Elvis Presley was the big bang. He was the most influential single figure in the history of American pop culture. He changed the way we looked, thought, dressed, held a guitar. He didn't invent rock & roll, but he defined it in a way that everyone who followed him owes him a debt. While parents were listening to Patti Page and Perry Como, Elvis was inspired by the raw sensuality of country and blues. But he didn't limit himself to either genre: He melded them into something real and electrifyingly new. His early Sun records are the blueprint for the birth of rock. You could argue that Elvis happened so big because he was white, handsome, sexy, young and managed by a master showman, but you can't deny his impact. And have I mentioned sex yet? Girls reached puberty just listening to his records, but once they saw him on television, every parent, religious and political leader ran for the hills. Elvis took the power of sexuality and rebellion and showed us how to be free.
Bob Dylan enabled rock & roll to grow up and survive. He injected the power of language and ideas into the music. It was suddenly no longer just teen celebration and fantasy but an art form as vital as film and literature. John Lennon once told me that he was inspired by Elvis but challenged by Bob Dylan. There's a good chance that without Dylan there'd be no Rubber Soul or Revolver. He became an icon because he had the talent and the courage to say things that no one else ever had before. Dylan captured what was on a million minds and turned it into poetry. With "Blowin' in the Wind" or "The Times They Are A-Changin'," he set a whole new standard. The times were changing, and Dylan changed forever how much you could say in a song and the way you could say it.
Bruce Springsteen gave people faith in rock & roll and in themselves again. In 1975, when Born to Run was released, American rock & roll fans were still reeling from the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, and coping with the national tragedy of the Vietnam War. There wasn't a lot of reason to believe in music or the future. I know, because I was twenty-two at the time. Bruce showed me and his audience and whoever would listen what an uncompromising will can achieve. To me, part of what Bruce brought to this world was a complete lack of compromise. You couldn't buy, rent or borrow Bruce Springsteen in any way. That's one of the most admirable, attractive and chilling qualities I've ever come across in a human being. And it came across in his music, too. Bruce brought together the poetry of Bob Dylan, the innocence and sexuality of Elvis Presley and the live heat of James Brown. Twenty-five years later, he still reflects all that. After 9/11, Bruce and his music once again helped us through the darkness.
Elvis, Dylan and Bruce are all part of a story. They all had the gift. They all had the voice. And they all hit that big button that made millions of people say, "That's me." The story is bigger than all of them, but it's unimaginable without any of them.
This story is from the May 15th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.