By the spring of 1965, Bob Dylan’s presence in the world of music was beginning to be felt well outside the boundaries of his nominal genre. Within the world of folk music, he had been hailed as a hero for several years already, but now his music was capturing the attention and influencing the direction of artists like the Byrds, the Beatles and even a young Stevie Wonder. With Dylan as a direct inspiration, popular music was about to change its direction, but so was Dylan himself. On June 16, 1965, on their second day of recording at Columbia Records’ Studio A in Manhattan, he and a band featuring electric guitars and an organ laid down the master take of the song that would announce that change: “Like A Rolling Stone.” It would prove to be “folksinger” Bob Dylan’s magnum opus and, arguably, the greatest rock and roll record of all time.
It was the fourth of 11 takes that day that yielded the six-minute-and-34-second recording that very nearly didn’t become a revolutionary hit single. Returning to the CBS studios to hear “Like A Rolling Stone” several days after the recording session, Dylan and manager Albert Grossman were thrilled by what they heard, but the sales and marketing staff of Columbia Records—the gatekeepers who decided what songs would and wouldn’t be released as singles—did not agree. At 6:34, “Like A Rolling Stone” was nearly twice as long as the average single, and its raw rock sound was way outside the comfort zone of a label best known for artists like Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. As Shaun Considine, the coordinator of new releases for Columbia Records at the time, recounted 40 year later in a New York Times Op-ed, Dylan’s magnum opus was rejected as a single and resurrected only after Considine slipped a studio acetate to a DJ at a prominent Manhattan nightclub in mid-July. Two well-known radio DJs in the audience heard “Like A Rolling Stone” and the overwhelming crowd reaction to it that night and called Columbia the next day, demanding their copies of “the new Bob Dylan single.” Sales and marketing got its last dig in by chopping “Like A Rolling Stone” in half and putting it on separate sides of 45, but a re-spliced full version was what radio stations played and what climbed very nearly to the top of the Billboard pop charts. (It peaked at #2 in the week of September 4, 1965, blocked from the #1 spot by the Beatles’ “Help.”)
The most important impact of “Like A Rolling Stone” was not commercial but creative. As Rolling Stone magazine wrote in 2004 in naming it the greatest song of all time, Dylan “transformed popular song with the content and ambition of ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’” Or as Bruce Springsteen said of the first time he heard it, “[it] sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.”