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Music

Bob Dylan on the only musician who should be called a genius

@TomTaylorFO

Musical praise from Bob Dylan is like Usain Bolt saying that you’re quick out the blocks. When he calls you a genius, it’s perhaps the highest peer approval of all. While Dylan is often guarded with his own opinions, and has retained an air of mystery as a result, over the years he has heaped praise on the likes of Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, George Harrison and others. 

As someone usually shy of dropping superlatives, when he spoke to Rolling Stone in 1989, the ‘G word’ proved more obviously noteworthy than Dylan’s awkward shuffling amid smiling faces of ‘We Are the World’. When asked about Stevie Wonder, Dylan remarked: “If anybody can be called a genius, he can be. I think it has something to do with his ear, not being able to see or whatever.”

When Dylan first emerged in 1962 with his self-titled debut album, Stevie Wonder was a child star on the rise and soon he would release his own hit single in 1963 at the age of 13. While other stars dismissed his tender age as a Motown gimmick, the ever-open-minded Dylan listened with a keen ear. “I go back with him to about the early ’60s when he was playing at the Apollo with all that Motown stuff,” Dylan explained. “If nothing else, he played the harmonica incredible, I mean truly incredible.”

Nevertheless, Dylan and Wonder still operated in notably different circles, but in 1966, Wonder showed courage beyond his years, disavowed the usual poppy Motown stance enforced by executive Berry Gordy and entered the civil rights movement head-on with a cover of a Dylan classic. As he explains: “I never knew what to think of him really until he cut ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’. That really blew my mind, and I figured I’d better pay attention.”

Stevie Wonder’s journey to ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

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Thereafter, Wonder continued to make waves in the music scene and grew in independence as he sought to extol the sort of virtues in his music that his own heroes like Dylan and Marvin Gaye were doing in their own as he pulled away from the hand-holding ways of Motown. Eventually, in the summer of 1972, off the back of his triumphant Music of My Mind record, Wonder embarked on a two month tour with The Rolling Stones, bringing his newly introspective music to a wider counterculture audience. 

This was a daring move that the original proto-punk Dylan found hugely creditable. “I was glad when he did that Rolling Stones tour,” Dylan opined, “because it opened up his scene to a whole new crowd of people, which I’m sure has stuck with him over the years.” Indeed, it also, no doubt, impacted Wonder’s musical output too, because only two months after it ended, he released the masterpiece Talking Book—a record that saw him fine-tune his newfound sagacious societal gaze and pair it with the visceral edge of music at its most exuberant. Within that soul and Motown mix is more than a hint of the old timeless blues that pervades over The Rolling Stones themselves. 

Dylan likewise would cut timeless paeons with a visceral edge in his own daring career. The parallels between the pair are evident, despite differing sounds, and Dylan has never stopped respecting him. “I love everything he does. It’s hard not to,” Dylan eulogised. “He can do gut-bucket funky stuff really country and then turn around and do modern-progressive whatever you call it. In fact, he might have invented that.”

He then continues to add: “He is a great mimic, can imitate everybody, doesn’t take himself seriously and is a true roadhouse musician all the way, with classical overtones, and he does it all with drama and style. I’d like to hear him play with an orchestra. He should probably have his own orchestra.” Indeed, Dylan would get his wish in this regard, most notably when Stevie Wonder performed a stunning orchestral rendition of ‘Sketches of a Life’ at the Library of Congress. You can check that out below as well as Wonder’s take on ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ that first enamoured the folk forebearer to the juvenile firebrand that he helped to spawn.