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"The man who would be Dylan"

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Aug 23, 2002, 10:11:31 PM8/23/02
Greetings Friends and Neighbors...

This article, below, forwarded to the list upon recommendation of Karl
Erik -hope you'll enjoy.
August 18, 2002

"The man who would be Dylan"

Soecial to the Forum

"To Bobby Zimmerman's schoolmates, he was just a strange Jewish kid
with bushy hair.

While growing up in Hibbing, Minn, Bobby had a small circle of
friends, but mostly kept to himself.

That is until high school lyceums rolled around.

When Bobby would stand up at the piano, Little Richard-style, in the
school auditorium and bang out some rock 'n' roll for his peers, he
became the center of attention.

"He was always a one-man show," says Pete Marinucci, owner of Shop and
Wash in Moorhead, who grew up in Hibbing a few grades behind
Zimmerman. "There would be times when he would play two or three
(songs). It was a rather critical audience, and he'd get a standing
ovation, though nobody liked him as an individual. He could really

To hear of Bobby's innate rock-star ability is not really a surprise,
since Robert Zimmerman was, after all, the future Bob Dylan.

But first he was Elston Gunnn(yep, that's three N's), the name he used
while living with friends in Fargo and hanging out in the local music
scene in the summer of 1959.

Fargo Skyline

Yes, Fargo was a happening place musically long before its 1990s
heyday of indie noise rock (godheadSilo, Hammerhead) and white blues
(Jonny Lang, Shannon Curfman). In the late '50s,when rock 'n' roll was
still in its wax paper and the ballroom dance circuit was (sock)
hopping, Fargo was a place where musicians seemed to congregate - not
necessarily to play, but to hang out.

So it probably was a logical move for an aspiring rabble-rouser from
the north country of Minnesota, with a self-penned monicker such as
Elston Gunnn, to head there and find work with a band.

"Fargo was kind of a central hub for a lot of early rockers," says
Fargo businessman R.D. Knutson, who made a name for himself promoting
artists like Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis throughout the midwest.

"I don't know why, but the crossroads ended up to be at the Bison
Hotel. It was just an after-hours hangout. Alot of the bands got done
playing their gigs here or there and would float back into Fargo."

The now-defunct Bison Hotel, which most recently housed Broadway
Furniture, is located on the 400 block of Broadway, across from the
Empire Bar.

In the old days, the place was jammed with musicians from 2 a.m. to 7
p.m. They'd spend the night chatting about their gigs, or eyeing the
cost-effective menu.

"The Bison used to be known for its $1.09 steak," Knutson says.
"That's why we went there. We didn't know lettuce was green until we
went to a different restaurant. It was cheap."

It wasn't uncommon to see the proto-Dylan off by himself, scribbling
in his notebook at the hotel's cafe.

NP Avenue revisited

Zimmerman, er, Gunnn, held a job as a busboy at the now long-gone Red
Apple Cafe (600 block of Main Avenue), but it was his ability on the
keys that landed him a spot playing in another up-and-coming Fargoan's

Piano players were a hot commodity at the time, as the guitar was most
rock 'n' rollers' instrument of choice.

"My brother Bill ran into him at Sam's Record Land," says
Fargo-boy-done-good Bobby Vee, who enjoyed a string of hits in the
early 1960s with his group, the Shadows.

"He came up and introduced himself and said he heard we were looking
for a piano player. That was exciting, because there weren't many
around. Electric pianos, little Wurlitzers, were just starting to come

The kid then known as Gunnn made Vee's brother believe he was a
seasoned pro with an electric piano. Vee's brother auditioned him at
the KFGO studio in downtown Fargo.

"He came back and says, 'He plays pretty good'" Vee says from his home
in St. Cloud, Minn. "It turned out he could only play in the key of

Elston Gunnn was hired on the spot. "We picked him up with a job that
night," Vee says. "We bought him a shirt that matched ours. When we
picked him up we were a little surprised he didn't have a little
electric piano with him. So, when we got to the gig, there was an old
crusty piano there, and he played that."

They also worked around the young musician's limited range on the
instrument. "Whatever we were playing in C, he played," Vee says. "And
when we weren't, he just came up and stood beside me and did hand
claps. It was the old Gene Vincent days. Gene Vincent used to have a
couple of hand clappers that would do the offbeat and sing harmonies
and stuff like that. That's basically what he did. He would stand
behind me and scream in my ear."

After a couple of nights with the band, it was obvious to everyone
that Elston Gunnn was not working out. They parted ways. "Well, I
think he was uncomfortable about it too," Vee says. "The fact that he
came unprepared, and I don't think he ever intended to be a piano

It also seems the young Gunnn fudged some of his credentials on his

"He said he had just gotten off the road with Conway Twitty - that's
what he told Bill, which of course, wasn't true," Vee says. "The truth
was, he had seen Conway Twitty sometime previous to that, and was just
shucking and doing whatever he could to get into this little band."

And no, it wasn't Bob's voice that got in the way.

"I thought he was OK," Vee says. "I mean, yeah, he doesn't have a
great reputation (for his voice), but I happen to think he's a great
singer. He's not particularly concerned about the quality of
everything that comes out. He's certainly honest with the way he sings
and writes, and I think that's the criteria. He can put that under
style. What most people are drawn to is style."

Vee remembers the young Bob as amiable and quick-witted and, even
then, with loads of charisma.

"He was great," Vee says. "I've said this before. He was just a
scruffy-looking guy. He had that rock'n'roll attitude. He had all the
tremendous confidence. Although he didn't sing anything he had
written, he did talk about writing. And I thought 'Well, everybody's

Bob's alright

Dylan enrolled at the University of Minnesota that fall. He later
moved to New York City and established himself in the hipster folk
scene in Greenwich Village. It was then he took on the monicker of Bob
Dylan, derived from the name of poet Dylan Thomas.

Having the legendary Dylan in his band is a story Vee gets asked about
fairly often, because long before collaborative super groups like
Cream or Led Zeppelin were the rage, there was Vee and Dylan.

And surorisingly, it all began -and ended- in Fargo.

Vee, who soon went on to a successful recording career, says he has
kept track of Dylan's work.

"Oh yeah, I'm a fan," he says. "I love his music. My son Jeff collects
all of his stuff."

Dylan can still make it new, and Vee says he likes that.

"That's always an impression about him that he knows something that
other people don't know," Vee says. "I think he's one of those guys
you listen to because he's always giving something a new spin."

Vee still runs into Dylan every once in a while. When Dylan played in
Fargo about a decade ago, Vee met up with him and welcomed him back to
the area.

Dylan recalled many details of his short time in Fargo, down to his
busboy job, Vee's brother and the downtown restaurant hangouts.

"We had a great chat about Fargo," Vee says. "I'm amazed about what he
remembered. Later on, it occured to me that that's what writers do:
they remember and write about it."

[Eric Hahn is a staff writer for The Detriot Lakes Tribune]

If you go:

What: Bob Dylan concert
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Newman Outdoor Field, Fargo
Tickets: Available at Ticketmaster locations. Call (701)235-7171 for
more information.

Copyright 2002, Forum Communications Co., Fargo, N.D., 58102


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