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Bob Dylan, Jazz Stars Salute Label Pioneer John Hammond

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The show began with Marion Williams, who suggested something of Bessie Smith's overpowering presence and exuberance. She sang "How I Got Over" and "Jesus Traveled This Road Before." Hammond then talked about the last Smith session; the choice of tunes – "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Gimme a Pigfoot" – had been hers. "I don't want to do no blues," she'd told him. "This is hard times." After that, he mentioned another of his discoveries, Count Basie, and Benny Carter led his all-stars through two jumping Basie blues. The cameras captured Red Norvo's rapturous devotional expressions, drummer Jo Jones's mugging and flashes of recognition on all the players' faces as they settled into a groove. When Helen Humes, resplendent in an aqua and salmon gown, applied her exceptional sense of pitch and phrasing to "T'Ain't Nobody's Business" the band outdid itself.

At least half the audience had come to see Benny Goodman, and the clarinetist did not disappoint them. Teddy Wilson, Jo Jones and bassist Milt Hinton comprised the most inspiring rhythm section imaginable, but it was George Benson who lit Goodman's fire. The guitarist tore into Charlie Christian's "Seven Come Eleven" as if his life depended on it, and Goodman's smile turned into a grimace of concentration as he fought for a moment to get on top of the surging rhythm, and then took the piano with a solo that put most of his recorded efforts to shame. The audience stood and cheered and then, much to the dismay of the show's producer and director, half of them left.

The evening proceeded with the cameras trained directly onstage, ignoring the empty seats. Sonny Terry and John Paul Hammond turned in an accomplished blues set, but by 2:00 a.m., as the stage was being cleared for Dylan, only the faithful remained. Producer Ehrlich, a compact, bearded man, paused to chat. "This is crazy," he said. "I'm crazy. But we had to do it in one night, as an event. If this show had been done by CBS, they'd have taken a week and the magic would have been lost." That raised an interesting question. Why, with Columbia's Hammond, Lieberson, Humes and Dylan involved, hadn't CBS Television done the show? "Because," a long-time Columbia Records employee rumbled eight days later, "the CBS Television people never cooperate with us in any way. It seems to be their idea of how not to show favoritism."

Dylan, who'd napped backstage, came on with his band around 2:10 a.m. Rob Stoner, a bassist recently introduced by Dylan's sidekick, Bobby Neuwirth, and drummer Howie Wyeth were the rhythm section. The surprise was a willowy fiddler with long, dark brown hair and flashing coal black eyes. She called herself Scarlet Rivera and, according to Greenwich Village gossip, is an actual gypsy who was walking down Second Avenue with her violin case when Dylan spotted her and struck up a conversation. But several Chicagoans in the audience recognized her as a woman named Donna, who'd lived in town during the late Sixties and who'd once helped the Hog Farm organize a rock concert benefit for the Chicago Seven.

Rivera warmed up tentatively, and then Dylan appeared – bearded, scowling, dressed in black and white striped Sixties-leftover slacks, a white shirt with ruffles at the neck and sleeves and a black leather jacket. Dylan fixed her with a penetrating stare and hit the opening chords to "Hurricane Carter," a song from his as-yet unreleased album about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a one-time world middleweight boxing contender and current convicted murderer who, according to Dylan, was tried and imprisoned unjustly.

Photos: Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue

The rolling music and aggressive lyrics made up for the rhythm section's merely adequate accompaniment, but the real drama was occurring between the fiddler and Dylan. Dylan continued to stare intensely into Rivera's eyes, and her playing built from a lackluster beginning to a soaring lead. "It's Svengali and Trilby," cracked a pundit in the audience.

"Hurricane Carter" was long and involving. In the small studio, Dylan's voice seemed quieter and gentler around the edges than it had on his tour with the Band, but his presence was no less electric. After the applause for the song had died away, he bent over the microphone and said in measured tones, "I want to dedicate this to someone out there watching in the audience. She knows who she is." The song that followed, "Oh, Sister," was almost hymnlike, with images of death and rebirth, love and separation.

It was followed immediately by "Simple Twist of Fate" from Blood on the Tracks, a half-spoken, half-sung, passionate performance. Then Dylan, still scowling, announced that "we're going to do the first one over" and this time "Hurricane Carter" flew from the first notes, with Rivera's violin and Dylan's harmonica blending into a windy wail.

As soon as the song was over, Dylan left the stage; he was halfway across the studio before his band realized he was gone. He gestured impatiently for them to follow and disappeared through a side door, unwilling or unable to acknowledge the audience's expectation of an encore. There was a momentary sigh of disappointment and then the listeners who were left began to file out. Everyone agreed that Dylan's appearance had been extraordinary, but some were taking him to task for his attitude. "He could have said something about what he owed to John," somebody said aloud. Three days later back in New York, Dylan reportedly agreed. "For all John Hammond's done for me, it was worth staying late," he said.

Hammond was ecstatic. "Just the fact that he came was incredible," he said. "And that song about 'Hurricane' Carter is magnificent. I think it's going to free him." He meant that the song's impact would free Carter, but at least one observer thought he meant free Dylan.

This story is from the October 23rd, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.


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