The Most Well-Known Song Bob Dylan Has Ever Sung

1981-10-25, Stabler Arena, Bethlehem, PA

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Today’s show marks a live debut, the first time Dylan ever played probably the most well-known song he's ever sung. And that song is? 

"Happy Birthday"

Bob Dylan has performed "Happy Birthday" a total of ten times. This first time, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on October 25, 1981, he sang it for Howard Alk, the filmmaker behind Renaldo & Clara who was tagging along filming some shows on this late-gospel-era tour. On this debut “Happy Birthday” performance, the backing singers follow the classic elementary-school routine: Wait for the teacher to kick it off, then join in somewhere around the first "thday." reports he played it again a few weeks later in Ottawa, but having gone to the trouble to track down that show to verify, I can confirm that he did not. Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

The next time he actually sang "Happy Birthday" was on the 1986 tour with Tom Petty. He must have really been in the birthday spirit that year, since he sang it four times. First to his backing singer Queen Esther Marrow, quipping, "I had to do that, because I forgot to get her a birthday present." He recycles that line a few months later singing "Happy Birthday" to another backing singer, Madelyn Quebec.

A couple weeks after that, he sang it to Suzie Pullen, his longtime aide/assistant who has something to do with picking out his clothes (a few years ago Mavis Staples referred to her as "the girl that’s with him all the time"). Suzie got another "Happy Birthday" in 1998 - the only person he's sung the song for across two different decades. 

His final 1986 "Happy Birthday" went out to Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein. That one got accompanied by a giant birthday cake, which leads to Bob singing one line and then spending the rest of the song grinning. Good thing he's still got those backing singers.

Want more? Well, you're gonna get it anyway.

The next "Happy Birthday" was the aforementioned 1998 reprisal for Suzie. This makes it his first "Happy Birthday" without backing singers doing most of the legwork. His performance sure could have used 'em, completely falling apart. Bob knows it, too, joking, "We did play it in a different key at the end, didn't we?" So they do it again from the top.

2003 got the first "Happy Birthday" sung to a Never Ending Tour band member: Larry Campbell. Short and sweet, with minimal comment beyond, "As you might have guessed, it's Larry's birthday today." It's not available as a stand-alone video, but you can hear it about halfway through this fun compilation of some of these:

The next performance, in 2008, is my favorite, entirely instrumental with the full band. Unlike all the others, this sounds like something they actually rehearsed. Bob plays the melody on harmonica. The only thing I can't figure out: Whose birthday was it?

Finally, for one week in 2010, Bob got a bit of birthday fever. First, on August 11 in Billings, Montana, he sung and played it on organ for guitarist Charlie Sexton, in a key that is way out of his range. "I'm not sure everybody sang on that," he yells at the end, "we're gonna do it again!" If you hear him sing “Happy Birthday” once, there seems to be a good chance you’ll hear it twice.

A week later, August 18 in Las Vegas, longtime bassist Tony Garnier gets the birthday-boy treatment. There's no recording of that show, unfortunately, but here's Charlie's birthday twofer:

Apparently none of his band members have had a birthday since 2010, since he hasn't sung “Happy Birthday” since. And, no, he’s never sung it onstage on his own birthday.

1981-10-25, Stabler Arena, Bethlehem, PA

Find the index to all shows covered so far in this newsletter here.

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