Thursday, April 26, 2012

Levon & the Hawks - Summer of '65


Levon & The Hawks & THE SUMMER OF ’65

The Summer of ’65 is still a landmark, watershed year in the memory of those who were there, lived it and are still alive today to remember what happened. Of course we didn’t recognize it was so special while it was happening, it was only years later when we looked back that we recognize how significant it was.

That was the summer that Levon and the Hawks came into our lives, unobtrusively and practically unnoticed, and in fact, we probably didn’t notice they were here until they were gone. Unlike most bands Levon & the Hawks and the Band never had a top ten single, though some of their songs would hit the bottom rungs of the pop charts, and a few were hits for other people.

To put things into perspective, the top songs that fading winter were the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” “Ticket to Ride” and ‘Eight Days A Week,” the Surpemes’ “Come See About Me” and “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “My Girl” by the Temps, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Fellin’” by the Righteous Brothers, Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis & the Playboys.

As spring came in, among the songs that hit the top of the pop charts were, “I’m Telling You Now” by Freddie and the Dreamers, “Game of Love” by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Herman’s Hermit’s “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” and “I’m Henry VII, I Am,” and as the summer got underway there was The Supremes’ “Back in My Arms Again” and the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch).”

The British invasion also included The Rolling Stones that year, as they came in to Atlantic City to play the Steel Pier behind their hit, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Eventually these songs were surpanted by a new and unique song, The Byrd’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which unknowingly herald in what would be a new era, when folk music met rock and roll. 

While the story of  the Band has been told so many times it has entered the realm of myth, I will try to stick to the facts as best I can reassemble them. 

It probably began early in the spring of 1965 with a telephone call from Tony Marotta’s office in the little shack behind Tony Mart’s Café in Somers Point, at the New Jersey shore, to the talent booking office of Colonel Kutlets in Toronto, Canada, with Tony, in his husky voice, and between puffs of on a cigar, asking Kutlets if he had a band that would play the summer as the house band, mainly before and between sets of the main headliners. 

Kutlets, it turned out, had just the band for Tony, as they had finished playing a few years on the road behind rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins, and were tired of touring, needed a steady job, and wanted a place where they could play and settle down and not move around so much. The pay wasn’t very good to start, but they could stay in the rooms above the club and if they fit the bill they would get a raise, and if they stayed the entire summer, until the end of Labor Day weekend, they would get a bonus.  

The band was Levon and the Hawks, as they were known from their stint with Ronnie Hawkins, and Levon was Levon Helm, the only American in the quintet of Canadians that Hawkins had recruited a few years earlier.

Although young, they were seasoned musicians, and Tony liked them because, unlike the psychedelic rock groups that would come after them, they were polite, well-mannered, dressed in suites and ties and respected him.

Decades later I went looking for the local links to The Band, and went to Tony Marts, where above the door was the sign “Through these doors walk the most beautiful girls in the world.” Next to the door was a small bar where I found Anthony “Tony Mart” Marotta, sipping a drink, smoking a cigar and watching the band on stage. Did he remember The Band?

“You mean Levon & the Hawks?”

“Yea, I remember them, the Bums,” he said. “They left me without a band on Labor Day,” and then after a pause, “but they was good boys.”

How did they find their way to Somers Point?

Tony Martotta’s son Carmen Marotta later recalled, “That was the Harold Kutlets agency, out of Hamilton, near Toronto. My father met him through MCA out of New York. They were a promotions, talent, productions, booking company. Kutlets is the man who is eventually credited with picking up and representing the Hawks, Levon & the Hawks who became The Band.”

“They were with Ronnie Hawkins and were the Fabulous Hawks – that’s where the name Hawks comes from – the rockabilly, rhythm & blues singer. Then when they lost Ronnie Hawkins, they had a fight with them or something, they became Levon & the Hawks. Even though they were a Canadian group they couldn’t get any work in Canada at the time, and they were touring down south, we’re talking about the winter of 1965. They were kicking around the south, some of them were from Arkansas, and Kutlets called dad up and said he had this great band that needed a break. They would work cheap. Dad put them in in April. They played six nights a week, four or five sets a night, for $700 total, plus rooms, they lived over top of the bar. They worked their way up to $1300 a week. Now this is for five guys and a manager, a character named Bill Avis, and of course Harold Kutlets got a cut of that.”

Ted Shall did the display advertising for the Press of Atlantic City and wrote an entertainment column called Nightly Whirl, in which Shall wrote: “Don’t forget that tonight is going to be a big one in Somers Point, and at Tony Mart’s in particular. The renown Conway Twitty arrives at the offshore nightspot to join a Canadian group that has rated plaudits for a number of weeks – Levon and the Hawks.”

“Then, as the story goes, and its been corroborated, that they became such a legendary talent, that Dylan himself came here. The way it was told to me was that people from Boston to Georgetown, D.C. were coming here just to hear Levon and the Hawks, and hear Richard Manuel sing Ray Charles and Ottis Redding and James Brown, and see Garth Hudson play the sax and do Junior Walker and the All-Star’s “’Shotgun.’”

