How Columbia Records Discovered Bob Dylan

There’s much controversy as to what inspired John Hammond—Columbia Records’ all-time greatest A&R man—into signing Bob Dylan to the label. Some say it was Robert Shelton’s legendary review in the New York Times. Others claim Hammond already had Dylan in his sights when the review was published. Either way, on September 30, 1961, a 20-year-old Dylan found himself sitting signing on a dotted line that would over time make Columbia Records his home record label for what now amounts to five decades.

The Review That Changed It All

On September 26, 1961, as Dylan performed the opening set for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s Folk City, Greenwich Village’s premier music venue, Robert Shelton of the New York Times was out in the audience, taking notes. Three days later in the Friday edition of the paper, his review of the show hit the racks. But rather than write up the main act, Shelton headlined his story, “Bob Dylan: A Distinctive Stylist.” Aside from the headline and the bulk of verbiage, Dylan even got the photograph, which pictured him in his black corduroy Huck Finn cap.

“A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde’s Folk City,” wrote Shelton. “Although only 20 years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months… his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.”

Enter John Hammond

Dylan didn’t escape Columbia Records’ John Hammond, a titan among American talent scouts. Although Hammond’s son, acoustic blues guitarist John Hammond Jr., had earlier mentioned Dylan to his dad, the singer and his godsend industry mentor didn’t meet until mid-September, a couple of weeks before the New York Times review even ran. The occasion was a rehearsal for folksinger Carolyn Hester’s upcoming recording session. At the time, Dylan was more well-known for his harp playing, and he was invited back in August to handle harp duties for her upcoming album.

At the rehearsal, as the musicians ran through her songs at Ned O’Gorman’s West 10th Street apartment, Hammond was in attendance and duly impressed by the young harp virtuoso. As Hammond recalled, “I liked what I heard of him there so much I asked him to come up to the studio. I didn’t know that he did much singing, but I knew that he wrote. So I asked him to come up and I heard some of the things that he did, and I signed him on the spot.”

Dylan’s First Record Contract

Despite the fact that Dylan met with Hammond the day after the Shelton review ran, as Hammond tells it, the article had nothing to do with convincing him one way or another of Dylan’s potential. He’d already decided to sign him well beforehand. Dylan’s copy, which was sent to him on October 26, was a standard contract giving Columbia five yearly options for which Dylan would receive a lousy two-percent royalty on any products released at the sole whimsy of the company, with no guarantees that anything would come of it.

“He put a contract in front of me, the standard one,” Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles Volume One, “and I signed it right then and there, didn’t get absorbed into details—didn’t need a lawyer, advisor or anybody looking over my shoulder. I would have gladly signed whatever form he out in front of me. He looked at the calendar, picked out a date for me, told me what time to come in and think about what I wanted to play.”

Hammond’s Folly

Dylan’s debut album was recorded in two three-hour sessions on November 20 and 22, 1961 with Hammond himself sitting at the producer’s helm, at a reported cost of just $402. Cutting 17 tracks and using 13, the album consisted of mostly cover songs, except for two originals, “Talking New York”, and “Song for Woody”. When it was released the following March, sales of Bob Dylan were astronomically low, moving under 5,000 copies in the first year, and prompting Hammond’s colleagues at Columbia to dub Dylan “Hammond’s Folly.”

The tag would not last long. Hammond’s nose, as time would soon prove, was right on the mark. Over the course of 1962, the writer in Dylan would blossom, making him one of the most original songwriting talents in the nation. In April 1962, “Blowin’ In the Wind” would get its live debut at Gerde’s Folk City, when Gil Turner performed it to a mesmerized audience. The song, which Dylan would record on July 9, 1962 for his next album, would score him his first #1 hit when Peter, Paul, and Mary released it in the summer of 1963. And the rest, as they say, is history.

As for Columbia Records, despite a short break in 1973-74 when he switched briefly to Asylum, Dylan has remained one of the label’s biggest cash cows, right up there with Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and other lucrative acts in the Columbia’s mass stable of talent.

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