Robert Shelton of Kensington Place

Photo:Robert's biography of Bob Dylan

Robert's biography of Bob Dylan

He helped launch the career of Bob Dylan

By Jackie Fuller, North Laine resident

A number of interesting people have lived in North Laine over the years. Does anyone remember Robert Shelton, who lived in Kensington Place until his death in 1995?

His main claim to fame

Robert's main claim to fame was that he helped launch the career of a then unknown 20 year old folk singer named Bob Dylan. As the New York Times folk critic, Robert came across Dylan in the summer of 1961 and his glowing review that September gave Dylan his first major break and led to a Columbia recording contract - and the rest is history, as they say. Shelton also helped Dylan by giving him access to his record collection and dispensing general advice about stage presentation and craft. He gave him more positive concert reviews in the New York Times throughout the 1960s and remained on friendly termsc with him.

His early life

Robert Shelton was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1926. He served in the US army in France during 1944-5, became a confirmed Francophile, and then attended the School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He moved to New York in the 1950s and not long after that joined the staff of the New York Times, for whom he was a folk and rock critic. For a decade (1958-68) he reviewed music, especially folk music but also pop and country music, becoming a good friend of many of the artists. He also wrote the programmes for the Newport Folk Festival and did the album notes for several artists, including Dylan, under the name of 'Stacey Williams'.

He aided the careers of several famous singers

At the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 he 'discovered' 18 year old Joan Baez and over the next decade he aided the careers of many others including Phil Ochs, Janis Ian and Judy Collins. Shelton's review of Frank Zappa on Christmas Day 1966 described it as "the first pop group to successfully amalgamate rock 'n' roll with the serious music of Stravinsky and others."

A major biography of Bob Dylan

Robert came to England in order to concentrate on writing (and rewriting) his major biography of Bob Dylan called, No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan, which was finally published in 1986 and reprinted in 2003. The title is taken from the lyric of a Dylan song "Like a Rolling Stone" and Robert's title for his biography was borrowed by Martin Scorsese for his 2005 film about Dylan's early career. Other books written by Robert Shelton included Electric Muse: the Story of Folk into Rock and The Face of Folk Music. Much of the collection of his early work has been donated to the University of Liverpool.

He moved to Brighton

When Robert came to this country he first lived in 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. He had to keep breaking off from work on the biography to write bits of journalism to make some cash. Robert moved to Brighton in 1982 and worked for the Evening Argus, writing mostly about films but also reviewing restaurants and plays. He also worked as film critic for the Birmingham Post.

Interesting to talk to

I got to know Robert Shelton quite well and found him to be gregarious and interesting to talk to, especially in relation to his earlier life. When I visited San Francisco he insisted that I look up his sister, who was living there, and with whom I enjoyed a wonderful meal in the Chinese quarter.

If you have your own memories of Robert Shelton, please add them in the Comments section below...

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 196, January/February 2009]

This page was added on 06/02/2009.

Just found this on the web. Bob was a friend and mentor to me during the last 15 years of his life. I have spent the last six months doing a 'director's cut' of his great book, which he always said had been 'abridged over troubled waters'. Publication next month. Looks beautiful, lots of photos. Be pleased to hear memories of Bob in Brighton.

By Liz Thomson
On 22/03/2011

I worked with Robert for many years at the Argus on the features desk and in fact was his deputy as arts critic. He was a very erudite and interesting man, a lover of the arts, an Anglophile and keen to encourage talent in younger journalists. He loved to socialise with young people, especially young women! I don't remember him living in North Laine - he was in a book-filled house in the Fiveways area when I knew him (1980s). RIP Bob.

By Kathryn Spencer
On 19/03/2013

A lovely, smart, self-deprecating man with whom I was proud to have worked for a year or so on the Evening Argus in Brighton in the Eighties. I remember his rich American voice and sense of humour. The Argus was a great regional newspaper in those days - picking up British Press Awards and so on - but I was still utterly mystified - even then - why he wasn't writing for a national paper and being properly projected, but I guess the sea air appealed to him. I remember Lord Cudlipp - the Mirror boss - saying to me that he never understood why Bob was working for the Argus - "I mean he is the one journalist in the world Bob Dylan will talk to," he said. Still, Bob was much loved and much respected as a big fish in a small pond and I remember him chiefly now for the considered, humane theatre reviews that he wrote for the paper. A class act.

By Tim Walker
On 10/10/2015

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.