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The History of The Band

[Prev: Introduction] [Next: The Pre-Band Groups] [History Index]

Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks

by Rob Bowman

From the article "Life Is A Carnival", Goldmine magazine, July 26, 1991, Vol.17, No.15, Issue 287.
© Rob Bowman and Goldmine magazine. Reprinted with permission.

All five had started playing early on, working their way through a string of ensembles bearing a wealth of evocative names. Helm (born May 26, 1940) had played guitar in a two-guitar, stand-up bass and drums ensemble called the Jungle Bush Beaters that wreaked havoc in the Marvell-Helena area before he hooked up with the would-be legend Ronnie Hawkins, Jimmy Ray "Luke" Paulman and Willard "Pop" Jones. It was with Hawkins that Helm first started beating the skins.

Guitarist Paulman had previously played with Conway Twitty, who was regularly booked a thousand miles north by an enterprising character from Hamilton, Ontario who went by the name of Colonel Harold Kudlets. Kudlets had a setup going whereby he booked bands from the South through Conway Twitty to play in Southern Ontario, Quebec, and points along the Ontario/U.S. border such as Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo. Conversely, he also sent groups from Ontario through Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks worked their way up to Canada a few times before Hawkins realized that in the South they were one of several good band playing a rockabilly style that was rapidly becoming dated, whereas up in Toronto the sound was unique. As far as hipper Torontonians felt, they played the fastest, most violent rock'n'roll ever heard. Logic and money being what they are, the Hawks made Toronto their adopted home in 1958.

One by one, the other members of what would be the Band entered the fold as various original Hawks succumbed to homesickness and headed back south. Jaime Robbie Robertson (born July 5, 1943) was one of the first recruits. A refugee from Robbie and the Robots, Thumper and the Trambones and Little Caesar and the Consuls, Robertson, a few months shy of his sixteenth birthday, joined early in 1960, initially on bass. For a while he was being groomed for then-guitarist Fred Carter Jr.'s job, as Carter had already given his notice.

Rick Danko (born Dec. 28, 1943) came into the Hawks the other way around. He had been playing guitar in various bands, several featuring accordion, in the Simcoe area from the age of 12. He first saw Hawkins backed by Robertson and Helm in 1960. Quite smitten by the crazed excitement of Hawkins' camel walk and the band's frenetic and ferocious accompaniment, Danko got himself an opening slot on Hawkins' next performance in the Simcoe area the following spring.

The next night he was a Hawk, initially playing rhythm guitar before learning to play bass after Rebel Payne departed. Richard Manuel (born April 3, 1943) entered the picture later in the summer of 1961, after graduating from the Rockin' Revols, a band of hardcore rockers from Stratford who had toured the South through the Harold Kudlets connection. Originally a vocalist, Manuel played what he described as "rhytm piano", nothing too complicated but good enough when combined with his unearthly, etheral voice that landed him a job as a Hawk.

The last to sign up was the much sought after Garth Hudson. Hudson (born August 2, 1937) was older than the rest. Classically trained as a pianist, he was also infatuated with rock and roll, especially that of hard, driving tenor sax players such as Big Jay McNeely and Lee Allen. He himself had started playing sax in his teenage years (his father, a drummer in the Birr Brass Band, had a C melody sax laying around the house).

Hudson's main claim to fame prior to joining the Hawks was as leader of Paul London and the Kapers. Originating from London, Ontario (hence the name), Paul London and the Kapers had recorded one 45 for the otherwise black Detroit-based rhytm and blues label Checkmate. Released in 1961, neither side of Checkmate 1006 "Sugar Baby/"Never Like This (The Big Band Twist)", was very distinguished and the record made few waves. (Another 45 was also recorded by Paul London and the Capers, released on both the Fascination and the Raleigh labels. The Capers reformed, without Paul London or, obviously, Garth, in about '65. Keyboardist on the first of their two LPs was Jerry Penfound.)

To the rest of the Hawks, Hudson was in another league as a musician. Levon Helm told E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg in the excellent book The Big Beat, "To get Garth Hudson, that was a big day because nobody could play like Garth anywhere. He could play horns, he could play keyboards, he could play anything and play it better than anybody you knew...Hawkins just finally bought Garth's time to play with us. Once we had a musician of Garth's caliber, we started sounding professional."

Hawkins originally had to buy Hudson's time. The only way Hudson would agree to join the band was if he was paid to give everyone music lessons as well as being paid as a regular gigging member of the Hawks. Apparently, Hudson's family didn't approve of his rock and roll lifestyle, but were content as long as he was teaching music. A strange arrangement, to say the least, but the fact that they all went along with it is evidence enough of the regard everyone had for Hudson's musicianship.

Hudson joined up a little before Christmas 1961, and at that point the lineup that would mutate into the Band was complete. Various other singers and horn players came in and out of the Hawks, but the nucleus was there. It is important to keep this in mind when considering what emerged on Music From Big Pink in 1968. This was anything but a new group. They were seasoned veterans who had known and played with each other for eight years. The Band sang and played with second sight.

Ronnie Hawkins released nine(?) 45s as well as a couple of albums for Roulette from 1959 to 1963. Helm drums on every one of them. Robertson and Danko played on the last three singles, Manuel on the last two, and Hudson is only heard on the very final outing. (King Curtis can also be heard on a number of these tracks.)

The highlight was the second to last release, pairing Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" and "Bo Diddley". It didn't chart (only Hawkins' first two singles "Forty Days" and "Mary Lou" had that kind of success), but on both tracks one hears four young bucks (everyone but Hudson), and Hawkin's screams curdling blood. "Who Do You Love", especially, crackles and sizzles with a ferocity distinctly rare in the white rock'n'roll of the early '60s.

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