Famously, Duluth is known for being the birthplace of one of the most beloved and iconic musicians in history: Bob Dylan. Born on May 24, 1941 in St. Mary’s Hospital as Robert Zimmerman, Dylan lived in Duluth until he was six, at which point his family moved to Hibbing.
After high school, Dylan went to college in Minneapolis before he departed for New York City, where he was discovered by the legendary John Hammond. From there, the rest is a story that has been, and will continue to be, told over and over again. Indeed, Duluth’s native son changed everything. Put it this way – the Beatles tried to cop his moves.
But who else has come from the area that’s worth noting? If we stick to music and leave people like the comedian Maria Bamford and the voice of Garfield, Lorenzo Music, out of the equation, the list is still impressive. Here’s a few names of musicians who were born in Duluth, or who lived in the area for a significant time.
One name that may be a surprise to people is that of R.E.M.’s drummer, Bill Berry. It’s not a well-known fact, as Berry only lived his first three years in Duluth before moving away and eventually landing in Athens, GA, where he joined R.E.M. in 1980. That group went on to great underground success in the early part of the 80’s, and eventually parlayed that into worldwide rock stardom. Berry departed the band in 1997 and he now spends his time as a farmer.
Low is a group that may not have reached R.E.M. levels of fame, but those who know the indie-music scene know the enduring impact the Duluth-based band has had since they released their first album 22 years ago. Leaders (and married couple) Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have remained Duluth residents all through their career, which has seen them sharing stages with acts like Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie, and their music has been covered by no less a luminary than Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.
More recently, the bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles – which once named an album Duluth – has achieved massive success in America. They’ve been on David Letterman and Conan O’Brien’s shows, they’ve headlined venues like Red Rocks in Colorado, and they’ve played many of the biggest festivals around. In addition, they’ve hit number one on Billboard’s bluegrass and folk charts three times. Truly, their rise has been remarkable, and they probably have become second to Dylan as far as “famous Duluth musicians” go.
There are others who are notable for various reasons. Some, like Dan Murphy of mid-90’s Minneapolis hit-makers, Soul Asylum, were born in Duluth but have little known connection to the area beyond birthplace.
Others, like current resident Charlie Parr, have achieved status in folk and blues circles.
Phil Solem of the Rembrandts cowrote the famous Friends theme song.
David Dondero is a Duluthborn folk singer who was once called one of the “best living songwriters” by NPR.
The late jazz pianist Sadik Hakim, who was born in Duluth, became known for his work with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, two of the greats of jazz music.
Haley Bonar – who lived in Duluth for a time and was discovered by Alan Sparhawk – was recently namechecked by none other than Elton John during a British radio show, and she has built a name for herself over the last decade with her brand of folk and dreamy pop.
Time will tell if there are more Dylans or Turtles to come from Duluth, but, even if they don’t, the list of Duluthian musicians that went on to bigger things is already fairly long. Must be something in the water.
Written by Tony Bennett for Duluth.com the Magazine.