaps this grief was also seasoned with a hint of regret and frustration over the collaboration that could have been.