Early History

The Band's five members all grew up separately, and only one was from Arkansas the other four were from Canada-- so what would they have in common?: They all could hear and be infatuated with Nashville's WLAC, with DJs John R, Hoss Allen and Gene Nobles and Cleveland's WJW Alan Freed 50,000 watt AM station broadcasting Bobby "Blue" Bland, Curtis Mayfield and Clarence "Frogman" Clarence. Those stations could be heard a thousand miles away in Ontario to Rick Danko's hometown of Simco, Richard Manuel's Stratford, Garth Hudson's London, and Robbie Robertson's Toronto; while Levon Helm could hear them also on clear nights in his Marvel, Arkansas home.

Their Lives leading up to the Hawks

Levon Helm, born May, 26, 1940 and the eventual drummer for the Band, played one of the two guitars in one of his first gigs with a four-man outfit, the Jungle Bush Beaters. But the big opportunity came hooking up debuting on drums with Conway Twitty's previous guitarist Jimmy Ray "Luke" Paulman along with Willard "Pop" Jones and the future famed Ronnie Hawkins. One main connection with Ontario and Ronnie Hawkin's Hawks was Paulman's booking agent,from Hamilton, Colonel Harold Kudlets who liked music in the State's South -- touring there, and bringing tours back North. The Hawks liked the continued appreciation of their frantic rock'n'roll in Canada where back in the States love of Rock-a-billy was waning, so they came to stay in Toronto in 1958.

Fortunately for the Hawks, even though various members got too nostalgic for their South-land -- and went home, Canadian musicians were available as replacements. Sometimes those locals like guitarist Fred Carter Jr. left too, and openings popped up.

Jaime Robbie Robertson, born July 5, 1943, of Robbie and the Robots, Thumper and the Trambones and Little Caesar and the Consuls started as the Hawk's bassist only 15 in 1960. Shortly, thereafter he slid into the guitarist's slot for which he had been primed. He started writing songs this early, with "Hey Boba Lou" and "Someone Like You" put on the Hawkins' Mr. Dynamo album.

Rick Danko, born December 28, 1943, playing guitar with several ensembles, some even featuring accordion from 12 years old, was attracted like bees to honey when he saw Hawkins' "camel walk" to the energetic band (with Robertson and Helm on-board) in 1960. Next spring this band came to Simcoe, he signed on, converse to Robbie, switched from rhythm to bass guitar when Rebel Paine left.

Richard Manuel, another Canadian born in 1943, April 3, was a member of the Rockin' Revols, which Kudlet took with him down South, was a unique sounding vocalist who dabbled on piano and who found himself a Hawk.

Last, but definitely not the least (but almost leased) was the formally trained pianist, Garth Hudson, born August 2, 1937 to a Birr Brass Band drummer father. With a C melody sax left at his home, as a teenager he started copying Big Jay McNeely and Lee Allen's style in an early love of hard driving rock. Hudson was a recording artist leading the Paul London and the Kapers, but their 1961 Checkmate release, "Sugar Baby"/"Never Like This (The Big Band Twist) missed the hit parade. The only way Hawkins could get Garth's talents on horns, keyboard, or anything masterly was to hire him to tutor the musicians as well as paid for gigs to satisfy his self-conscious parents. When Hudson signed up in December of 1961 the core of the group was complete, albeit some singers and horn players were in a revolving door. They joined an outfit that recorded until 1963, King Curtis filling in on some cuts, Hawkins having started recording for Roulette in 1959 capturing that emphatic screaming style for all time.

Hawks leave the Nest

Between Danko's acrimony with Hawkins over the sometime no-show band leader's fifty dollar fine --concerning bringing a date to the lounge -- and chronic underpay; a massive defection was imminent. The other future members of the Band, singer Bruce Bruno, and saxist Jerry Penfound (who later joined the Capers in 1965 sans Paul London and Hudson) joined the fired Danko at the start of 1964. Rick joyfully confessed, "We collectively gave him two weeks notice." The new Levon Helm Sextet promptly renamed Levon and the Hawks made four times more in their first couple of weeks than previously, and to clubs and colleges they toured Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas for about the next 18 months. 1964, without the departed Bruno and Penfound, they recorded on Ware (US) and Apex (CAN) for the other Hawks producer, Henry Glover, "Leave Me Alone"/Uh-Uh-Uh" (as the Canadian Squires) and on ATCO (supposedly with Phil Ramone's studio help) in the summer of 1965, with "The Stones I Throw"/"He Don't Love You (And, He'll Break Your Heart)". These songs were all written by Robbie Robertson, and they show the groups' desire toward gutsy Rhythm and Blues treatments such as would be by the Staple Singers, even though filtered by other roots.

