The story of Elston Gunnn, Bob Dylan’s unknown alter-ego
On August 2nd, 1962, civilisation would change forever when a 21-year-old Minnesotan called Robert Allen Zimmerman would make the decision to be now known as Bob Dylan but, before that, the bohemian singer-songwriter had a plethora of different names and identities. If the young artists didn’t make that decision on that historic day, who knows whether he would have gone on to have become one of the most iconic artists to step foot on the planet.
Zimmerman’s bold decision to change his name to Bob Dylan wasn’t the first time that he had performed under a different alias. The growing folkie first gained a notable reputation while going by the name of Elston Gunnn as well as variations of his birth name such as Robert Allen. Gunnn was the moniker which seemed to have had the most legs and the one which proved the most pivotal of Dylan’s other stage names—performing under this identity was at a formative stage of his career, one which made him the artist he would later become.
Whilst Zimmerman was still performing in his local area before he escaped for the bright lights of New York City, this pseudonym provided him with the privilege of masked anonymity. It meant that whilst he played on stage he could morph into a brand new character which he created. It not only allowed the musician to perform songs without a care for repercussions, but it also gave him a fleeting escape from himself.
“The Elston Gunnn name thing was only temporary,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “What I was going to do as soon as I left home was just called myself Robert Allen. As far as I was concerned, that was who I was – that’s what my parents named me. It sounded like the name of a Scottish king, and I liked it. There was little of my identity that wasn’t in it.”
During his time as Elston Gunnn, Zimmerman managed to blag his way into Bobby Vee’s teen band The Shadows as a pianist which the singer would later reflect on in 1999. “He was working as a busboy at a place called the Red Apple Cafe,” Vee recalled in 1999 to Goldmine about his first encounter with Dylan. “We didn’t know that at the time. Bill [Velline] was in a record shop in Fargo, Sam’s Record Land, and this guy came up to him and introduced himself as Elston Gunnn—with three n’s, G-U-N-N-N,” Vee remembered.
“Bill was blown away. ‘Man, how good can this be? This was as good as it gets!’ And went over to the radio station with him, over to KGFO, and there was this piano in the studio and auditioned him on the piano. He came back and he said, ‘He played pretty good in the key of C.’ We didn’t realise it at the time, but that’s all he could play in, was the key of C. I-IV-V in the key of C.”
The relationship wasn’t built to last, someone like Gunnn wasn’t made to be a pianist operating in the background—he was made to be front and centre. “We went to pick him up for the show, and he didn’t have a piano. We took him to the gig anyway, and there was a piano there. It was terribly out of tune. He sat and he played that, and when he got lost he would come up and do background parts and do Gene Vincent handclaps. It was a trip!
“It was ill-fated. I mean, it wasn’t gonna work,” Vee sadly admitted. “The story is that I fired him, but that certainly wasn’t the case. If we could have put it together somehow, we sure would have. We wished we could have put it together. He left and went on to Minneapolis and enrolled at the University of Minnesota.”
There was a happy ending to the story, however, with both Vee and Gunnn going on to achieve monumental success in their own rights, but the moment Vee discovered what happened to his former bandmate would stick with him forever. “A couple of years later I was in New York in Greenwich Village. I was walking down the street. There was a record store there, and there was an album in the front window. And it said, ‘Bob Dylan.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Looks a lot like Elston Gunnn!'” Vee fondly remembered.
Gunnn was later buried and then the Bob Dylan identity was formed, the bohemian character that he created was the perfect foil for his music. Zimmermann was given a clean slate as well as an opportunity to put everything he had learned from these previous aliases into practice and, from that moment one, it’s safe to say he never looked back.