Bob Dylan started recording songs for his sixth album on Tuesday, June 15, 1965. The session was held in Columbia Records’ Studio A, located at 799 Seventh Avenue in New York City.
Tom Wilson was the producer and the band that he put together for this session included:
- Mike Bloomfield – electric guitar
- Bobby Gregg – drums
- Paul Griffin – piano/organ
- Bruce Langhorne – tambourine
- Joe Macho, Jr. – bass guitar
Bob Dylan sang and played electric guitar, piano and harmonica.
The first two songs that Dylan presented to the band in the June 15th session were “Phantom Engineer Number Cloudy” (eventually to be titled: “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry”) and “Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence.”
The third song that the musicians worked on was called “Like A Rolling Stone,” one of Dylan’s newest compositions. The song was in 3/4 time – a waltz – and in the key of D flat major. Five takes, or “rehearsals” were recorded with only the fifth – and last of the day – being close to a complete run-through.
All involved with the June 15 recording session reconvened at Studio A the next day, Wednesday, June 16th. The only song on the agenda was “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Joining the proceedings that day was Al Kooper, a 21-year-old studio guitarist and guest of Mr. Wilson.
Somewhere in between the end of Tuesday’s sessions and the beginning of the Wednesday sessions, Dylan decided to switch “Like A Rolling Stone” into 4/4 time and drop it a half-step to the more guitar-friendly key of C.
The ensemble – with Paul Griffin on piano, Al Kooper on electric organ (!) and Dylan now playing electric rhythm guitar – ran through two rehearsal takes of the “new” “Like A Rolling Stone.” Everyone (especially Dylan, to my ear) struggled to get acclimated to the new key and time signature. When “Take 1” was officially announced, it lasted all of one minute and fifty-seven seconds before Dylan broke it off.
As they prepared to try again, Dylan declared: “Even if we screw it up, we keep going.”
Take 2 however, stopped after 30 seconds and Take 3 only lasted for 19. (These would both be labeled “false starts.”)
Producer Wilson then called “Take 4” and Bobby Gregg’s snare and kick drum confidently sounded the charge. The band followed suit.
Bloomfield, Gregg, Griffin, Kooper (playing an instrument he’d never played before!), Langhorne and Macho performed with confidence, focus, cohesiveness, clarity, finesse, passion and daring; each surely wondering to some degree if at any moment everything would again fall apart around them. But they followed Dylan’s lead every step of the way and triumphantly made it through the entire song.
Six minutes and eleven seconds after it started, Take 4 ended and producer Wilson happily proclaimed, “That sounds good to me.”
Dylan, however, was not convinced and wished to persevere.
The septet tried and tried again; eleven times, actually. Each false start and breakdown they endured was more discouraging than the last. Even the lone complete run-through – Take 11 – was not even close. Finally Tom Wilson brought the proceedings to a halt, rewound the tape and suggested a closer listen.
Everyone soon agreed that the mark had unquestionably been hit way back in Take 4.
Perfection had indeed been achieved.
Listen for yourself.
Columbia Records released “Like A Rolling Stone” b/w “Gates of Eden” as a single on July 20, 1965. It was then featured as the opening track of Highway 61 Revisited – Dylan’s sixth album – released on August 30, 1965.
“Like A Rolling Stone” reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on September 4, 1965. (“Help!” by The Beatles was #1.)
It was ranked #7 in The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) by Dave Marsh. (“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye was #1.)
In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine put it at #1 on their list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In 2005, music journalist Greil Marcus wrote a book called Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. In it he states: “‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is a triumph of craft, inspiration, will and intent; regardless of all those things, it was also an accident.”
The information used in the writing of this post came from the following sources:
Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions [1960-1994] (1995) by Clinton Heylin
Greil Marcus on Recording “Like A Rolling Stone” – an NPR “Music Interview” posted April 11, 2005 on NPR.org. (This “Music Interview” is actually an excerpt from Mr. Marcus’ book quoted above.)
The “Deluxe Edition” of Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series, Vol.12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 released by Columbia Records on November 6, 2015. (Disc 3 of this six-CD set contains the entire studio session recordings of “Like A Rolling Stone” – all 20 takes -from June 15 & 16, 1965. Highly recommended listening.)
The Wikipedia page for “Like A Rolling Stone.”
P.S.: Happy Father’s Day!
My #1 favorite song of all times!!
My favorite in all sorts of ways, especially as a driving song! Thanks for the comment!
For me, it’s the best single ever released. Many great things happen by accident…Kooper playing the organ on this was one of them.
Thanks for the comment. Had you known that it started out as a waltz?!?
No I had no idea about that. Another thing that turned into something great.