The effect Elvis Presley’s death had on Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s first experience of Elvis Presley’s pitch-perfect rock ‘n’ roll was life-changing. After listening to ‘Hound Dog’ for the first time, the wiry folk-singer-to-be had what can only de described as an epiphany. “When I first heard Elvis’ voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody,” Dylan later recalled, “And nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”

Presley’s music career is remarkable. Racking up 18 number one singles in the US alone, he became one of the most popular singers in music history. For ambitious young dreamers like Dylan, he represented the possibility of a life outside the normal rhythms of American mundania, moving to his own groove as if his life depended on it.

When Dylan rose to fame, Elvis made his mutual adoration clear as crystal, recording a cover of ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’, released on Dylan’s 1971 Greatest Hits Vol. II compilation. Presley came across the track via Charlie McCoy, a session musician who had previously worked with Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Dylan was a huge fan of the rendition, later naming it: “The one recording I treasure the most”. Elvis also created a home recording of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ in 1966, which was released posthumously in the 1997 box set Platinum – A Life In Music.

According to some sources, Dylan attempted to return the favour by recording an Elvis tribute album. However, he decided to abandon the project after recording just three tracks: ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, ‘Money Honey’ and ‘Anyway You Want Me’. Dylan’s decision to ditch the venture betrays an anxiety about not being able to live up to the great rock ‘n’ rollers reputation. It is perhaps this same anxiety that saw Dylan turn down Elvis’ offer to join him in the studio.

When Elvis died in 1977, he likely regretted bailing on ‘The King’. Indeed, the singer’s passing coincided with a period of introspection for Dylan, who was going through a particular tumultuous chapter in his life, his marriage to Sara Lownds having ended in divorce just two months prior. Phil Ochs, a fellow singer-songwriter with whom Dylan had had a friendly rivalry during his Greenwich Village years, had also recently committed suicide. Bob heard the news of Presley’s passing while on his farm in Minnesota with his children and their art teacher, Faradi McFree.

When Dylan told McFree that Elvis had died, she replied that she’d never much cared for his music, much to Dylan’s bewilderment. “That’s all I have to say – he didn’t talk to me for a week,” she later recalled. “He really took it bad…He was really grieving. He said that if it wasn’t for (Presley) he never would have gotten started. He opened the door. But, according to Dylan, it wasn’t just McFree who was given the silent treatment. Presley’s death prompted much reflection on Bob’s part”.

“I went over my whole life,” he said. “I went over my whole childhood. I didn’t talk to anyone for a week”.

For Dylan, Elvis was more than a mere musical hero: he was living proof that his life was in his own hands – that he could be anything he desired. As McFree said, Elvis opened the door. All Dylan had to do was walk through it.

 

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