Levon and the Hawks, circa 1964. Sax player Jerry “Ish” Penfound on left. Yes, they wore suits in those days.
Together with bass player Rick Danko, Levon Helm formed one of the finest rhythm sections to ever put a groove to a beat, and a partnership that formed the backbone of The Band. In Danko, he had the perfect complementary player, one of the finest bassists and one of the gentlest souls.
His music was subtle, his instinct for just the right note unwavering – he could play one beat in four bars, but lord could he make it count. Their subtle, intense rhythmic conversation brought shape and distinction to the Band’s music – it gave it heart and soul. – Irishtimes.com
Similar to both Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko grew up listening to live music at family gatherings. And even though he was raised far from the Delta, his influences (country, R&B, blues) were remarkably similar to the drummer’s. But the melding of their styles was not instantaneous. “Either you feel it or you don’t,” Levon told him. “Let’s not waste one another’s time.” And so, like Robertson, he learned.
The first time Robbie met Richard Manuel in Canada Richard was drunk. But as part of yet another opening band for the Hawks, he was suitably impressed by Manuel’s soulful singing and piano playing to want to steal him away to replace their own soon-to-depart pianist. (Manuel sings on the majority of songs on Music from Big Pink and is the primary singer on the first three songs.) And so by the fall of 1961, only a short while after Danko arrived, the future Band was nearly complete.
Whereas most of the members of the band were seat-of-the-pants learners, Garth Hudson was a classically trained keyboardist (and sometime saxophone player.) Wikipedia: “Fearing that his parents would think he was squandering his years of music education by playing in a rock and roll band, Hudson joined the band on the condition he be given the title “music consultant” and that his bandmates each pay him $10 a week for music lessons.” Garth was the guy that, musically, they all looked up to and respected.
And so, from late 1961 to late 1963, all the pieces that would become The Band were in place. Hawkins, of course, was still very much the leader and frontman and they had a sax player named Jerry “Ish” Penfound. The guys kept playing around Canada, sometimes venturing to the States.
By late 1963, the relationship between the band and Hawkins – especially his old mate Levon – had started to fray. Hawkins wouldn’t always show up at a gig; he tried to ban girlfriends from the audience; (the guys needed to seem “available,”) and worst of all, they felt they weren’t being paid enough. “The son of a bitch is fucking with us,” Levon yelled per Robertson’s autobio. “And I want to rub it in his face.”
So that was that. The Ronnie Hawkins era was over forever. Essentially they just outgrew him. (They later reconciled.) In 1964, they started touring as Levon and the Hawks. “Ish,” the saxophonist lasted for a little while. But their meager income made them realize a sax player was a luxury they could not afford.
Money was so tight that Robertson admits – in his book – that he and Levon tried to hold up a card game. Wearing sock masks over their faces they figured they could get about $30,000 USD. ($235,000 in today’s dollars.) Fortunately for all involved, the card game was not played that night.
The Hawks managed to pick up some gigs and spent time shunting down to NYC to record. In 1965 they did some recording for Atco, I guess in an attempt to hit the singles charts. This song, “He Don’t Love You” is a kinda funky Robbie Robertson tune. (Not the Jerry Butler song, “He Will Break Your Heart.”) Effectively, this is The Band:
New York City, being a hotbed of music, was a place where our heroes spent a fair amount of time. In 1965, John Hammond took Robbie to Columbia Records where Bob Dylan was in the middle of recording “Like a Rolling Stone.” Robbie was floored by it and ran into his old friend Mike Bloomfield there, one of the key players on the session. (Levon doesn’t mention this in his autobio, only saying they all first heard the song on the radio.)
Regardless of how and when they met, a short while later, Dylan invited Robertson back to the studio. They jammed a little bit and Dylan explained he needed a guitarist since Bloomfield was playing with the Butterfield band. Robbie said he’d play a couple shows if he could bring Levon along. Dylan said ok.
By now, Dylan had already gone electric on record and at the not-well-received (to say the least) Newport Folk Festival. Robbie and Levon knew this but joined Dylan in New York and LA anyway, hoping for the best. And were received about as well as at Newport. “Boo!” Go home!” “No rock ‘n roll.” “Fuck you.” “A musical nightmare,” Robbie called it. “People – folkies – charged the stage and threw shit at us.” The guys were horrified. “That went pretty well,” said Dylan and invited them on the rest of the tour.
The rest of the guys were ambivalent as not only had they already been the backing band to a star prior to this, none of them were even really Dylan fans per se. He was a folkie, they were R&B. “He’s a strummer,” said Richard, back when – according to Robertson – they were “snobby.” The Hawks were in an R&B bubble. They didn’t even pay much attention to the Beatles or for that matter, any popular music.
Despite this, the guys gave Dylan an ultimatum. It was the entire band or none of them. And so, the Hawks became Dylan’s backing band. And, in fact, continued to get booed pretty much everywhere.
It was nowhere worse than in Toronto which really stung considering it was in front of the band’s friends and family. People wanted to hear acoustic, folky Dylan and they really took it out on him and, especially, his backing band.
By late 1965, Levon Helm had had enough. Not only was this not the repertoire he wanted to play, but he saw music as a joyful, fun thing. And this relentless booing was bringing him down. “It just ain’t my ambition to be anybody’s drummer,” he said. “I’ve decided to just let this show go on without me for now.” And so he walked away from the Hawks, back to Arkansas, not to return for the better part of two years. A drummer named Mickey Jones replaced Levon for the remainder of the tour.
So he missed the whole infamous 1966 tour of England wherein the booing and the frosty reception continued. Famously, someone called Dylan “Judas” at the Royal Albert Hall Concert. (Commonly called that but actually the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.) But the band (and Dylan) soldiered on. I think for the Hawks it was a trial by fire; for Dylan, I believe he felt he was doing the right thing and the world would eventually catch up. Which it did:
Dylan had moved to Woodstock with his family and two months after his return from Europe, got into a possibly near-fatal motorcycle accident which fractured his neck. This derailed his career for a while and left the Hawks with a new challenge – what to do next?
Next post – Life from the basement. Woodstock before Woodstock was “Woodstock.”
Sources: Wikipedia; Ronnie Hawkins’ online bio; Testimony, Robbie Robertson; This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm; The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese; Ain’t In It For My Health, Levon Helm bio movie.