Playing six nights a week, three or four sets a night, they kept the house in the house when the main act – usually Conway Twitty, was on a break. Bay Shores across the street and Steels Ship Bar next door, as well as a number of other clubs in the area, also featured live bands, so when the most popular act was off stage, many of the people left. The job of the house band was to keep the people from leaving, and the Hawks did their job really well.

In fact, after a week or so, they had earned their keep, were given a raise and moved into a house down the street.

Carmen: “I was only nine years old at the time, fourth, fifth grade, but I remember The Band. I remember The Band being great. I remember hearing them play. They had two keyboards, there was a railing that ran along the stage and they had Richard Manual on the left hand side, looking at it. It was the center stage, which the L-bar was built around. On the right was Garth Hudson’s organ, a B-3, and all his saxophones and accordions – he was always playing different instruments. In the middle was the drum riser with Levon Helm, and Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson were out front.”

“I remember how great they were. I remember the soulful blues they played. I think that Richard Manuel was the greatest blues singer to ever sing at Tony Marts. I think he was one of the greatest under-rated white blues singers, and he was known for that, as was their music, their jamming, their diversity. They would do, “Little Lizza Jane – I got a girl and you got none….” That was unusual to hear a hillbilly song being played with a rock beat in Tony Marts. They also played, “They Call Me Mr. Pittiful,” “Please, Please, Please,” “Shotgun,” “Blue, Swede Shoes,” “Memphis,” and a lot of the songs on their album, “Moondog Matinee” they played at Tony Marts. Richard Manuel and Levon Helm used to do some of the old southern stuff.”

Before the summer was out people were coming from Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York just to see Levon & the Hawks, the house band at Tony Marts, and others were taking interest, including some music industry heavies like Albert Grossman and Bob Dylan.

There’s three versions of how the Hawks hooked with Bob Dylan. One has Levon and Robbie Robertson going to New York to record and meeting or running into bluesman John Hammond, Jr., whose father was the talent scout for Columbia records and is credited with discovering and signing Billy Holiday, Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

Another version has Dylan coming to Somers Point and sitting in the audience to check out what he heard was the best rock & roll band on the east coast.

The most likely version however has Dylan visiting the New York city officers of his manager, Albert Grossman, and explaining to Grossman how he wanted to break out of his folk music shell, plug in his guitar and “go electric.”

The Byrds had made a popular hit of his “Mr. Tamborine Man,” and Dylan felt that he needed to go in that direction. Dylan said he needed a rock and roll band to back him up, did Grossman know any?

Grossman may have had a few band in mind, but his secretary, Mary Martin, a Toronto girl, having overheard the conversation, spoke up, and put a plug in for the band she saw back at home in Toronto, the Hawks, who she said were a very remarkable group who played the blues, rockabilly and rock and roll. It didn’t take her long, a few phone calls, to track them down at Tony Marts in Somers Point.

Dylan himself mad the call, and got Levon on the phone. “You want to play Hollywood Bowl?” Dylan asked.

Not having heard of Dylan before, or knowing that he could draw a crowd that could fill the Hollywood Bowl arena, Helm asked, “With who else?”

“Just us,” said Dylan, who Rick Danko, in the background, tried to explain, was a big folk star.

So when they had a night off, Robertson and Helm drove up to New York and met with Dylan and jammed with him a little, enough to convince Dylan he wanted them to back him at his Forest Hills concert on Labor Day weekend.

The only problem was Tony Marotta, the boss, who they not only promised to play for until after Labor Day, they had signed a contract they had to fulfill. But they would try to get around that.

Back in Somers Point they told Tony their predicament, and Tony called Col. Kutlets, who said he had another hot band who could fill in for them - … who had a hit song on the charts, “Devil with the Blue Dress.” 

Carmen notes that,“Dylan took them from dad the week before Labor Day. But dad still loved them and even gave them a cake and party for them on their last night, but he was mad that they couldn’t stay that last week of the summer. But of course Dylan didn’t care about that, and he took the band. But dad was able to get Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels to finish the last week of the summer. It was big times in those days.”

So Tony said okay, he would let them out of the contract, and even through a farewell party for them, complete with cake, on their final night.

While only Levon and Robertson played behind Dylan at Forest Hills, where they were roundly booed at first, they both insisted that the rest of the Hawks be included in the world tour that Dylan had booked, and Dylan agreed.

But Levon had a hard time with the folk purists who booed Dylan at every stop, so he left and took a job on a gulf oil rig rather than be booed.

Then Dylan had a motorcycle accident, and began a lengthily recuperation at the rural home of his manager, Albert Grossmann, in Woodstock, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. A century old artist’s colony, Woodstock was quite familiar with interesting characters, so when the Hawks arrived they didn’t garner much attention. Dylan kept them on the payroll, and three of them leased a pink spit level house where they lived with their friends, families and hangers on. Setting up a place where they could jam in the basement, a typewriter on the dining room table was frequently used to type out verses for songs they made up on the spot. Dylan came around more and more frequently, as he got better, and after dropping the name the Hawks, began being referred to by their friends and neighbors as the Band.  

