Today (May 24) is the 75th birthday of one Robert Allen Zimmerman—better known to the world at large as Bob Dylan, one of the 20th century’s greatest musical icons.
But while Dylan’s own recordings have rightly made him a legendary figure in both folk and rock, he’s just as significant as a songwriter for whom other artists have been able to carve out their own iconic interpretations. And so instead of merely choosing our five favorite Dylan songs to celebrate his birthday, we thought we’d pick out five truly classic cover versions—records that fit so perfectly with a particular artist that you’d swear Bob had actually written them for that purpose in the first place.
5. Guns ‘n’ Roses – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
A surprisingly restrained version of this 1973 track was a live staple for the hard rock band from the late 1980s onwards. Just as the original had been released on a movie soundtrack (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), so too was the GnR version – accompanying the 1990 release Days of Thunder. The following year they included a slightly altered version on the album Use Your Illusion II, and it subsequently became a hit single.
4. Nina Simone – “I Shall Be Released”
Simone recorded versions of several Dylan tracks – three alone on the 1969 album To Love Somebody. Her 1971 version of “Just Like A Woman” may be the most revered, but we’ve gone instead for this one. Dylan’s own version, released in 1968, already showed a significant gospel influence—which made it a perfect fit for Simone, who takes those elements and expands on them. The closing line delivery is one of the singer’s most striking.
3. Sam Cooke – “Blowin’ in the Wind”
This 1963 classic was a huge influence on Cooke when writing his own opus, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But he also showed a fondness for performing the Dylan song itself, too—and a recording made its way onto his 1964 album Live at the Copacabana. His tremendously distinctive voice uplifts the song enormously.
2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “All Along the Watchtower”
In 2015, Dylan described Hendrix as having “pumped [my songs] up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics.” Nowhere was this more evident than in the pulsating, towering version of this 1967 classic, released barely a year after the original. Dylan’s own version is no slouch itself, but the Hendrix cover is in possession of one of the most memorable guitar solos of all time, and charges the song with an energy that has seen it also make iconic appearances in films such as Withnail & I, Forrest Gump and Watchmen.
1. The Byrds – “Mr. Tambourine Man”
When Rolling Stone magazine compiled their famous list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in 2004, they actually saw fit to include two versions of this track. Dylan’s original came in at No. 107 —but it was beaten by the Byrds’ famous cover version, which landed at No. 79. The Byrds actually recorded their version only a few days after Dylan’s own album session in January 1965 (although he’d first attempted it the year before), and released it in April of that year, whereupon it topped the charts in both the U.K. and the U.S.—becoming the first Dylan song ever to reach No. 1. Their full-band interpretation, which also shifted the key of the song, is now held by many critics as the starting point of the entire folk-rock genre.
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