Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Band Born in Somers Point

'The Band' was born in Somers Point - The Sun of Atlantic City, Wednesday, October 25, 1978

By William Kelly, Jr.

When Bob Dylan performed at the Spectum recently, his keyboard man was Alan Pasqua, a South Philadelphia native picked up by Dylan at an open audition for the tour.

Many of the other times that Dylan had performed in the past decade, he had been accompanied by The Band, a group of musicians who achived success on their own, after being recruited by Dylan from their moonlighting summer gig in Somers Point.

As a wateringhole just across the bay from dry Ocean City, Somers Point is mainly renown for its taprooms. From the Somers Point circle you can see the giant neon sign on the roof that becons you to "Follow the Arrow to Tony Mart." The blinking arrow points down to the door of one of the nightclubs nestled into the corner of the waterfront neighborhood catering to the young college crowd whjo enjoy dancing to the loud and 'live' sound of rock & roll.

Things haven't changed much since the doors first opened in 1944. Tony Marotta can still be found perched upon his stool at the small elevated bar next to the door.

Besides the front of the building being belatedly whitewashed clear of the psychedelic day-glow paint of another era, the only visible alteration is the new stage on the south wall.

The band was playing a disco number recently as couples danced among the moving dots of lights reflected from twerling mirrored balls suspended from the ceiling.

Tony surveyed the scene and between songs, reminisced about some of the bands that have played his club in the past 38 years. As he leans back and puffs on his pipe, he has the same twinkle in his eye as the successful schoolmarm who can count a president among her former pupils.

Asked if he remembered a group called Levon & the Hawks, Tony said, "Yea, we've had the best bands in the world play here, and some of the worst, too. It's all in the scrapbook."

Tony knew the Hawks were in the former category.

The scrapbook is faithfully kept on a dusty shelf in the closet of the manager's office. It is filled with nostalgic memorabilia and promotional photos of faded stars, including Frankie Avalon, Duane and Eddy (Sic), Bill Hailey (Sic) and the Comets, Conway Twitty and Levon and the Hawks.

They were there in the spring of 1965, "Canada's most popular band," playing between sets with the now forgotten Famale Beatles. They performed at Tony Mart's six nights a week for 24 weeks and were given top billing most nights.

An eight-by-ten glossy promotional photo depicts the Hawks as five clean-cut boys, sporting formal jackets and ties, in portraits that could have been taken from a high school yearbook. They slightly resemble the distinguished musicians they have become.

The Hawks' last tango in Somers Point was a pre-Woodstock pitstop to stardom. Their favorite instrumental of the era, "The Third Man Theme," echoed from the closet.

"The entertainment policy has never changed since I first opened," Tony says, always siding with the audience when it comes to playing either popular music or an unknown original song the house band always tries to sneak in a set. He remembers the Hawks as fine gentlemen who always referred to him as "Boss," - a far cry from the drug-crazed "animals" of the following generation.

He gave Levon a room above the club for his drums and trusted Garth Hudson with a key to front door so he could get in to practice at odd hours.

Tony even supports the local legend that Bob Dylan came to Somers Point to hear the Hawks peform, not an entirelly unlikely possibility considering where they went. Tony recalls that, "I know they weren't coming back when I found out who he was, and they were gone like a bullet."

Shortly after the summer of '65, the Hawks moved to Woodstock, New York, where they regrouped, practiced and recorded in the basement of a big pink house. Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and RickDanko dropped the name the Hawks and becam known simply as The Band.

With the release of their first album, "Music from Big Pink," they hatched what would become a legend. One song on that record was written by Bob Dylan, who also turned up rather predominately on the bootleg basement tapes recorded at Big Pink. After Dylan recouperated from a motorcycle accident, he invited The Band to back him up at the Isle of Wright (Sic) concert, one of the first of the large, outdoor concerts. Soon thereafter, they took the show on the road.

Tony however, continues auditioning young kids who have formed a rock band and have come to him for that one big break.

When Tony Marotta cashes in his chips, an era will have come to an end.

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