The Band, Part 1: The Hawks

Written by WL Woodward

First we need to talk about Ronnie Hawkins.  The Hawk was born in Arkansas in 1935 and took an early interest in music.  At the University of Arkansas he formed the first version of The Hawks and began touring around Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.  I love how they call this ‘touring’ in the bios.  Touring at this level was driving gig to gig in a crowded panel van without windows or a couple of station wagons, eating crap food, maybe getting one hotel room for the entire band but usually some or all the band sleeps in the van.  And the gigs are rarely in nice venues.  It’s shitty clubs with crooked managers and clientele that has never peed over the town line and the girls look like Buicks.  Then you come home without a dime and within a month you’re itching to get back to it.

It’s a very strange trip.  While you’re out there you can’t wait to get home and once you’re home you can’t wait to get back on the road.  It’s hard to explain unless you’ve read Kerouac, but you call home ‘home’ but you don’t pine for the van, the crap food or the weird sleeping arrangements.  Sometimes you miss the guys but as the miles become tears that gets thin as well.  You don’t call it getting back in the van.  It’s getting back on the Road.  Musicians are typically light on their feet and need to move.  So many musicians I’ve known picked the profession because you have to travel.  If you don’t dig that then don’t bother.  It won’t last.   Unless you become a studio musician— but that’s a completely different animal.

So anyway Hawkins and The Hawks are on the road in the heyday of rockabilly, the mid 50’s.  Hawkins gets to know Conway Twitty who’s convinced that Canada is the Promised Land for rock and roll singers, which is weird because Twitty (real name Harold Jenkins) was from Arkansas himself.  But that’s the kind of advice you get from a guy who changes his name FROM Harold Jenkins TO Conway Twitty.  So the Hawk went to Hamilton, Ontario to play a club called The Grange and never left.  Hawkins had his first hit, Hey, Bo Diddley, in 1958 followed by Marylou which made him a star.  He was a fixture in the Canadian rockabilly scene.  His talent, besides an ear for great songs, was poaching musicians from rival bands.  He had some great musicians come through the Hawks, including Roy Buchanan, Fred Carter Jr., who later would play in Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars, Burt Cummings (Guess Who) and David Clayton Thomas (Blood, Sweat, and Tears).  But at first when he moved to Canada permanently all members of the Hawks except Levon Helm quit and went back to the U.S.

Levon Helm

Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm was born in 1940 in Elaine, Arkansas to farmers and grew up in a place called Turkey Scratch.  No, I’m not kidding.  Mark Lavon was a true country boy and started playing the guitar at 9 years old.  There is something unique about growing up in the South and how important music is to families in general.  Life on the farm did not leave a lot of time for leisure, yet in Southern households music was what you did every night after dinner and the kids were all encouraged to play something.  I grew up in NE United States and you had to beg your parents to get you an instrument, and there was no encouragement.  Music was considered a waste of time in our household and my parents couldn’t figure what good it was for.  If your school had a band and you could get a free trumpet that was OK.  But if you wanted to play guitar, you were SOL.

Arkansas was a crossroads for musical styles like country western, bluegrass, blues and R&B, and Lavon soaked in it.  Lavon’s parents took him to see Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys when he was 6, and he decided he wanted to be a musician.  He and his sister Linda started performing for small gatherings and church socials.  In high school Lavon formed his first band, the Jungle Bush Beaters.  Those were the days.  Try naming a band that today and you’ll end up the lead story on CNN.  At 17 he was found by Ronnie Hawkins, and Lavon was asked to join the Hawks.  Lavon’s mom insisted he graduate from high school, so Lavon would play with the Hawks on the weekends.  In 1958 he did graduate, and permanently joined just before Hawkins moved the group to Canada.  After Hawkins started reforming the band in Canada the band members had a problem with the proper pronunciation of ‘Lavon’ and the boy’s name morphed into Levon, which apparently they had no problem with.  Musicians.

Hawkins did have a few hits in the late 50’s and that allowed him to tour Canada and the US with his rockabilly act, and meet and poach new musicians.  Robbie Robertson joined the Hawks in 1960, but since Fred Carter and then Roy Buchanan were the guitar players Robertson stayed on bass until  early 1961.

