Sunday, January 15, 2017

Robbie Robertson Remembers Tony Marts - The Summer of 1965

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Robbie Robertson – from the autobiography Testimony (2016)  – Chapter 12 p. 158

IN THE SUMMER of 1965 we had booked a gig at Tony Mart’s big dance club in Somers Point, New Jersey. Tony’s was a hot spot, a popular club that sometimes had three bands playing on separate stages over the course of the evening. A big round bar sat in the middle of the club, handy for a refill no matter where you were standing. Tony himself was an unusual club owner, a real character.

A bit stocky, no-nonsense, and Sicilian born. Anthony Marrota spoke broken English and hardly ever smiled. He ran his “circus” with a strong hand, wandering through the crowds while yelling order at bartenders and bouncers. Every once in a while he’d walk by the center stage we were playing on and call out, “Hey, turna downa the jukebox!” We took this to mean we were playing too loud for an early-evening crowd.

On the first weekend we were there, you could tell the audience was into our type of music. Conway Twitty and some of his original band were in residence too, which was a nice surprise. When we went on, the place came alive. By Saturday night the club was so packed you couldn’t move. Tony Mart pushed his way through the crowd and called up to us, “Hey, turna upa tha jukebox!” and gave a little grin.

After the first two weeks, Tony asked us to come back for two more weeks later in June. It was very unusual for us to play two stands so close together in one spot like that, but we were glad to plant our feet for a while. And lo and behold, our old road manager, Bill Avis, showed up in Somers Point too, managing a band of lesbians calling themselves the Female Beatles.

In between dates in Somers Point, we would head up to New York City to meet with production companies that had seen us play and were interested in signing us. We listened to songs they thought we could record, but none of them really connected….The acoustic folk setting was thriving in New York. You could feel it goring in Toronto’s Yorkville district, but Greenwich Village was the epicenter of this world.

John Hammond (Jr.) asked me to come hear him play at the Gaslight Club. He talked up Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil and a couple other guys he thought were very soulful folk singers. The Gaslight had a sign out front announcing the next act that would be performing there – Mississippi John Hurt. I told him about our jam with Sonny Boy Williams, and he said, “Sonny Boy one or two?”

One afternoon John came by the Forest Hotel to collect me for a trip downtown to a hip record store,…then he hit the breaks and said, “Oh, man, I forgot something. A friend of mine is recording around the corner and I promised him I would stop by….”

Before long we were on the elevator in the Columbia Records building heading for Studio A. In the control room people were listening to the playback of a song they had just cut. John said hello to a man in round wire-rimmed glasses with shoulder-length grayish hair.

“Robbie, this is the great music manager Albert Grossman,” Sitting in the corner silently was Dion of Dion and the Belmonts. Then John went over and gave a big greeting to his friend who was recording. He turned to introduce me.

“Hey, Bob, this is my guitar-player friend Robbie, from Canada. This is Bob Dylan.”

You could barely see his eyes through the dark glasses he wore, but there was high voltage in the room coming from his persona.

Bob said hello,a nd then to John. “You want to hear something.”

“Yea, I’d love to.”

Bob teased. “You sure you want to hear this? You never heard anything like this before.”

Albert Grossman and the record producer nodded in serious agreement.

“It’s called ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ Bob said with a little smirk.

Bob was right – I’d never heard anything like this before. The studio lit up with the sound of toughness, humor and originality. It was hard to take it all in on one listen….

By then we’d begun our second stand at Tony Mart’s club in New Jersey, and on our nights off we would slip over to the Wonder Gardens club in Atlantic City, where we caught some of the best jazz-organ combos going. Jimmy Smith played there, and we also saw Brother Jack McDufff, whom Garth appreciated for his unusual style. Shirley Scott, “Queen of the Organ,” was a favorite of mine, with her husband, Stanley Turrentine, on sax. Most of these jazz organizats played a Hammond B2 with bass pedals, which meant they could play a lead part with their right hand on the upper keyboard and chords or counterparts (and sometimes lead) with the left hand on the lower keyboard. At the same time they’d be changing sounds and controlling the speed with both hands while playing the bass part with their feet. The whole thing was a remarkable balancing act. And of course the grove and texture of the B3 was sexy cool. It made you want to order Cutty Shark and soda. Garth played a whole other kind of organ, the incomparable Lowrey. Different sound, different touch all together from the Hammond B3, and you could bend the notes like a horn or guitar, which completely baffled a lot of listeners. So great when Garth would kick into a free-for-all jam by himself, with those bass pedals in full effect. Gave you the shivers.

One night after we finished playing Tony Marts, Garth began telling me about some ideas and effects he was experimenting with. He was always devising new modes of ‘hot rodding’ the Lowrey organ and its Leslie speaker to create brilliant new sonic wonders. As he described his research and discovery approach, most of it went over my head, but the results were undeniable. The sounds that came out of Garth’s keyboards or wind instruments had originality stamped all over them. Garth experimented endlessly, like a Harry Partch or Les Paul. He never stopped wanting to expand on his technical abilities inside or outside the instrument. None of the rest of us Hawks was so inclined. 

Some people wanted to know how a watch works, and other people just want to know what time it is.

Quite regularly on our days off I would head up to New York City, sometimes crashing out with our Canadian pal Mary Martin, who had taken a job working for Albert Grossman’s management company. She was always so supportive and would try to turn us on to new music that was happening, like John Sebastian’s new group, the Lovin’ Spoonful. Sometimes one or two of the other Hawks would join me on these excursions into the city, but it soon became evident that I was the one most drawn to the metropolis….

Of all the groups that played Somers Point in the summer of 1965, Tony Mart’s personal favorite was Levon and the Hawks, though it was sometimes hard to tell whether he like the swampy sound of our music or the ringing of the cash registers.

Towards the end of our stint, our relationship with Tony had grown warm, almost familial. He hired us to finish out the season, which proved ideal for future recording sessions and continued access to the city. Everyone in the band seemed to be in a good place during those days.

The only dark cloud that passed over us that summer (other than the enduring stress of the drug bust in Canada) was when we got word that our dear Sonny Boy Williamson II had passed away from tuberculosis, and that the beautiful dream we had of recording together had died with him.

Soon after I got a message from Albert Grossman’s office, asking me to come up to the city on our next day off to meet with Bob Dylan. I’d only met him briefly with John Hammond when they were recording “Like a Rolling Stone.” I asked the guys if they knew any of Bob’s music. I wasn’t that familiar with it myself, though I remembered a song he’d done a few years back called “Oxford Town.” It rang true, and the tone of his voice really stood out for me. Richard offered that Bob’s record of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” reminded him of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”

“Yea,” I said, “That staccato rhythmic phrasing is reminiscent.”

Albert Grossman’s office set up for me to meet with Bob the following Monday. I couldn’t help but wonder what this was all about.

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