Too religious for the masses and too brief for the born-again crowd, Bob Dylan's three-year plunge into gospel music has often been skimmed over in discussions of the folk-rock legend's career.
But on Tuesday, nearly 24 years after the release of his first soul-searching Christian album, Columbia Records will issue “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,” featuring 11 musical interpretations by some of today's top gospel artists.
Among the performers are Aaron Neville, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar, Sounds of Blackness, Helen Baylor with Billy Preston, and Toledo's Rance Allen. Dylan and Mavis Staples teamed up for a new duet on “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”
“He is absolutely fantastic as a gospel songwriter,” said Dr. Allen, a two-time Grammy-nominated gospel artist who sings Dylan's “When He Returns.”
“Bob Dylan's greatest effort is in the lyrics,” said Dr. Allen, pastor of New Bethel Church of God in Christ on Vance Street. “I see great power in the lyrics. You can tell by the lyrics that he is a man who reads the Bible.”
On Aug. 20, 1979, the always unpredictable Dylan shocked even longtime fans - many of whom had stuck with him through a number of radical artistic changes - when he hit them with the full-gospel fury of “Slow Train Coming.” The album preached a message as full of fire and brimstone as any strident street preacher could hope to muster.
The hit single “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which earned Dylan his first Grammy Award, presented a foreboding biblical warning that “it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.”
The next summer, Dylan returned to his musical pulpit with the straightforward album “Saved,” the joyous title cut belting out an unabashed first-person testimony of salvation: “By His grace I have been touched; by His word I have been healed; by His hand I've been delivered; by His spirit I've been sealed. I've been saved, by the blood of the lamb.”
The last of what would be Dylan's Christian trilogy, “Shot of Love,” came out in August, 1981, offered more hard-line sermonizing, from the title cut to such tunes as “Property of Jesus” and “Dead Man, Dead Man.”
Jim Keltner, one of the leading drummers in rock and roll for decades, was part of Dylan's band during that era and has expressed surprise that the songwriter's Christian music went largely unappreciated.
“Twenty years had to go by for people to become aware of the fact that Bob Dylan is one of our great gospel writers?” Keltner said in a Columbia Records press release. “I hope this is the beginning of a lot of people really paying attention to that period of his writing.”
Keltner, who has played drums for countless stars including John Lennon, George Harrison, Neil Young, B.B. King, and Eric Clapton, described his concerts with Dylan in those days as “probably the most powerful time I've ever been on a live stage with anybody.”
Fred Tackett, who played guitar on the gospel recordings and concert tours, has called Dylan “brave” for playing the songs before rock and folk audiences.
“I was just glad to be part of it,” Tackett once said. “We felt like we were on a mission. That first tour where we just played nothing but gospel material was real exciting because half the people were really into it, and half the people just hated us. I mean, Madeline O'Hair, the famous atheist, was picketing our show!”
He recalled someone in the front row of a Dylan gospel concert holding up a sign that read: “Jesus loves your old songs, too.”
Dylan, who will turn 62 on May 24, has always been reluctant to talk about his music and his personal beliefs, preferring to let his songs speak for themselves. But at the time of his gospel recordings, he denied that he had been “born again.”
Among the rumors that circulated during those days was that Dylan had been baptized in Pat Boone's pool and that Debby Boone (of “You Light Up My Life” fame) had introduced him to fundamentalist Christianity.
Larry Norman, a pioneer of Christian rock music whose home Bible studies spawned the fast-growing association of Vineyard Churches, told The Blade in 2001 that Dylan had attended a Vineyard Bible study after becoming a Christian.
In 1983, Dylan released the album “Infidels,” which despite its title was more political than spiritual. The legendary artist had moved away from his hard-line Christian message and reportedly began exploring his Jewish roots.
No matter where Dylan's religious journey may take him, Dr. Allen and others involved in “Gotta Serve Somebody” say that his strong Christian messages will always retain their spiritual integrity.
“I don't believe that a true, full-power gospel song can exist unless the writer knows the Lord as well,” Dr. Allen said in a recent interview. “You can write a love song and not even be in love. But to write a song about Jesus and really have it express who he is and what he does, you have to know him.
“Once it's written, even if the writer turns his back and does something completely different, that word has already gone out and the Bible says that word will never go out and miss its target; it will never return void.”
Regina McCrary, who sang backup with Dylan during his gospel era, and who sings the lead vocals on “Pressing On” on the new disc, told one interviewer, “I don't think that a song that is written about God ... will ever die, no matter who wrote them. But because Bob Dylan wrote them and we're going in and we're doing them over now, I think that all it does is just remind people that this man is God-gifted.”
Dr. Allen said he was unaware of Dylan's gospel music until the album's executive producer, Jeffrey Gaskill, asked him to perform on the new CD.
“I was surprised to find out that Bob Dylan has written a lot of songs that lift the name of Jesus,” he said.
Backed by Toledoan Chris Byrd on Hammond B-3 organ, Dr. Allen recorded “When He Returns” on July 11. The song, originally recorded by Dylan for his “Slow Train Coming” album, is given a slow, stark, and soulful touch.
“They wanted me to give the song my feel,” Dr. Allen said. “They said, `Hey, whatever you're feeling, let's have it.' That was the real blessing. And when I got through with it, I almost slumped over in the booth. It was a powerful thing.”