Onstage in recent years, Michael Bolton routinely introduces a number he’s about to sing by first announcing its composer, Bob Dylan. The reaction is usually muted: “Bob Dylan should elicit this enormous response,” he says. “But I don’t get that.” Then the piano-based melody starts up, Bolton works his way into the soothing melody, and the crowd melts. “It makes people feel good and they give it up at the end the song,” Bolton says. “It’s the audience’s response to the song that turns it all around.”
The song in question isn’t “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “I Shall Be Released,” or any of Dylan’s best-known tracks. Instead, it’s “Make You Feel My Love,” the stately and fairly unadorned ballad from one of Dylan’s later albums, in which the narrator pledges their unconditional devotion: “I’d go hungry/I’d go black and blue/And I’d go crawling down the avenue/No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do/To make you feel my love.”
“Make You Feel My Love” is hardly one of Dylan’s most complex or metaphorical songs. “In a way, it’s like ‘Lay Lady Lay,’” says a source close to the Dylan camp. “It’s a straightforward lyric and a very singable melody.” Yet for those very reasons, it’s been elevated to one of the most covered songs in his catalog. Since it emerged in 1997 — first by way of a version by Billy Joel, followed by Dylan’s own — “Make You Feel My Love” has been rendered by a staggering 459 artists to date. According to the source, it now likely ranks in the top 10 of Dylan songs tackled by other artists. Most of the acts who’ve recorded it are obscure, but among the bold-face names on that list are Joel, Bolton (with German singer Helene Fischer), Adele, Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond, Boy George, Bryan Ferry, and Joan Osborne; and in mid-October, on her new talk show, Kelly Clarkson performed it as a duet with singer-actor Ben Platt.
“I feel I need some sort of tool for analyzing a standard,” says Bolton, “but I would say I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s considered a standard. The fact that it’s been recorded by so many artists, it’s probably safe to say.”
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For years, fans and academics have debated whether “Make You Feel My Love” is a fairly unassuming love song or, perhaps, Dylan singing in the voice of Jesus (“I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue/I’d go crawling down the avenue”). But whatever the meaning, “Make You Feel My Love” has inspired an astounding array of interpretations, from mainstream pop to smooth jazz to glee-club harmony to instrumental baby lullaby. “I’d never recorded one of his songs before,” says veteran crooner Engelbert Humperdinck, who cut a duet version with Willie Nelson in 2014. “He’s usually a little bit way out for me. Some of his songs only suit Bob Dylan. But I love ballads — that’s my forte — and this song has all the ingredients. When you sing this song, it’s like watching a movie. The lyrics are so story-like.”
Playing piano, Dylan recorded the song for his 1997 album Time Out of Mind. (“I have a really great spinet piano that is a beautiful restored masterpiece from the Twenties,” producer Daniel Lanois told RS in 2016. “And Bob sounded really great on it because Bob’s a great piano player. He had a roaring sound happening on that piano.”) Dylan has long been savvy about music publishing; some of the songs from the Basement Tapes era were written to generate cover-song revenue while Dylan was recuperating from his motorcycle accident. With the pending release of Time Out of Mind, Dylan’s handlers were similarly open to other acts recording some of its tunes — “just because some of the songs were great and because it had been seven years since Bob had written new songs,” says the source.
Coincidentally, Columbia Records was prepping a third volume of Joel’s greatest hits, and Don Ienner, then president of the label, thought a newly recorded track would draw attention to the collection. Since Joel had no outtakes or unreleased tunes on hand, Ienner reached out to Dylan’s camp. As he recalls, “I figured, if Billy’s not going to write something, let me go to someone he admires as much as Irving Berlin or any other songwriter in the world, which is Dylan.” Dylan’s people played a demo of “Make You Feel My Love” for Ienner, who says he was “riveted” and listened to it 15 straight times in his office: “I just knew that was one of Bob’s great love songs,” he says. Believing it could be a huge pop hit, he — and likely the late Columbia A&R exec Don DeVito, who worked with both Joel and Dylan — pitched it to Joel, who cut a version as the promised bonus track.
