Bob Dylan has often been called popular music's greatest songwriter. And with a body of composition that includes such timeless songs as "Blowin' in the Wind," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "The Times They Are a-Changin'," "My Back Pages," "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Just Like a Woman," "All Along the Watchtower," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Tangled Up in Blue," and "Forever Young," it is an assertion easily supported.
He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minn. Since the early '60s, Dylan's magnificent songwriting and innovative style changes have affected a vast range of artists. Many of his debtors are greats in their own right: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the '60s (check out "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" by the former and "Jigsaw Puzzle" by the latter), Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen in the '70s, U2 and R.E.M. in the '80s, and Beck and Ani DiFranco to today.
After attending the University of Minnesota, Dylan (who legally changed his name in 1962, to honor poet Dylan Thomas) began performing with his acoustic guitar at coffeehouses. To seek out his idol, Woody Guthrie, Dylan moved to New York in 1961 and managed to spend time with the folk legend in New Jersey, where Guthrie had been spending his final days.
A New York Times review of one of Dylan's shows caught the eye of legendary talent scout John Hammond, who signed Dylan to Columbia Records and produced the young folk singer's eponymous debut album.
But it was for the The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), that he recorded most of his own compositions, showing for the first time the true depth of his talent. With such protest songs as "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" and "Masters of War," the young songwriter matched the genius of folkies Guthrie and Pete Seeger and attracted the attention of folk songstress Joan Baez, who brought Dylan on tour with her.
Following hundreds of concerts and a few more brilliant and groundbreaking albums, Dylan jolted the music world anew with Bringing It All Back Home (1965), on which he mixed his staple folk songs with the sound of a rock band. In July of that year he introduced his new "electric music" at the Newport Folk Festival and was jeered by the purists on hand. But he didn't turn back. Dylan began blending his amazing poetry with electric rock a combination that dramatically influenced the very nature of rock and pop thereafter.
His next two albums, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966), were Dylan at his peak and remain virtually unrivaled in their greatness 30-plus years later. His lyrics to such masterpieces as "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" were analyzed endlessly, and his stark, acerbic vocal style became widely imitated.
After surviving a bad motorcycle wreck in 1966, Dylan retreated from the scene, recording songs with the Band that would be released in the mid-'70s as The Basement Tapes. But Dylan officially returned from his accident with John Wesley Harding, which ignored the psychedelic music that was the rage at the time. That album and his 1969 release, Nashville Skyline, were precursors of the country-rock sound that gave rise to the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and a host of others.
Following a few years concentrating on his wife and family, Dylan issued Blood on the Tracks (1974), which chronicled a dissolving marriage with the vivid, stirring lyrics and music of classics such as "Shelter From the Storm." Dylan then began the communal "Rolling Thunder Revue" tour, during which he collaborated with the likes of Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell and Arlo Guthrie.
In 1979, Dylan, who was born Jewish, announced that he'd become a born-again Christian, and his next few albums, including that year's Slow Train Coming, were dominated by his new spirituality.
Dylan's output in the '80s was less majestic, with only Infidels (1983) and Oh Mercy (1989), produced by Daniel Lanois, tapping the strength of his earlier work. But the 1985 compilation Biograph was one of the first of the now-ubiquitous box sets, and The Bootleg Series (1991) was a treasure trove of unreleased material.
In the early '90s, Dylan released two albums of traditional folk songs, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, giving many the impression that his best songwriting days were behind him. He spent most of the decade on an endless tour, which yielded performances of erratic quality.
But Dylan rebounded in 1997, with Time out of Mind, which included songs of desolation such as "Lovesick" and "Highlands" (RealAudio excerpt). Dylan backed the album with a world tour, and it was awarded Album of the Year at that year's Grammy ceremony.
In recent years, Dylan has toured with Mitchell, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and other notables.
Earlier this year he issued "Things Have Changed," which appeared in the movie "Wonder Boys." The peripatetic poet is still on the road as well.
Other birthdays Wednesday: Sara Dash (Labelle), 58; Derek Quinn (Freddie & the Dreamers), 58; Steve Upton (Wishbone Ash), 54; Albert Bouchard (Blue Oyster Cult), 53; Rosanne Cash, 45; Larry Blackmon (Cameo), 44; Vivian Trimble (Luscious Jackson), 37; Heavy D, 33; Rich Robinson (Black Crowes), 31.