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|And then there were two...
A personal remembrance from the early 1960s
by John Cardiff
The Band's piano-playing lead singer Richard Manuel died in 1986. The Band's bass-playing lead singer Rick Danko died in 1999. The Band's
drum-playing lead singer Levon Helm died on 19 Apr 2012, leaving
organ player Garth Hudson and guitar player Robbie Robertson the last
two original members standing.
A lot of us mellow with age, experience, trials and tribulations, the ups and downs of life. Including apparently Levon Helm, who by all accounts ended
up a true gentleman, kind and gracious to all, a model citizen in his chosen community, Woodstock, New York. But that's not the Levon I choose to remember.
Back in the early 1960s he was the Arkansas buffer between
Rompin' (Gotta get some) Ronnie Hawkins and the Canadian kids
he'd just hired and was impatient to whip into a tight combo.
Short and scrawny in a band of relative giants, Levon always seemed to try harder. I remember most the permanent ear-to-ear grin that all by itself announced he was having the time of his life. He darted here, he darted there, a human perpetual motion machine. Carefree and happily doing his thing. Eager to chase the next skirt. (This was pre-Pill, so he attracted primarily a certain type of girl.)
And girls, not women, they were. Not that anyone noticed. Nobody in the room trusted anyone over 30 -- except Pop Ivey, the even-smaller, aging and
thin, dressed-all-in-white, southern-gentleman-appearing force of nature behind the Summer Gardens. Pop was the oldest teenager we knew
(that young upstart on TV, Dick Clark, notwithstanding).
A lot of my younger friends figure I'm pulling their leg with my tales of the Summer Gardens, "the dance hall where 1,000 teenagers meet," Sunday night's party headquarters for all of southwestern Ontario. I'm not, but only those who were there could confirm it. (And more than a few of the most colorful have since found religion of one sort or another, and today claim
they don't remember.)
The Summer Gardens, a dance hall right on the beach at Port Dover, just minutes south of Simcoe, was in its senior years before Rompin' Ronnie got there. It was a big deal in its day, the big band swing era of an earlier time, but in rather desperate need of a boost when rock 'n roll arrived just in the nick of time.
Back then the Hawks worked the southern Ontario bar circuit (primarily Toronto, Hamilton, occasionally London) six nights a week. But that just paid the bills. Profit depended on playing Sunday night, when more lucrative big city bars were closed.
About the time Hawkins was hiring first one future Band member and then another, he and Conway Twitty (then a competing act on the same circuit) played alternating Sunday nights at the Summer Gardens. Conway was the bigger talent, had the better voice, as he later proved once he stayed south
and went Country, but Ronnie had the duck walk, the louder band, and a
face that was already veteran of too many barroom brawls.
"Beak" (Richard Manuel) was there, just hanging out, soaking up their music, not yet a member. So was the butcher's apprentice from the meat market in Simcoe (Rick Danko) with wannabe stars in his eyes. If Garth was there in any capacity, I didn't see him. Ronnie sang. Levon drummed. Someone else pounded the ivories. There was a guitar. I also remember a sax, although probably not on every song. All in the matching black suits that in those days announced "I'm in the band."
Maybe a year later, I'm thinking 1963, alternating Conway and Ronnie
Sunday nights had grown routine. But we all planned to hit the Gardens one last time for the season-ending Labor Day weekend, assuming it would be a Twitty-Hawkins double bill, which we imagined as a battle of the bands.
Whoops. Big surprise. Neither Conway or Ronnie and company were there. We wondered what had gone wrong. No local Hawk (Danko) on stage that weekend. Instead, three new recording artists just back from their first recording session in Nashville pulled up. Two guys and a girl.
The first guy, Mark London, was "obviously the best of the bunch." He was good looking, from Montreal someone said, and his record was highest on the CFRS (Radio Simcoe) Teen Hi Club hit parade. The girls loved him. Guys grudgingly admitted "Not bad." Every so often I still drag out his 45, "How Much Longer Must I Wait." After a while I also got into the B side, "Ragedy Ann." But after that night I never heard of Mark London again.
The girl was cute, round, friendly as heck, in a dress with a huge crinoline. And she could sing, even without the sound-on-sound of her first hit record "Mister Heartache." To say the least, she was alright by me, but somehow I didn't think she'd go even as far as she did. Her name was Pat Hervey. She was from Toronto. (Wasn't everyone?) Then on the Chateau label, destined, it turned out, for bigger things, once she signed with RCA.