Robbie Robertson

Robbie was born Jaime Royal Robertson in 1943 to a Cayuga/Mohawk woman in Toronto.  Mom grew up on the Six Nations Reserve in southwest Ontario and Robbie spent summers there.  His kin on the reserve were musical, and encouraged Robbie to play guitar.  In the early 50’s radio was king and Robertson listened to R&B and early rock on stations from Buffalo and Nashville.

At 14 Robbie worked summer jobs on the traveling carnival circuit and also as an assistant at a freak show. This experience influenced a gypsy style to his guitar playing and his music appreciation.  Robertson would later produce and act in the movie Carny, certainly an offshoot of his freak show days. He played in bands around Toronto with his friend Pete Traynor who would later found Traynor Amps.  But at the ripe age of 16 Traynor’s band The Suedes opened for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.  Hawkins hired Robbie for the road crew and the Hawk discovered a budding song-writing talent in Robertson.  They co-wrote a couple of songs for the 1959 Mr. Dynamo album and Hawkins began using the young lad as a sounding board for choosing the songs on the remainder of the album.   By 1960 Robertson was playing bass and in 1961 took over on guitar.  In mid 1961 Rick Danko was added on bass.

Rick Danko

Danko was born in 1942 to people living in Greens Corner, Ontario.  By some quirk he grew up in an area where a number of expatriates from the US South lived and his musical influences were more Hank Williams, Sam Cooke and Fats Domino and other country artists.  He was also bitten early by the music bug.  He quit school in his mid teens to play music full time and at 19 joined the Hawks.

I don’t know how these guys got away with this shit.  My mom would have had me committed if I even breathed that at 14 I thought I should quit school and join a rockabilly band.  I would have been locked in a padded room and force-fed Tiny Tim records until I agreed to go to dental school.            

In the fall of 1961 Richard Manuel was added as a new Hawk on vocals and piano.  Hawkins was smitten by Manuel’s soulful voice and phrasing and after Manuel’s band opened for the Hawks and Hawkins heard Manuel sing Georgia On My Mind, he invited him in.

Richard Manuel

Richard was born in 1943 in Stratford, Ontario.  What the hell was going on in Ontario is probably worth more study, but there had to be a reason why Hawkins loved the area so much he moved there from Arkansas, and now he was filling his band with local boys who would soon become international stars.  To say Manuel was different was an understatement however.  Here was the blues influence.  Richard’s passion was listening to WLAC in Nashville whose DJ’s were spinning Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, and Muddy Waters.  Not a lot of white kids listening to that in 1955.  Richard also started playing young, and at 15 had a band called the Rockin Revols.  This was the band that opened for the Hawks in Port Dover, Ontario, and again at the Stratford Coliseum where Hawkins heard Manuel sing that Georgia tune that changed Richard’s life forever.  He was 18

In late 1961 the last leaf hit the ground.  Garth Hudson was a classically trained multi-instrumentalist who Hawkins hired as a ‘music consultant’, mainly to appease his parents who spent the money on said classical training, and they snuck a Lowery organ through the back door and Garth became a full-time member.

Garth Hudson

Hudson was born 1937 in Windsor, Ontario.  Again with the Ontario.  His mother played piano and accordion and dad played drums, C sax, clarinet and flute.  Garth was encouraged to play and study and the parents sent him to the University of Western Ontario to study classical music.  Hudson also played organ for the services at St; Luke’s Anglican Church.

But Garth chafed under the rigidity of the classical regimen and in 1958 he joined Paul London and the Capers (is that the fish or the hi-jinks?) to play rock and roll.  In late 1961 Hawkins recruited Garth into the Hawks and Garth negotiated a new Lowery organ as part of the deal, and made everyone in the band pay $10 a week for ‘lessons’ so he could tell mom and dad he was a music consultant.  Kids never change.

So now we have it.  By December 1961 the Hawks were those guys that would be a huge part of the revolution that was peeking through the bushes of history looking to see some ankle.


Next Copper:  The Band from West Saugerties.

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