Bob Dylan’s relationship with rock and roll has always been tricky. In his earliest days, he shunned the burgeoning genre in favour of more pure folk stylings. But when it became impossible to ignore just how big rock music was getting throughout the 1960s, Dylan hitched his wagon to The Band and went electric, much to the chagrin of his acoustic fanbase.
But Dylan’s roots as a rock and roller actually go further back than his origins as a folky. Like a lot of teenagers during the mid-1950s, Dylan was enthralled by the sounds of early rock and roll music. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis were early favourites, but one singer, in particular, had a major effect on Dylan: Little Richard.
Back when he was still Robert Zimmerman, Dylan played in a series of high school bands who delivered early rock and roll to high school dances and sock hops. It was in his senior yearbook while attending Hibbing High School that Dylan professed his fondness for Richard, where he filled in the section that started with: “We’ll remember always…” by finishing “to join ‘Little Richard’.”
Eventually, Dylan would leave rock and roll to the wayside. “The thing about rock’n’roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough,” Dylan told Cameron Crowe in 1985. “There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms … but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
But after he reintroduced himself to rock and roll, Dylan was actually able to perform with Richard later in life. “I played some shows with him in Europe in the early nineties and got to hang out in his dressing room a lot,” Dylan tweeted out in response to the performer’s death in 2020. “He was always generous, kind and humble. And still dynamite as a performer and a musician and you could still learn plenty from him.”
Adding: “I’m so grieved. He was my shining star and guiding light back when I was only a little boy. His was the original spirit that moved me to do everything I would do… In his presence he was always the same Little Richard that I first heard and was awed by growing up and I always was the same little boy. Of course he’ll live forever. But it’s like a part of your life is gone.”
Listen to Dylan discuss his idol, below.