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The man who would be Dylan

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 the high school lyceums rolled around. Whe...

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 the 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 rock."

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To hear of young 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 moniker 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 hang out. A lot 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.

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"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 café.

NP Avenue revisited

Zimmerman, er, Gunnn, held a job as a busboy at the now long-gone Red Apple Café (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 band.

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 that 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 in."

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 KFG0 studio in downtown Fargo.

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"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 C."

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 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 player."

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

"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 think 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 he 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 just 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 writing.'"

Bob's all right

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 moniker 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 surprisingly, 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 occurred to me that's what writers do: They remember and write about it."

Eric Hahn is a staff writer for The Detroit 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.

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