 

An Offer Blowin' in the Wind You Can't Refuse

Albert Grossman in 1965 just so happened to have a secretary from Toronto who bent this manager's ear in the right direction concerning his client, Bob Dylan. The tour that year was going to be his first electric one, and Mary Martin suggested that they try the Hawks. She prepped the Hawks, i.e. Rick Danko, with this genius folk-rock artist's material. The Hawks were already in Somers Point, NJ doing third of a year stint emblazoning the audiences with their blues, and this is where Bob Dylan dug them enough to get Robbie for two shows, August in the Tennis Stadium in Forest Hills, NY, and LA's Hollywood Bowl. Robertson convinced Dylan also hire a better drummer, and Levon Helm came on board, joining Al Kooper: keyboard and Harvey Brooks: bass; (these two initially at the first Newport Folk Festival with others from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band). Like this Festival, where initially Dylan's electric debut met boos, these other two shows, with two of the Hawks playing received similar heckling from folk-music "purists".

 

Birds of a Feather

Dylan wanted to keep Helm and Robertson for his wake-up call to bourgeois America (and beyond), but these two pleaded to not break up the Hawk family, and September, 1965 the Hawks were the Band. They all became New Yorkers, flying to the gigs that stirred controversy in Dylan's private jet.

 

Touring with Bob Dylan and the Band

Without Levon Helm, who left -- bummed out over the audience razzing -- for sanctuary at his home in Dixie, they toured Australia and Europe up until their final show in May, 1966 at London's Albert Hall. Columbia Records captured Dylan and the Band's near doomsday energy of that concert. A documentary film was going to be made of that Euro part of the tour called, Eat The Document and Bob and the boys needed a place to work on it.

In the Pink, or By the Time I Got to Woodstock

When the tour was done, a house on a hundred acres was found in Woodstock, upstate New York. The Band was contracted with a weekly retainer, joined Bob Dylan editing the movie, and commuted to this pink house, later supplemented by Danko, Hudson, and Manual, who became roommates. Robertson found himself a residence nearby and all commented on such a wonderful time away from touring, public, and city pressures and arrived at creating a home-grown kind of art. The Basement tapes were recorded in 1967 where what Dylan and the Band (still without Helm) began to call "Big Pink" after spending hours bouncing ideas back and forth, writing, playing and recording, mixing old styles with new. Some were officially released in 1975, and "Santa Fe" on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, current; but some, like, "Even If It's A Pig, Part I and II," remain as unheard as the lonely falling tree in the forest. They shared their love of Curtis Mayfield, the Staples, rock-a-billy, Hank Williams, Roy Buchanan, Sun Records, and Phil Spector: merging with the tremendous originality and poetic license of Bob Dylan. They all transformed radically, albeit gradually from what they were as the Hawks. Now this mood, this legend, created here at Big Pink would have to be saved for all time.

Music From Big Pink

The homework had been done for months with Dylan, sans drummer, but now Dylan was off at Nashville using Charlie McCoy and others for his post motorcycle accident mellow period, leaving The Band to pour forth their own creative juices in a release. To achieve this masterpiece, one item of the equation had to be balanced: getting Levon Helm back. A lure of sharing a hundred thousand dollars to go to the studio was bitten up to the reel. With Albert Grossman managing, and despite the roughness of the demos they signed with Capitol as the Crackers (fortunately not the Honkies, as almost purposed). Warner Brothers of Peter, Paul, and Mary notoriety, missed when president Mo Ostin was unavailable to deal -- he never forgave this misadventure. The moved from do-it-yourself types to professionals, after they hooked up with producer John Simon. They met trough a common acquaintance, Howard Alk, where at Simon's collaborating on Peter Yarrow's You Are What You Eat; they heard the Band's impromptu celebration of Alk's birthday. After recording in two different locations, Music From Big Pink was released in late 1968.

