On April 11, 1961, Bob Dylan made his first professional appearance as a performer in New York, at Gerde’s Folk City. He was not yet the headline act – that would come months later, but his name did appear on posters for the show, in which he opened for the bluesman John Lee Hooker.
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Dylan, born Robert Alan Zimmerman on May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, arrived in New York City early on a very cold day in 1961 (on January 24, it is said).
He had dropped out of the University of Minnesota in May, 1960, as a freshman, and came to the East Coast in order to meet Woody Guthrie, his idol.
The American folk legend, whom Dylan later described as “the true voice of the American spirit,” was then a patient at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, in Morristown, New Jersey, suffering from the debilitating Huntington’s Disease. He died six years later.
As early as February 13, 1961, Dylan was appearing at Monday “Hootenanny” evenings – open-mike nights for amateurs at Gerde’s, at 11 W. 4th Street, in Greenwich Village.
Gerde’s was then the city’s premier venue for folk acts. After Mike Porco, the club’s owner, heard Dylan sing, he knew he was interested in booking him for a paying gig.
Years later, Porco told an interviewer that he remembered thinking to himself, “This boy’s unbelievable, he’s going to become another Woody Guthrie,” by which he meant that he saw him as an artist for folk aficionados, not as a future superstar.
Because Dylan was only 19, he was too young to apply for the union card and the cabaret license required to appear professionally.
In the end, Porco, whom Dylan described in his 2004 memoir “Chronicles I” as “the Sicilian father that I never had,” sign the necessary documents as the young man’s guardian.
The following year, in the song “Talkin’ New York,” Dylan described this period in his life: “After weeks and weeks of hanging around / I finally got a job in New York town / … Even joined the union and paid my dues.”
Gig with bluesman John Lee Hooker
A gig with John Lee Hooker, the 43-year-old Mississippi-born writer and practitioner of “talkin’ blues,” which went on through April 23, was arranged by Dylan’s first manager, Terri Thal, who at the time was married to Dave Van Ronk.
Finally, in September of that year, Porco booked Dylan as a solo act at Gerde’s.
Because Robert Shelton, a music critic at The New York Times, had been impressed when he saw Dylan in an earlier appearance at the club, Porco called him to alert him to the show.
Shelton wrote a 400-word piece in the paper on September 29, in which he welcomed “a bright new face in folk music … one of the most distinctive stylists to play a Manhattan cabaret in months.”
Though Shelton acknowledged that Dylan, whose voice was “anything but pretty,” and was “not for every taste,” he predicted he was on his way “straight up.”
The next day, Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who had first heard Dylan two weeks earlier, invited him to his office and offered him a recording contract.
The first fruit of that contract was the studio album “Bob Dylan,” released on March 19, 1962.