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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Friday, April 27, 2007


Today is drummer Jim Keltner's 65th birthday. Here's his entry from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Keltner, Jim [1942 - ]
James Keltner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 27, 1942 and began his drumming career in the 1960s. He became one of the most sought-after of session players, and has worked live and in the studio with an absurdly all-star list of artists, from Barbra Streisand to JOHN LENNON, B.B. King to JONI MITCHELL, ERIC CLAPTON to Martha Reeves, Charlie Watts to Rickie Lee Jones and DAVID CROSBY to the Bee Gees. He can add Manhattan Transfer, ARLO GUTHRIE, Pink Floyd, BRIAN WILSON, Freddie Hubbard, Randy Newman, JOHN LEE HOOKER, Jackson Browne, WILLIE NELSON, the Indigo Girls, ELVIS COSTELLO, Joe Cocker and a good few more. He can also add the Traveling Wilburys and, more important, Bob Dylan.

Perhaps he first played with Dylan in the studio, in March 1971, pulled in by LEON RUSSELL, who produced the session. As Keltner recalls it, ‘We did “Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” on that same day. And then I didn’t see him again until we did “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” in Los Angeles. That was a monumental session for me because it was such a touching song. It was the first time I actually cried when I was playing. When I hear that on the radio now, it’s very special to me…. because it’s a frozen moment in my life that will always be there.’

Two possible demurrals here. First, it wasn’t literally true that Keltner hadn’t seen Dylan again till ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, because Keltner played behind Eric Clapton at the Concert For Bangla Desh, four months after the ‘Watching the River Flow’ studio session. Far more importantly, the drummer on that March 1971 session is more usually said to have been CHUCK BLACKWELL; Blackwell certainly thinks so.

Either way, Jim Keltner certainly appeared on ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, and therefore on the album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973); the next Dylan album he played on was Saved (1980), but this began a run of three 1980s albums on which Dylan used this highly reliable drummer, the others being Shot Of Love (1981) and Empire Burlesque (1985). But by this time Keltner had also toured behind Dylan too, and played on the 1979 ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the 1980 Grammy Awards TV shows. The live concerts began for Keltner with the first gospel tour, from November 1 to December 9, 1979, and continued with the 1980 tours (January 11 to February 9, April 17 to May 21 and November 9 to December 4). He remained for the 1981 tours too (June 10 to July 25, mostly in Europe, and then October 16 to November 21 in North America), though on the latter he found that Dylan was adding a second drummer.

After these tours and the 1980s albums, Keltner’s next Dylan assignment was in the studio in May 1988 to play on the album The Traveling Wilburys Volume 1. Next came the ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ TV show on January 18, 1992, with a bemused Bob Dylan singing ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, backed by a calm, solid Keltner plus a horder of others comically hyped up to the point of rabidity. That October 16, Keltner was the drummer in the houseband at the so-called ‘30th Anniversary Concert Celebration’, playing behind most of that night’s performers - including Dylan. Less than two years later, in Japan, Keltner was Dylan’s drummer alongside the Tokyo New Philharmonic Orchestra at the self-proclaimed ‘Great Music Experience’ at the Todaiji Temple in Nara, as Dylan sang ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘Ring Them Bells’ and an ensemble reprise of ‘ I Shall Be Released’ three nights running (May 20-22, 1994).

In 1997 Keltner was called down to Miami to play drums on seven of the 11 tracks on Time Out Of Mind (he’s absent on ‘Dirt Road Blues’, ‘Cold Irons Bound’, ‘Make You Feel My Love’ and ‘Highlands’) - and then after another gap of years, he found himself called up again, more surprisingly, to become one of the Never-Ending Tour musicians. Twenty-one years after his previous concert-tour job with Dylan, he came back to replace GEORGE RACILE. He ‘shadowed’ Racile, who was having a problem with an arm, on the Milan concert of April 20, 2002, took over for the first 10 numbers of the following night’s concert in Zurich and then replaced Racile altogether as from Innsbruck on April 23, through to the last nights of that tour leg, in London on May 11 and 12. In Brussels, on April 28, in Cardiff on May 6 and on the last night in London, he got to play ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ again.

[Jim Keltner quoted from interview by Don Zulaica, seen online Jan 6 2006 on the Drummerworld website at]


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