The (Debut) Album

The Songs

 

  1. Tears of Rage
    B. Dylan, R. Manuel
    This song written with Dylan in "the basement" sets the tone for the album, the Band went against tradition by opening with a slow song; but grabs one with its unbelievable hauntingly nostalgic presence. All derived from rotating speaker effects on guitar to muted "bayou folk" drums as quipped by Simon (a producer that doubles on Sax); and more importantly the pain of a parent's heartbreak is rendered perfectly by Manuel vocals, aided by Danko's chorus.
  2. To Kingdom Come
    J.R. Robertson
    Robertson sang this quasi-religious guilt, whose lead voice would not be heard again until 1976. (Robertson playing and writing since he was 16 has shown his veracity and retention for and from self-instruction.)
  3. In A Station
    R. Manuel
  4. Caledonia Mission
    J.R. Robertson
  5. The Weight
    J.R. Robertson
    This probably can be considered the "hit" from the album. Crazy Chester mentioned exists,as well as Nazareth -- of the PA location of the famed Martin guitar factory. The religious cynical filmmaker Luis Bunuel inspired film had this tune featured in the Fonda/Hopper watershed film: Easy Rider.
  6. We Can Talk

    R. Manuel This song reveals more of the Band's humor that was refreshingly quaint in a tune that has several choruses and time changes.

  7. Long Black Veil
    M.J. Wilkin, D. Dill
    Aside from the two Dylan songs, this is the only cover of another's score written in 1959, but sounding more like the turn of the century, borrowed from their basement tape sessions and learned from Lefty Frizzel's rendition.
  8. Chest Fever
    J.R. Robertson
    It is Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor meets Americana good time music escaped from Anthropology -- to balance out all the heavy anachronistic philosophy in other songs. The practice fill-in words until lyrics were completed wound up staying. Simon helps Hudson on sax, and Danko adds strings.
  9. Lonesome Suzie
    R. Manuel
    The musical discipline shows on this almost agonizingly slow song that borders on stop --ranking with any blues master's emotive powers.
  10. This Wheel's On Fire
    B. Dylan, R. Danko
  11. I Shall Be Released
    B. Dylan
    Manuel's falsetto through the whole treatment of their mentor's existentialist sounding hymn is backed by that great chorus of Danko in the mid-range, with the bass end by Helm. Dylan had a big bible on a table, and it had become during his convalescence a source for not only consolation but for songs.

 

A & R's acoustically sophisticated barn-like New York seventh floor location was where "Tears of Rage", "The Weight", "Chest Fever", "We Can Talk", and "This Wheel's On Fire" were recorded in two sessions on four track. They recorded live on half, with horns and vocals on the other. The rest of album was done on Capitol's LA eight track studios, except for three that had to be done at Gold Star studio of Phil Spector fame where their take of Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" did not make the final muster.

The album cover was like no other, an almost abstract impressionist painting by Bob Dylan, a sharp photographic view of the pink bungalow on the back, and finally, inside contained the portraits of the members (and some of their kinfolk) in a Matthew Brady style. The tone was rebellious against the trend of child versus parent angst with its country family feel. Rock critics played up the mystery of the Band and this release fueled by their refusing interviews and inability to tour all 1968's winter due to Danko's drunk and stoned auto wreck.

The album was destined to be a great work of art not necessarily an immediate pop success, and, now, looking back, that initial sluggishness of sales has been more than superseded with it as a milestone in rock artifacts.

The Second Album: The Band

In the Spring of 1969 the Band rented Sammy Davis Jr.'s Hollywood Hills house, recording their self-titled album in the pool house (except for New York's Hit Factory where "Up on Cripple Creek", "Jemima Surrender", and "Whispering Pines" were cut.) This album, once purposed to be called Harvest, was going to be the masterpiece planned out more than the other, Simon providing his expertise again. The atmosphere was literally familial with relatives allowed to stay in the big star's home. When they rehearsed and recorded was specifically scheduled and no musical touches were left to chance. Robertson engineered as well as wrote many of the songs.

