A lot of artists have touched my soul over the years – the Beatles, Dylan, Van Morrison, Springsteen and a bunch more.
And then there was The Band, four guys from southern Ontario and one from Arkansas, and I loved their tight, down home style, with three of them taking turns singing, and two of them, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, singing like mountain men-turned Ray Charles that would turn ears and heart to tender mush.
The Band, known first as the Hawks, who honed their craft under the strict eye of Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, the wild frontman who’d brought drummer Levon Helm to Toronto from the deep south and created the seed that would become a full blown and beautiful flower.
Gradually the five would find each other, and they soon became the tightest of the tight, paying their dues in every strip joint, honkytonk bar, and redneck tavern from Toronto to Montreal, Detroit to Memphis.
While still known as the Hawks, they would back Bob Dylan during his world-wide tours, and which would end when Dylan was recuperating from a motorcycle accident.
But make no mistake, this was no ordinary backup band. This was THE Band. It was destined that they branch out, find their name and identity, and let the public into their world that for the most part had been behind Big Pink doors, their communal house in Woodstock.
After The Last Waltz in 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco, which was filmed as a Martin Scorcese film, the five of them never performed together again, although they kept going, whether it was solo or in pairs, or simply as The Band minus Robbie Robertson.
In 1985 my first wife and I went to Gerde’s Folk City in New York’s Greenwich Village, a tiny club famous for the fact it was where Bob Dylan had made his first NYC appearance, back in ’61. Richard Manuel and Rick Danko played that night at Gerde’s in front of us and about 50 others, and at one point in the evening, bluesman Paul Butterfield got up and joined them.
It was a true highlight of my life that goes beyond words.
In 1986, Richard Manuel hanged himself in a motel in Florida. Rick Danko died from heart failure in 1999.
I once saw drummer Levon Helm play with his own band at the Nickelodeon on Yonge St. in Toronto. He died from cancer in 2012.
Garth Hudson, the classically-trained genius, is thankfully still alive. Virtuoso guitarist Robbie Robertson is too.
I loved their music then and I do today. Back hills soul, rock and rhythm and blues. Four guys from Ontario – Simcoe, Stratford, London, and Six Nations near Brantford. And one from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas.
The Band. Perfect name, perfect music.