As the New York Times folk critic, he came across Dylan in the summer of 1961.
His glowing review that September gave Dylan his first major break, and they
remained in sporadic contact through the years. In 1986 he published his own
biography of the man, which concentrated largely on the Greenwich Village years.
Clinton Heylin:"Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades, a Biography"
In September I96I, the critic Robert Shelton, writing in the New York
Times reviewed a concert that Dylan had given at Gerde's Folk City.
"His clothes may need a bit of tailoring, but when he works his
guitar, harmonica, or piano and composes new songs faster than he can
remember them, there is no doubt that he is bursting at the seams with talent."
Date: Wed, 13 Dec 1995 13:52:25 +0000 From: Tiernan Henry (HENRY.TIERNAN@UCG.IE) Subject: Re: robert shelton This is Shelton's obituary, written by Michael Gray The Guardian Wednesday December 13, 1995 Writing rock history in the path of Dylan It was Robert Shelton's write-up of the 20-year-old Bob Dylan, then the support act to the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village, on September 29, 1961, which launched Dylan's career, and made both of them famous. For Shelton, who has died in his adopted hometown of Brighton, was one of the very few arts journalists whose work had a tangible influence on the shape of the 1960s. Above all, he would be celebrated for his critical biography of Dylan, No Direction Home, published in 1986 after nearly 20 years in the writing. The son of a research chemist, he was born and raised in Chicago, an exciting city for a boy whose discovery of jazz and blues came at 13, when teaching himself bass-runs on the family grand. Drafted into the US army in France in 1944, he became a Europhile with an abiding love of French culture. After the war he attended the renowned School of Journalism at Northwestern University, moving in the early 1950s to New York city, where he soon joined the New York Times. His political allegiance (which was to a passionate, perhaps naive, liberalism) was tested when the Eastland Committee (part of the McCarthyite machinery) subpoenaed him in a case of mistaken identity. He could have corrected their error and escaped their attentions, but he refused to dignify their questions by answering at all. He became the folk, pop and country music critic of the New York Times, a role he inhabited from 1958-68 with a rare commitment and gusto, rightly recognising that what was beginning to happen in and around Greenwich Village would catalyse a musical revolution around half the world. He entered into the milieu of coffee bars, folk festivals and bohemian basements, urging the creation of Gerde's Folk City, co-editing the Newport Folk Festival programmes and above all befriending and encouraging new and young talent. At the first Newport Folk Festival, in 1959, he "discovered" 18-year-old Joan Baez, and over the next decade aided the careers of many others including Phil Ochs, Janis Ian and Judy Collins. Catching the very different talent of Frank Zappa, Shelton's review on Christmas Day, 1966, recognised presciently "the first pop group to successfully amalgamate rock'n'roll with the serious music of Stravinsky and others". Shelton's prose could suffer from an old-fashioned "professionalism" and glib metaphor, but more often it was acute, accurate and thoughtful. It says much for these qualities that the first write-up of Bob Dylan still captures the essence of that most chameleon-like star; not least in its description of Dylan's voice and its understanding of how much this drew upon the pre-war country blues tradition. In writing No Direction Home, Shelton was cruelly messed about by succeeding publishing editors, so that after years of writing and rewriting 300,000 words, he then had the dispiriting task of pruning 100,000. Shelton chose to leave New York City to get the book written and moved to a tiny cottage up an unmade road off Sydenham Hill in south-east London, where he found himself grappling with an isolation worse than the interference he had anticipated if he had stayed in New York. There, he had been a medium-sized fish in a big pond. Feted by the record industry and appreciated in the Village, he was, however, disdainful of the corruption in the music business. And bitter, for example, that Dylan's manager Albert Grossman could use his Janis Joplin review to land her a huge Columbia Records contract (making Grossman mega-bucks overnight) precisely because Columbia knew Shelton's rave review could not have been bought. So Shelton escaped all that, and landed up in a miserable, philistine part of London where there was no music in the cafes at night (there were no cafes at night), it could take 90 minutes to get in or out of the West End, and there was certainly no equivalent to the camaraderie and streetlife of Greenwich Village. In Sydenham he was just a middle-aged American, getting divorced from Carol, his third wife (there had been two short-lived marriages in his youth), who had hoped in vain that Bob might turn her into a country-music star. Over and above that, Bob soon ran out of money and had to keep breaking off from the book to write bits of journalism, not least to pay storage on his 2,000 albums. There was no room for them all in the cottage, where his books alone took up a room full of filing-cabinets. He generally wouldn't let people even peep into this room, perhps because the paperwork was a lot less, or a lot less ordered, than he wanted, or perhaps because he himself came close to the extreme guardedness he deride in Bob Dylan. In the end, it was a triumph against many demons that he published the biography at all, and that despite its scars it remains important for its solidity, its wide range and the many gems that come from Bob Shelton having been an influential intimate of Dylan himself in the vital early years. Shelton's other books include a songbook-cum-biography of Josh White; The Face of Folk Music with photographer David Gahr; The Country Music Story with illustrator Burt Goldblatt (1966) - the first book to recount the history of country music, a genre Shelton championed far ahead of its revival - and with Karl Dallas, Dave Laing and Robin Deneslow, the fine Electric Muse: The Story Of Folk Into Rock. He also edited Born to Win (1965), a collection of Woody Guthrie's prose and poems. In 1982 Shelton moved to Brighton, working for the Evening Argus, reviewing everything from restaurants to plays, but specialising in films - a specialism he maintained as film critic for the Birmingham Post and reviewer for The European until his death. A founder member of the Guild of Regional Film Writers, he displayed in this final phase of his life the same rare qualities as in his New York heyday: he was gregarious, warm, a good listener, secretive to a fault about his own distinguished past, and wholeheartedly committed to the humane arts. Michael Gray Robert Shelton (Shapiro), journalist, born June 28, 1926; died December 11, 1995. No Direction Home from amazon.com.