In the late ’60’s, bands like Cream, Vanilla Fudge, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were trailblazing the way towards long bluesy jams. Howlin’ Wolf’s version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” is less than three minutes long. On Wheels of Fire, Cream managed to stretch it out to almost seventeen. Into this mix, in 1968, entered The Band. I won’t argue that they were the guys who singlehandedly brought it back to the song and not the musician. But damn near
I had always assumed singer/songwriter Ronnie Hawkins was Canadian since he played there so often. But no, Ronnie – as of this writing still with us at the ripe young age of 82 – was born in Huntsville, Arkansas in the good old US of A. Hawkins started his band The Hawks, while in college, sometime in the mid-50’s.
Around this time, a high school kid and fellow Arkansan (Turkey Scratch!) named Lavon Helm joined the band as drummer. Although the Hawks were touring around Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, Lavon had to wait till he graduated high school to travel with them.
“The first show I remember [seeing],” says Levon (re-christened that by band members), “was Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. Boy this really tattooed my brain. They took that old hillbilly music, sped it up, and basically invented what is now known as bluegrass.” He’d go see the big traveling shows when they came to town. “I’d stare at the drummer all night because with those horns and that full rhythm section, the drums always looked like the best seat in the house.”
From Ronnie Hawkins’ bio: “In 1958, on the recommendation of Conway Twitty – who considered Canada to be the promised land for a rock’n roll singer – Hawkins came to Hamilton, Ontario to play a club called The Grange. He never left. Adopting Canada as his home, Hawkins became a permanent resident in 1964.”
By 1959, not only were The Hawks one of the leading bands in Toronto, they were also recording artists. Traveling the circuit from Toronto-to-Arkansas-to-the Jersey Shore, they managed to get a record deal and land a couple of regional hits. They auditioned for Steve Allen but eventually wound up on something called The Dick Clark Beech-Nut Show. Here they are, wildly lip-syncing their hit, “Forty Days.” (Song starts about 1:36.)
In 1960, The Hawks released an album called Mr. Dynamo. Two of the songs were written by an uncredited composer, Toronto native Robbie Robertson. Robertson had met the Hawks when they came to town and his band, The Suedes, opened for them. A duly impressed Robertson, realizing that Hawkins needed songs, wrote a few that the bandleader liked and recorded.
“When I was fifteen,” Robertson says, “I started writing songs. I found that I had a knack for it, it was fun, and it came kind of easy.” Remember that statement for later when we talk about The Band’s songwriting controversy.
Robertson’s mother was a Mohawk who had grown up on the Six Nations Reserve, southwest of Toronto. This is where Robertson said he first caught the “power of music.” A couple of relatives were playing guitar and, “it rang my bell – the sound, the rhythm, the fingers on the strings, the voices blending together in unison and then slipping into harmonies.”
Hawkins, impressed by both Robertson’s songwriting skills and guitar playing, invited him down to Arkansas to replace either the bassist or guitarist, depending on who quit first. So our intrepid guitarist and incipient songwriter – all of sixteen years old – made his way by bus and train through every whistle stop down to Fayetteville, AK. (1,130 mi, due southwest.)
At this point in time, the guitarist in the band was a guy named Fred Carter, Jr. Carter is that legendary type of guitar player that maybe you never heard of who is so prevalent in the South. Prior to joining The Hawks, he’d been a guitarist for Roy Orbison and later, Dale Hawkins, who’d written “Suzie Q” and recorded it with James Burton.
Fred got hired by Dale’s cousin Ronnie right out from under his nose. Years later, Carter had a distinguished career playing with Dylan (John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline) and it is his guitar you hear at the beginning of “The Boxer.”
So Robertson became the bass player and now two pieces of the band that would become The Band were in place. As I recall from Robertson’s autobiography, Carter showed very little respect to Robertson as a guitar player and Robbie had to work hard to earn it. (I don’t care where or with whom you play. This behavior is common among musicians. Part male, macho bullshit and part “prove you’re good enough to get up on stage with me.”)
Robertson was duly impressed not only with the playing prowess of his bandmates – he loved Levon – but also in the ability of Ronnie and Levon to – as the Brits like to say – “pull birds.”
According to Robertson, “Almost every night girls came back to the hotel after the gig. … I watched Ronnie and Levon closely trying to learn the tricks of the trade from the masters.” Oh, brother. Wish I had a buck for every rock and roller who got into music to “meet chicks.”
The Hawks took up residence at a club called Le Coq d’Or on Yonge Street in Toronto. From what I’ve read, back then it was a swinging hotspot. I believe there is now an HMV there. But Toronto seems to still pretty much be a great music town, given how many times people play and/or record at El Mocambo. For just one fact.
Fred Carter Jr. had given his notice and Hawkins wasn’t crazy about replacing him with the still inexperienced Robertson. So he decided to audition another Arkansan who had played with his cousin Dale, Roy Buchanan. If you don’t know who Buchanan was and what a great player he was, check this out. (My friend Bill and I tried to see Roy two or three times before he passed away but he always canceled due to being in a drunk tank if I recall correctly.)
For personal reasons, not the least of which – according to both Helm and Robertson – involved Buchanan saying that he was half human and half wolf and would eventually marry a nun – Hawkins decided to pass. “That shit’s too damn weird for me,” Hawkins said. He turned to Robertson and said, “You better start playing real good real fast, that’s all I can tell you.”
Buchanan didn’t entirely disappear from their lives. He came back to do an on-stage guitar duel with Robbie and recorded at least one tune with the Hawks, a blistering version of the great Bo Diddley song, “Who Do You Love.” I guess Robbie acquitted himself ok because here he’s on guitar, Buchanan on bass:
By late 1961, Hawkins’ bass player was ready to move on. Opening for the Hawks one night was a band that included a rhythm guitar player who could sing “in a voice reminiscent of Sam Cooke.” According to Robertson, “You can just spot a musician who’s got the goods. You can sense it in an almost tribal way.”
And so Rick Danko, advised that he would have to learn the bass, was convinced to join the Hawks. And now by fall of 1961, three pieces (Danko, Robertson, and Helm) of the band that would become The Band were in place. As far as any of them knew at that point, their foreseeable future was with The Hawks.
Next post – Levon and the Hawks cross paths with a guy named Zimmerman.
Sources: Wikipedia; Ronnie Hawkins’ online bio; Testimony, Robbie Robertson; This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm; The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese.