Before he was Bob Dylan, he played in Fargo bands and went by Elston Gunnn
"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen explains how Minnesota native Robert Zimmerman ended up living and working in Fargo before he made it big as a singer-songwriter.
During the summer of 1959, Robert Zimmerman, a recent high school graduate from Hibbing, Minn., arrived in Fargo and took a job as a busboy in a restaurant. He briefly played with a couple of popular local bands, and for those bookings he used the name Elston Gunnn.
In 2016, more than 50 years later, Zimmerman, using another name, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not only was Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize recipient, but he's also received 10 Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
I had hoped to get much of my information about Dylan from his autobiography, "Chronicles: Volume One," which was very popular when it was published in 2004. However, since Clinton Heylin, who authored "Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades," called Dylan’s book “a good read,” but cautioned that it was “a pack of lies,” I felt obliged to use a number of other sources.
Robert Allen Zimmerman was born May 24, 1941, to Abram and Beatrice (Stone) Zimmerman, in Duluth, Minn., where his father worked for the Standard Oil Co. When Robert was 6 years old, Abram, best-known as Abe, was stricken with polio, and after spending a week in the hospital, was released. Abe was unable to walk, so he was confined to his house for six months convalescing, while trying to regain mobility in his legs. Because of his absence from work, Abe lost his job at Standard Oil.
“Without work, short of money, and needing relatives around to help them, the Zimmermans moved to Hibbing, where Beatrice’s family lived and where two of Abe’s brothers ran a (furniture and appliance) business.” Abe became a partner with his brothers at Zimmerman Appliance in Hibbing. In Hibbing, Robert acquired the nickname “Zimmy” from his schoolmates.
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Zimmy grew up in a musical family where Abe played the violin and Beatrice played the piano. Many times at family get-togethers, Zimmy would perform with a song or two, and sometimes relatives would give him money after his performance. Music became his major interest. “In his early years he listened to the radio — first to blues and country... and later, when he was a teenager, to rock and roll.”
In Hibbing, Zimmy took guitar lessons, learned how to play the piano from his mother, and taught himself how to play the harmonica. In high school, Zimmy was a loner who kept to himself, “except when he was trying to interest people in his music.” He joined the Latin club as a sophomore and the social studies club as a senior, and those were the only school-related extracurricular activities that he was involved in.
Zimmy’s favorite instructor was B. J. Rolfzen, who taught English with a heavy emphasis on poetry, and Zimmy began writing poems. Zimmy “considered Rolfzen a mentor and would visit him when he came back through Hibbing.”
Music, however, remained Zimmy’s passion, and it was where he received the biggest accolades. He patterned himself after Little Richard, and during high school lyceums, “he would sit down at the piano and bang out some rock ‘n’ roll for his peers and became the center of attention.”
While at Hibbing High School, Zimmy formed several bands. In the summer of 1957, Abe wanted his son to attend Camp Herzl, a summer camp in Webster, Wis., where young people of the Jewish faith “become self-reliant, create lasting Jewish friendships and develop a commitment and love for Judaism and Israel.” Zimmy must have been reluctant to go because “rumor had it that he had received a motorcycle as a parental gift for agreeing to attend.”
He arrived at the camp on his motorcycle camper with a guitar slung over his shoulder. According to a camp counselor, he became the “camp rebel,” refusing to participate in most of the organized camp activities and “spent most of his time singing and playing his guitar.” However, he did develop a close relationship with another boy who had a love of rock ‘n’ roll music, Ron Joelson, from Fargo.
The two youngsters must have kept in contact because, shortly after Zimmy graduated from high school in 1959, he arrived in Fargo. He needed a place to stay, and Joelson invited Zimmy to live with him and his widowed mother. Zimmy was hired as a busboy at the Red Apple Cafe on Main Avenue. Joelson, who was a musician, also had a number of good friends who played in rock bands. The fact that Zimmy played the piano put him in a good position to get hired because good piano players were hard to come by.
One of the best rock bands in Fargo that was looking for a piano player was the Poor Boys. Joelson introduced Zimmy to the Poor Boys as Elston Gunnn, and he was given an audition that “was not very promising.” He could only play the piano in the key of C, and one of the members likened his singing to that of country-western singer Ernest Tubb. However, with a booking at the Crystal Ballroom fast approaching, he was hired.
The Crystal Ballroom, owned by Ralph “Doc” Chinn, was the ultimate booking spot for bands in Fargo. Chinn usually booked popular big bands, but occasionally he brought in the best local rock bands he could find as fill-ins on open dates. During that night’s concert, Zimmy’s performance stood out, but not in a good way, and when it was over, Chinn told the other members of the Poor Boys, “That guy has got to go.”
One of the other top rock bands in Fargo was The Shadows, fronted by Bobby Vee (Velline). They were also looking for a good piano player when Bobby’s brother, Bill Velline, ran into Zimmy at a record shop. Zimmy told Bill that he was a “seasoned piano player” and Bill was led to believe that Zimmy had his own electric piano. Since the group had a booking that night, Billy had him audition at the KFGO studio in downtown Fargo, and during the short time he was in the studio, Zimmy’s audition went well. Billy reported back to the group, “He plays pretty good,” and Zimmy/Elston Gunnn was hired, fitted with a matching outfit, and agreed to join the group for that night’s concert.
Vee reported, “We picked him up for the job that night and 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.” The piano was badly out of tune, and Zimmy was not able to play a number of the songs that were not in the key of C. He spent much of the time standing next to the other members of the group, clapping along with the rhythm. When this also happened at a second engagement of The Shadows, Zimmy and Vee went their separate ways to stardom.
After a valiant attempt to make a name for himself as a rock musician in Fargo, Zimmy headed back home to Hibbing at the end of the summer. Because of his driving ambition for success, he was later able to reinvent himself by combining his love of music and poetry, and he became a singer and composer of folk songs.
We will continue the life and career of Bob Dylan next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.