The third performer was the least impressive. An Elvis Presley wannabe who strummed his own guitar. We'd all had our fill of Elvis types. And this one was blonde, didn't say much, seemed shy when not singing behind a mic. Why had they brought this turkey? Granted, his first "hit" was being played a little bit in Simcoe, but nowhere else to the best of my knowledge. I spent parts of the following week assuring all who would listen that he was going nowhere, although I admit ending up with autographed publicity portraits of all three. That was my introduction to Gordie Lightfoot. (What did I know?)
Well I did know Rick. And the squirrel. (I don't recall knowing his name even then.) The guys called him something that sounded like (but wasn't) Lee, maybe Leev. Hawkins called him Helmsie, or whatever else would get his attention, when he was rounding up the band at the end of a break. But he was this tiny, always grinning, slipping-through-a-crowd-like-greased-lightning sort, trying to avoid "the boss" everyone else called Ronnie, and get the attention of that girl over there, that girl over there, and that girl over there, all while thumping his drums like one happy kid. (Huge energy, less finesse, back then.)
"Gentleman" was an adjective he still had to grow into. While Ronnie was largely (word chosen carefully) a good ole boy with a southern drawl, my most vivid memory of Levon back then is racing up behind, then darting around Ronnie, (stomping on my toes in the process) as he raced toward yet another skirt between sets.
Today I think of those as the good ole days. The following year Ronnie wasn't there much. When he was, it was with another band who weren't as good. One weekend, the ad said Levon and The Hawks would be there, with Bruce somebody. We weren't sure what to expect. Levon we knew. But Bruce? With apologies to Bruce Channel, Bruce wasn't a Top 10 name. This sounded like a mistake in the making. Then someone said these were the original Hawks. "You know, the two Ricks, 'Levin,' that Indian Jamie, and that mute on the organ." We went, expecting the same party as previous summers. And spent the next week wondering what we had seen.
Turned out Bruce Bruno really could sing. He wasn't Hawkins, but who was? So, it turned out, could most of the others. There was Rick Danko with that trademark delighted-to-be-here grin, standing close to Levon's drum kit, bouncing off him. As we'd seen before, Richard Manuel really could attack those keys, and sing, a low rent Canadian Jerry Lee (Lewis). Jamie's (now Robbie's) guitar? Sounded like two guitars, sometimes three. Garth must
have been there. He always was. I just don't remember.
They rocked just like times before. That got the crowd up. Except this time there were a few more guys than usual standing immediately in front
of the stage, studying how they played. But they also changed up. More ballads "so you can cuddle on the dance floor," the usual covers, but also some we had not heard before. Not the lyric-intense roots music Dylan would lead them to, more like what we would later learn was blues, country, soul, a touch of gospel (proving Garth was there), more instrumentals, and one or two we figured might be their own compositions. (That wasn't a compliment.)
Ever the critic, I am embarrassed to say, I deducted points for feeding us other than the Top 10 we'd come to hear. Looking back, I suspect they were already starting to mature, grow as musicians, beyond the confines of early rock 'n roll, which they had obviously mastered. I remember wondering if they didn't need Ronnie to keep them on safe song-selection turf. (Back then our tastes were pretty one dimensional.)
Between songs, while catching their breath, they would look at each other as if deciding what to play next. To my surprise, it seemed to be the grinning blonde behind the drum kit calling more shots than not.
Levon didn't scurry around as much that night. Maybe he had a girl backstage. Maybe he had stepped up to mange things a bit. Maybe both.
I don't remember those Hawks being around much after that. I remember Rick's brother telling me on the street that they had settled into some place in New Jersey, some long term gig. Apparently that's where they were when Bob Dylan caught wind of them.
After what seemed like a long silence, there were press reports that Dylan had plugged in, gone electric, and was being booed all over Europe.
One of the guys from the Meat Market said Rick was now part of Dylan's much-booed backup band.
I wondered why Rick would have left the Hawks. I guessed he was earning
more getting booed than he ever did getting cheers. Only after the tour did I learn
it was all the Hawks (except Levon) backing Dylan, and how right I had guessed
about the money. No more need to play Sunday nights to turn a profit. They
were already earning more in a month than I made all year.
of all, winning three Grammy awards in his last four years.
Copyright 2012 John Cardiff