Bob Dylan was among the artists who recorded "We Are the World" in 1985. (Photo/Netflix)
Bob Dylan was among the artists who recorded "We Are the World" in 1985. (Photo/Netflix)

Stevie Wonder’s impression of Bob Dylan is highlight of ‘The Greatest Night in Pop’

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Bob Dylan once recorded 15 songs in a single day for Blood on the Tracks, but when he had to sing his part for “We Are the World,” it took a lot of doing — and a lot of help from Stevie Wonder.

For years, my favorite video of Bob Dylan was an over 9 minute clip of him, in the company of Wonder, Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie attempting to knock out his solo part for the charity single. Wearing a leather jacket and holding a sheaf of papers, Dylan is at the microphone trying to figure out how exactly his take on the melody has to go.

At this moment, his composure is thrown. There’s both genuine anxiety and an equally evident commitment to delivering what the producers want. It’s not even clear if the tune he ends up singing — a “beautiful” octave Jones calls it — is what was intended, or just a riff the room was willing to go with for lack of a better option. (As Grantland‘s Rembert Brown wrote in a 2012 breakdown of the clip, “Dylan’s verses are the vocal equivalent of snowflakes. No two even remotely sound the same. It’s actually weirdly impressive.”)

Dylan’s struggle with the material is chronicled briefly in Netflix’s “The Greatest Night in Pop,” with talking heads describing the singer’s befuddlement and speaking to how Wonder was the “secret agent to help him get comfortable.” Wonder did it, new footage shows, by doing something we’ve all done at one time or another: a Bob Dylan impression.

In the end, Dylan made it work, even if his supremely uneasy expression in the gang vocals is notably conspicuous, the stuff of memes. Now that more people are becoming acquainted with Dylan’s effort, I’m asking myself why, exactly, I’m so attracted to these outtakes.

I think the reason is, for all of Dylan’s impenetrability, here he is at his most human. Here is a musical genius, whose legendary creativity cut songs fast and frequently, at a piano trying to find the notes with Wonder’s help. It’s almost like watching Bach getting coached by Mozart.

More than anything else, it shows that, when the occasion called for it, he was briefly without ego, surrounded by younger artists looking to do good work. For a moment, for a worthy cause, Bob Dylan was all of us. And that alone keeps me watching at least as many times as it took Dylan to get it right.

PJ Grisar
PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].