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When Ronnie Hawkins came to Toronto for a series of shows in the late 50’s, he brought with him a rockabilly sound which was totally foreign to the crowds. This wasn’t his first trip to Canada. And because the money was better than in the Deep South where they usually played, he decided to stay. But within months, all of his band except fellow-Arkansas native drummer Levon Helm (who’d been with Hawkins since age 17) had gone back South.
In 1960 while recording his third lp, his first in Canada, Hawkins was introduced to Robbie Robertson. He ultimately decided to use 2 of his songs for the record and then asked him to join the touring band. A few more shake-ups were in store which saw Robertson switch from bass to rhythm guitar beside a number of leads over the next couple years. Rick Danko on bass and organist Richard Manuel joined soon after. The final piece of the puzzle was in place when Garth Hudson, a classically trained musician was brought in on piano in 1962. A condition of his joining was extra compensation for having to teach the rest of the band ‘proper music’ – being the only formally-trained person in the ranks.
Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks toured practically every club that would book them in Central Canada – all the way to Hawkins’ stomping grounds in the Deep South. But yearning to spread their wings on their own and amid fianancial arguments, the Hawks flew the coop in 1963. They picked up singer Bruce Bruno and Jerry Penfound on saxophone and became the Levon Helm Sextet but soon switched to Levon & The Hawks. By mid ’64 they’d made gruelling regular trips to the States where they’d gained a reputation for their blending of folk and blues with a unique uptempo rockabilly style. It was these trips to the Southern US that would help mold their eventual trademark sound.
A name change to the Canadian Squires saw them release their first single for New York’s Ware Records. “Leave Me Alone” was backed with “Uh-Uh-Uh”. Bruno and Penfound both left the group shortly thereafter. After landing a conditional deal with Atco, they were encouraged to switch back to Levon & The Hawks. The summer of 1965 saw them record “The Stones I Throw” and “He Don’t Love You”. Again they diligently worked the small clubs around the southern US and Central Canada before being hired as Bob Dylan’s live band later that year. This was actually not a deal done in one shot. Originally only Robertson had been hired, then Helm. But Dylan was traditionally an acoustic performer and the hardcore fans were less than receptive to his new electric show live. Robertson and Helm were accustomed to playing r&b based rockabilly – whose audience was mostly interested in dancing and having a good time, not the electric adaptations of folk – Dylan’s forte. They convinced him that the only way this would work was if they were playing with people they meshed with. Hudson, Danko and Manuel were hired soon after. Relocating to New York State, they were able to do demos over the next year while in between gigs. This is also where Dylan recorded the original works which would become the basis for his BASEMENT TAPES album in 1975 and the first widely-distributed bootleg in ’69, The Band’s GREAT WHITE WONDER.
Their gig with Dylan lasted ’til the summer of ’68 when he was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Dylan’smanager Albert Grossman signed them with Capitol Records, releasing MUSIC FROM THE BIG PINK before year’s end, the nickname for the pink house outside Woodstock, NY where they were staying. An off-shoot of the same sessions which produced THE BASEMENT TAPES, the critics’ initial response was rather lakclustre. But by the time “The Weight” entered the charts it was seen as an album that not only was ground-breaking in the roots/country/blues fusion but symbolized the changing of the times. Incidentally, the cover was actually a Rembrandt-styled painting by Dylan – who also co-wrote two tracks.
Where their debut was truly a group effort, if not somewhat ‘directionless’ in many aspects, their self-titled sophomore in September of the next year was tighter and more cohesive – much less a case of five individual visions of the music. Though a group effort in terms of production, it was Robertson writing in whole or in part all 12 tracks. It contained the future classics “Rag Mama Rag” (tho only reaching Billboard’s #57), “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” about Confederate Civil War observer Virgil Cane, “Up On Cripple Creek” and “Rockin’ Chair” – a tale of a retired sailor. The song arrangements were both loose yet cohesive, and “Up On Cripple Creek” cracked the top 30, their only song to ever do so. The album eventually reach Billboard’s top 10. Joan Baez recorded a version of “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” which peaked on Billboard at #3 two years later. The success of the album prompted the group to hit the road regularly for the first time since ’66. A pair of their highlights included appearances at Woodstock and The Isle of Wight festivals.
Co-produced by Bryan Kelley (who’d worked with them on the debut), their next album was 1970’s STAGE FRIGHT. Again Robertson handled the over-whelming majority of the writing, but the songs this time were far more personal, epitomized by “All La Glory”,about the birth of his daughter. Other noteable songs included the future rock-rag tune “Shape I’m In”, “Daniel & The Sacred Harp” and the title-track – an account of the tolls fame and fortune can take on a person.
1971’s CAHOOTS was next, released that September and very much following in the footsteps of its predecessor. Beginning with the Danko/Helms/Robertson collaberation “Life Is a Carnival”, whose horn ensemble by Allen Toussaint was considered pushing the envelope. Emphasizing the falsehood of show business and its impact on reality, it was clear to those who ‘knew’ that the rock & roll lifestyle was indeed infiltrating the members’ lives, who were known to indulge in some extra curricular smoking/snorting/drinking activities. “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, a Dylan-composed track during THE BASEMENT TAPES days, “4% Pantomime” co-written by Van Morrison, “Last Of The Blacksmiths” and “Shoot Out In Chinatown” help round out what was arguably one of The Band’s weaker moments.