And all listed here:

 

  1. Across the Great Divide
  2. Rag Mama Rag
    J.R. Robertson
    Adding Helm's mandolin while Manuel took up the 'skins', Simon played his first tuba for bass gave this it's old-timey feel.
  3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
    J.R. Robertson
    A classic with overdubbed melodica over Hudson's ever-present Lowrey organ. Drummer Levon Helm's obviously been time transported to and back again, he's so authentic.
  4. When You Awake

  5. Up on Cripple Creek
    This was the Band's first and only chart-topper at #25 at the end of 1969. It's distinctive Western mining feel is aided by the electronically effected jaw harp and resounding bass beat.
  6. Whispering Pines
  7. Jemima Surrender
  8. Rockin' Chair
  9. Look Out Cleveland
  10. Jawbone
  11. The Unfaithful Servant
    Robertson uses an alternate tuning on his guitar.
  12. King Harvest
    J.R. Robertson
    As predicted, Robertson played his minimalist guitar as a part of the whole that was envisioned in his head.

 

The album and the Band met with great financial and critical success. They topped at #9 on the Billboard's album list. They played at Woodstock (3 Days of Love, Peace, and Music) that year, and with Dylan at the Isle of Wight. They played billed as the 'Crackers' at a commemorative concert to Woodie Guthrie also that year, with Bob Dylan, that ironically put them on stage with their old nemesis, Pete Seeger. They had the last 'word' as they played three of Guthrie's songs very electric, to many's dismay.

The definitive rock rag Rolling Stone laid out their typographic red carpet for this group. The Band could not even understand all that was lavished about them in Greil Marcus' Mystery Train writing. The burnout from the fame caused the bizarre result that Richard Manuel admitted that he had no more songs to pen left in him.

By the Time We Got Back to Woodstock

Even though the idea of recording in the Woodstock Playhouse had to be without the hoped-for audience during the sessions because of the crowd weary and leery Town Council they started their next album with Jesse Winchester's engineer, Todd Rundgren. In two weeks they had their next album, Stage Fright ready for September, 1970 after they added some mixing by Glyn Johns. The album was aptly named after these private souls --thrown to the public's lions -- emotional upheaval from the year before. Even though part of their delivery was for a good-time music, they were out to show there was no frivolousness. (I can attest to the excellent studio quality in their live concert witnessed around this time at Constitution Hall, blessing the audience with music and sonic perfection during the best of many, many various groups' performances.)

Comments on some of the tracks:

 

  • Strawberry Wine

  • This song was what was originally going to be part of a lighter album until other issues omnipresent were vented.
  • W.S. Walcott Medicine Show

  • Hudson's debut sax work is featured in this other song that was going to initially be more like their first work.

  • Daniel And the Sacred Harp
    Uses more Biblical allusions to paint a serious picture.

  • The Shape I'm In
    Vocalizes their trauma from their career.
  • Stage Fright
    Like the song aforementioned, this title-song self-analysis was a continued part of their repertoire until 1976.

 

Partners in Time

After a year hitting the circuit, they returned to Woodstock for their fourth album,Cahoots but this time at Bearsville Studios, a brand new facility put together by Albert Grossman (of Dylan fame). Besides the snags tweaking a new recording outfit, Robertson was challenging the group with increasing elaboration, even though he felt he was incomplete. They brought in an Allen Toussaint scored horn section, but Robertson was not ever happy with what he perceived as Capitol's equalizing for volume brittleness. The critics' relative unkindness on this --just like for Stage Fright hurt, as well. Robertson was the only one who moved back to Canada in Montreal.

Some notables from this work:

     

     

  • Life Is a Carnival
    This brightest spot of this album is where they returned to their Hawk's roots with the full horn section.
  • When I Paint My Masterpiece
    This Bob Dylan song covered by the Band beat his by a couple of months
  • The Moon Struck One
    Gil Evans was originally requested for arrangement on this, but Toussaint obliged.
  • 4% Pantomime
    Woodstock neighbor, the "Belfast Cowboy," (where mentioned first) Van Morrison happened to stop in, and thus collaborated writing and singing with Robertson about the disparity of Johnny Walker Black or Red.
  • Where Do We Go From Here?
    Brings back the bad memories of the sessions.
  • The River Hymn
    Helm's girlfriend, Libby Titus helps sing this 1800's genre pastoral.