Performing and plugging the song on The Late Show that year, Joel told David Letterman that when he heard it, “my hair stood up on my arms.” To Rolling Stone, he added, “It’s like you struck gold.” Although Ienner was never happy with the production (“it didn’t come out the way I had imagined — they didn’t capture the power or the proper part of the melody”), the song was nonetheless a Top 10 Adult Contemporary hit. Dylan’s less smoothly sung and produced version arrived a month after Joel’s. Rolling Stone was unimpressed at the time: “Only ‘Make You Feel My Love,’ a spare ballad undermined by greeting-card lyrics, breaks the album’s spell,” read the magazine’s Time Out of Mind review. But the following year, self-professed Joel fanatic Garth Brooks cut a mellow country rendition for the soundtrack of the Sandra Bullock romantic drama Hope Floats; Trisha Yearwood also contributed a version to the film’s soundtrack album. (Both of their versions, and Joel’s, added a “To” to the title of the song, which technically is “Make You Feel My Love.”)
But it would be Adele who made the song the must-croon ballad of the past decade. After she had finished her 2008 debut, 19, manager Jonathan Dickins suggested she cut the song as a last-minute addition to the album. “I heard that song and I read the lyrics and they’re the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever read or heard or sung,” Adele said at the time. “And they kind of summed up everything I’m trying to write in my songs about how I felt. It’s such a beautiful song.”
Although her rendition didn’t make the charts in the U.S., it spread across Europe and was interpreted on The X Factor in the U.K. Ed Sheeran sang it onstage a few times in 2011, calling it “my favorite song” at that year’s Glastonbury festival (and mentioning Adele’s version at another performance). American Idol eighth-season winner Kris Allen sang it on that series, and Lea Michele did it on Glee. Adele’s version was also the first one Bolton heard, and he included it on a duets album in 2011. “It’s a side of Dylan rarely shown,” says Bolton, who says he thinks of his children when he’s singing it. “It’s not ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ or ‘The Times They Are A-Changin.’ I find it very tender. It’s such a fully committed lyric.”
In the past year or two, the song has made its way back into Dylan’s live set, and naturally he’s messed with it: The tempo is a bit more ornery, recalling his Sixties electric work, and he sings the title more like a command than an invitation. But no matter the version — even actor Jeremy Irons’ take on a lullabies collection — most who’ve attempted it adhere to its hymn-like arrangement and vocal understatement. “It quiets me when I sing it,” Bolton says. “I’m not hitting big notes or belting it. Anyone can sing the shit out of it. But it comes with a certain level of responsibility knowing Dylan wrote it. You have to be faithful to it when you sing it.”
In an interview on his website two years ago, Dylan declined to specify which rendition impressed him the most. “Yeah, one after the other, they all did,” he said. But given how often it’s been covered, one thing is certain: Dylan has surely made a small fortune from it. “Certainly from a music publishing standpoint,” says the source, “it’s a fantastic thing when people pick up songs and they become global successes.”
Exactly how fantastic is not something the Dylan organization cares to share, but it’s likely the song has netted Dylan a considerable sum. According to Nielsen Music, the combined album and digital sales of the song by Adele, Dylan, Joel, and Diamond (and on Hope Floats), to cite a few of its biggest versions, are more than 10 million, and Adele’s rendition has generated more than 200 million plays from YouTube and streaming services. Add in its use on soundtracks on in TV shows (Adele’s version in General Hospital, for instance), and it’s not inconceivable that Dylan’s bank account could be several million dollars richer thanks to “Make You Feel My Love.”
But the fact that one of Dylan’s most outwardly generic songs has penetrated the culture is all part and parcel of the ongoing mystery that is, well, Dylan. “You never know which songs are going to be covered like that,” says the Dylan source. “But that song is the essence of timeless.”