While Garth had recorded many of the Big Pink basement sessions on a reel to reel tape recorder he kept behind the oil heater, later widely bootlegged and later released as the “Basement Tapes,” when they wanted to record an LP, they wanted to do a live show, but the local town counsel was afraid of an influx of hippies and out of towners, so they nixed the idea. The same counsel also refused to permit others from holding a festival nearby a year later, so while the festival became known as “Woodstock,” it was really held about thirty miles away in Bethel, New York. But the fact Dylan and The Band lived in Woodstock and The Band was booked to play the festival set the stage for the myth of Woodstock even before it happened.

On to fame and fortune, they released their own LP “Music From Big Pink” and their masterpiece second album, “The Band,” and went on to back Dylan on a number of tours, released a number of original albums and then recorded and filmed “The Last Waltz,” which was supposed to be their final, parting shot.  All of this is well documented so I won’t rehash it.

As Robbie Robertson put it, they were tired of touring and the whole music industry, at least he was, and for him, that life was over and he parted ways with the Band. The rest of the group wanted to continue playing however, and after awhile, playing and recording solo and with others, they regrouped, without Robbie Robertson.

Robertson, it seemed, was sadly vindicated when keyboardist and vocalist Richard Manual committed suicide while they were on tour in Florida.

Around the same time Tony Marotta and Albert Grossman also passed away, though like Hubert Sumlin and Dick Clark, they had both lived long, and fulfilling lives, while Richard, the soul and primary voice of The Band, had left life too early.

Levon, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson continued The Band with a wider variety of new sidemen, and they returned to Somers Point to play a Tony Marts Reunion show at Egos, a new disco nightclub that had been built where the old Tony Marts had one stood. 

Driving a leased car down Route 9 from Woodstock, Garth Hudson drove around town and down Bay Avenue, looking for some landmarks that he could remember – Dicks Dock, Dolfin Dock, the Anchorage, Gregory’s and Charlie’s were familiar, but for the most part, the old Somers Point that he knew – Bay Shores, Steels, Gateway Casino, were gone. All of the old nightclubs that used to feature live bands were now mostly discos or restaurants, and they were the only live show in town that night. A remarkable night it was though.

Hooking up with Carmen Marotta again Levon and Carmen entered into a partnership in a New Orleans nightclub, Levon’s All American Café, which featured live music and was known for its jam sessions and as the place where musicians would frequently meet.

Levon also found an acting career, playing most famously as Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miners Daughter” and as a test pilot in “The Right Stuff.” 

In his autobiography “This Wheels On Fire,” Levon set the record straight about “The Last Waltz,” in no uncertain terms, and made pubic the personal feud with Robbie Robertson, who had copyrighted many of The Band’s songs as his own, including “The Weight” and “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down,” both of which feature Levon on vocals and, in Levon’s view, were jointly written by the whole band, though Robertson did write the lyrics.  

I wondered if their stay in Somers Point had any affect on their most creative period, and found a few hints in some of the lyrics.

On their first album, both “The Weight” and “Chest Fever” offer possible clues. When Griel Marcus tried to analysize what their songs really meant, he was warned by Robertson, that he was way off, but there are some interesting, apparent connections.

Although riff with biblical images, Robertson says that the line in the Weight, “pulled into Nazareth, feeling about half past dead,” doesn’t refer to the Nazareth in the bible, but to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where the Martin Guitar factory is located, and where he once visited, possibly I wondered, when they were living in nearby Somers Point.

Then there’s the line in “Chest Fever,” which is primarily known for Garth Hudson’s grand, electric organ solos, but includes the line, “going down to the Dunes, with the goons,” – that some say refers to the old Dunes, after hours all night nightclub, which was located on a sandbar on the bay between Somers Point and Longport, and where the tough bouncers were known to be “goons.”

The Band also played Gardner’s Basin in Atlantic City one summer, and Levon and Garth Hudson were part of Ringo Star’s All Stars when they played the makeshift theater they set up in the Bally Casino parking lot on the Boardwalk one summer.

Then Levon and his daughter and friends from Woodstock came down to play the Bubba Mack Shack in Somers Point on more than one occasion.

Then Levon, while he was still recuperating from cancer and didn’t sing, went on a limited tour with and opened for the Black Crows in Atlantic City, a show that I caught, before finally Levon got to headline his own show at Borgata.

More recently Levon had been holding Midnight Ramblin’ shows in his Woodstock barn, where he recorded Dirt Farmer and then Electric Farmer, both earning him Grammy Awards. The World Café’s David Dye, out of WXPN in Philadelphia, visited Levon at the barn and did a show about it that should still be archived in the internet.

As for Tony Marts, 30 years ago – in the spring of 1982, they filmed a major motion picture Eddie & the Cruisers at Tony Marts, which effectively caught the spirit of the legendary nightclub on celluloid, but shortly thereafter it was purchased by Harris Berman, Esq., who had earlier purchased Bay Shores across the street, and tore that down and built The Waterfront. He also demolished Tony Marts to make room for Egos, then billed as the East Coast’s most lavish disco.

The Rock & Roll era was officially over.

“You can’t spend what you ain’t got and you can’t lose what you never had.” 
       - Levon Helm

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