 

Cleft for Me

After Cahoots was finished, and released in October of that tumultuous year of 1971, they wanted to end it by starting at the best part of where they left off, with more of Allen Toussaint's brassy contribution. The resultant live recordings that winter at the New York Academy of Music would become the double LP, Rock of Ages. Allen could just write the horn arrangements on paper -- without an instrument -- just from listening to tapes. Their finale show was New Year's Eve that was highlighted by Midnight's surprise of Bob Dylan's joining the stage.

One interesting note from this release:

  • Don't Do It
    This Dozier/Holland song once done by Marvin Gaye in 1946 had been already been seen in concerts as early as '69 made it to #34 as a single in the fall of 1972. (They repeatedly used this Motown cut live until 1976.)

 

The Interim

In 1972 the Band did not perform live, and it was not until that fall that the Ages album was released. In 1973 sometime after Robertson moved from the chilly North to LA, he was joined by the others; and, they rented a place to record dubbed "Shangra-La." Robertson was contemplating a "Works" that was inspired by Pendercki's St. Luke Passion and flavored like John Cage, with only made it as one line: "...Lay a flowere (sic) in the snow..." in Robbies' 1987 solo LP debut, Fallen Angel -- a eulogy to Richard Manuel. They finally did their first gig in 18 months July 28 at Watkins Glen, NY where they were positioned in-between the only two other bands expected, each to do three hour sets, The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead. Their turn, which started at 6 PM -- in front of the six times multiplied crowd of the expected hundred thousand -- was interrupted like the sizzling heat, after eight numbers by a drenching rain. Fearing being fried from wet electronics they waited until a respite, and Hudson started back up with "The Genetic Method" (a.k.a. the "Chest Fever" intro) and then the Band cranked it out and up, never to be forgotten. (The concert can be heard on The Band Live at Watkins Glen.)

Summer of 1973 also was where they got to work in their new studio on an oldie album, Moondog Matinee, a name derived from Alan Freed's 50's, 60's Cleveland radio broadcasts. These oldies emphasized the R&B from the South -- down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

For Example:

 

 

 

The Band was reunited with Bob Dylan live for a tour in early 1974 and in the studio for his release in that year of the Planet Waves album. More of their touring music together is on Before the Flood released that July. But, 1975 was the year they rolled up their sleeves and recorded -- with synthesizer-aided, but mixed arduously on 24 track -- eight long songs on what would to that point be regarded as the best since the first two. One outtake, "Twilight" on can be heard on their later Best of the Band. Northern Lights - Southern Cross.

Featuring:

 

Save the Last Dance for Me

The summer of 1976 was the tour to end all tours, and that is what they decided it indeed would be. They had one more album for Capitol contractually, however. They thought it would be fitting to end on Thanksgiving at a site that was one of their first back in 1969: San Francisco'sWinterland. The guest list was none other than musician's musicians -- the nobility of notoriety: Old friends and new; Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Dr. John, Bobby Charles and Neil Diamond. Fortunately this extravaganza was filmed by Martin Scorsese, and the ensuing LP soundtrack contained one side of studio additions (The Last Waltz Suite) to go along with the other four of the live. Emmylou Harris sat in with "Evangeline," and the Staple Singers added their voices to "The Last Waltz Theme" and another, "The Weight." But this could not be released until they did another album for Capitol, so they threw together, Islands; the title cut never got past the instrumental stage awaiting Robertson's lyrics and this "slicker" product struggled to Billboard's #64 after its release in March of 1977.

It contained:

 

 

 

After this required album Islands release on Capitol, The Last Waltz on Warner Brothers was finally released April 1978; and the Band at this time planned to be an exclusively studio group. They talked for several more years about the subsequent album but this gel never congealed.

Gone, But Not Out

We miss the Band, but we can enjoy the original aforementioned albums and subsequent compilations partly listed

here:

     

  • Across the Great Divide
    - 1994 EMI
  • High on the Hog
    - 1996 Rhino
  • Jericho
    - 1993 Castle
  • The Best of the Band
    -1976 Capitol

 

Source: "Life is a Carnival": Goldmine Magazine; Vol. 17, No. 15, Issue 287; 1991 (online)