Feeling over-whelmed and burned-out, they decided to take a break by the end of the year, cutting ROCK OF AGES the next spring. The live album was recorded on New Year’s Eve 1971/1972 and was their last show for over a year and a half. Considered by many critics to be a pinnacle live record, it featured many of their well-known hits which would later become classics, including “Shape I’m In”, “Caledonia Mission” and “The Weight”. Also featured were the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t Do It” and a live recording of a track that had earlier been relegated to B-side status only, “Get Up Jake.”
1973’s MOONDOG MATINEE was a warning sign that all wasn’t well in the fold. A haphazard collection of covers they performed while The Hawks, the record sounded flat and quickly-produced, lacking the depth and texture of their earlier albums. Another indication there was trouble was they didn’t tour to support the record, which was followed by THE BAND IN CONCERT later that year. They did however do a series of shows with Dylan in ’73 after appearing on his PLANET WAVES album, and the subsequent live BEFORE THE FLOOD lp.
They regrouped with 1975’s NORTHERN LIGHTS – SOUTHERN CROSS. Their first actual ‘new’ album in nearly 4 years, in many ways this was a comeback record, but also a swan song in other aspects. With Robertson writing all 8 tracks, it explores new territories, using a 24 track recording machine for the first time and new (then) synthesizer technology. “Acadian Driftwood” stood out as one of the better tracks, along with the single “Ophelia”, the lead-off “Forbidden Fruit” and “It Makes No Difference”. Another series of sold-out shows ensued across the continent, culminating in the group announcing by Thanksgiving the next year they would no longer tour.
It’s that fact that makes ISLANDS so interesting – and the last new full-length record by the original five members. Released the next spring and tho not looked upon particularly favourably by the critics, the fans embraced the playing – which was impeccable as always and was highlighted by Manuel’s vocals on the Hogie Carmichael-penned “Georgia On My Mind”. The song was actuallyreleased as a single prior to the album in an effort to boost Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter’s bid at The White House. Released in March of ’76, their next record was actually merely a collection of works they’d done over the years to fulfill their contract with Capitol Records.
But by the end of the year the writing was on the wall – everyone was involved in outside interests, including Helms & Hudson cutting a record with boyhood idol Muddy Waters. Recorded at Helm’s studio outside Woodstock, NY. THE MUDDY WATERS WOODSTOCK ALBUM on Chess Records was almost a ‘coming home’ for Helm & Hudson, as The Band was originally supposed to go into the studios with another blues legend, Sonny Boy Williamson years earlier. Unfortunately tho, their idol passed away before the sessions could take place. Originally ignored by everyone except the critics, the record would wind up being the last for Chess Records and later garnered immense critical praise.
Capitol released THE BEST OF THE BAND the same year before the original five members got together one final time in 1976. Released on Warner Brothers in ’78, THE LAST WALTZ was not only a ‘fond farewell’, but also one of the very first rock documentaries, featuring many musical friends. Produced by Martin Scorcese, the actual concert was over 4 hours long. And the list of performers read like the proverbial ‘who’s who’ of ’60’s & ’70’s rock, blues, pop, gospel and folk, including Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield – as well as their old touring mates – Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan.
The group’s members then went on to solo and outside projects. Danko was the first to cut a solo record, releasing LUCKY BOY in ’77 to mixed reviews, while Helms assembled Levon Helms & The RCO All Stars – also to a mixed reaction. Capitol Records meanwhile kept The Band alive by releasing ANTHOLOGY in ’78, ’83’s THE BAND STORY, then TO KINGDOM COME and THE BAND GIFT SET in 1989.
But as it turned out none of the members were quite ready to close the book on The Band just yet. They regrouped (sans Robertson) for a series of concerts throughout the mid to late 80’s. Following Manuel’s suicide on March 4, ’86 – Helm, Hudson & Danko still carried on with a variety of supporting casts. They released JERICHO on Castle Records in ’93. Though Robertson was always the main writer of the group, the remaining members still relied on the same influences to put together a respectable blues-rock fusion which included covers of tracks by Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, as well as Dylan and BruceSprinsteen.
The Band became the first Canadian induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. HIGH ON THE HOG followed in 1996 and two years later they celebrated their 30th anniversary with JUBILATION. THE MOON STRUCK ONE, yet another ‘best of’ compilation was released, featuring tracks with the late Richard Manuel on lead vocals. The music world was saddened on December 10 ’99 when Danko became the second member to pass away, dieing in his sleep at his home outside Woodstock, 1 day after his 56th birthday, presumably brought to an end one of the most influential groups in Canadian music history. A collection of recordings from his personal collection were hastily pieced together for DAYS LIKE THESE, his posthumously-released solo album in 2000.
Outside The Band, it’s undoubtedly Robbie Robertson who’d gained the most respect and success on his own. A successful composer in films, he’s also dabbled in front of the cameras on a number of occasions, including a role on the movie ‘Carnie’, coincidentally co-starring Helm. Helm meanwhile enjoyed his own run of success in films, including a role in ‘Fire Down Below’ with Steven Seagal and in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ – which incidentally spurred his AMERICAN SON album in 1980, an off-shoot of the film soundtrack for which he contributed.
On April 17, 2012, Helm’s wife and daughter announced on his website that he was “in the final stages of his battle with cancer” and thanked fans while requesting prayers. Helm died two days later on April 19, 2012, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.