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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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Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Bob Dylan's birthday the day before yesterday (May 24) was also the 35th anniversary of the death of Duke Ellington (at age 75, in New York City), while yesterday (May 25) was the fifth anniversary of the death of the great sound engineer and pre-eminent cleaner-up of scratchy old records, John R.T. Davies (at age 77, in Burnham, Buckinghamshire). The day after tomorrow (May 28) will be the 85th anniversary of the birth of Bob's early co-performer Brother John Sellers, in Clarksdale Mississippi.

Only the last of these fine people has an entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, and it runs like this:

Sellers, Brother John [1924 - 1999]
John Sellers was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on May 27, 1924. Abandoned by his parents in a flood at the age of 4, he was performing in tent shows at 5, removed from a bordello at the age of 10 by Mahalia Jackson (but what was she doing there?), taken to live with her in Chicago and encouraged to sing with her and with BIG BILL BROONZY. From 1945 to 1951 he stuck with gospel but then went secular and in London sang with a jazz group that included the famous British cartoonist Trog. He recorded blues and gospel from the 1940s onwards, billed as Reverend John Sellers on Miracle in 1948 and as Johnny Sellers on some 1952 blues sides. He moved to New York City and fell in with the Greenwich Village world, recording ‘folk blues’ in the predictable way. He was not a great singer or an especially deterous tambourine-shaker, but according to Studs Terkel, whose talks he helped illustrate with song around the end of the 1950s, he had ‘a clarity and a sense of urgency…. Brother John had a way of making things come alive.’ He was best on material like ‘Wade In The Water’.

In 1961 in the Village, Dylan and MARK SPOELSTRA were ‘The Dungarees’ in Brother John & The Dungarees, playing back-up guitars and harmonicas behind Sellers at hoot nights at Folk City, where he was an MC and a regular performer. Dylan played at his birthday party there in August 1961.

In 1963 Sellers appeared in the first Broadway production of the black playwright-poet-novelist Langston Hughes’ Tambourines To Glory, 1963 (first published as a novel in 1958). He also collaborated with choreographer Alvin Ailey on the latter’s Blues Suite and Revelations and continued to perform as a musician in Ailey’s American Dance Theatre until 1997. Sellers died in New York City on March 27, 1999, in the middle of suing Ailey over royalties and copyright.

[Main sources include the Independent’s obituary, nia, seen reproduced without author byline 13 Feb 2006 online at]


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