By the time Robbie had been with the Hawks a few months, the original Arkansans, except for Levon, had been replaced by Canadians. Earnest young Rick Danko, who knew some country fiddle and mandolin but had been smitten by rock & roll fever when he was in his early teens in the Canadian tobacco belt, was first. Then came Richard Manuel, a smoky-voiced screamer and master of the art of rhythm piano. "The piano was used as a rhythm instrument, with solos on organ or guitar or sax," Robbie explains. "So when you stopped playing rhythm to play a solo, the rhythm wouldn't drop out — the piano was still holding it." The last to join was Garth Hudson, who'd been classically trained and agreed to come only after the others promised him a token fee in exchange for regular lessons in music theory and harmony. It seemed to satisfy his parents, who imagined a different kind of musical career for their son.
The musical director was Levon, who'd come to the Hawks from a Helena group called the Jungle Bush Beaters and liked his rock & roll hard and raw. Hawkins had had some hits in the brash rockabilly vein of the late Fifties and early Sixties — "Odessa," "Mary Lou" — and liked Levon's style, but by 1961 or '62 there were changes in the air. The band added saxophonist Jerry Penfound so it could play soul tunes like Bobby Blue Bland's "Turn On Your Lovelight." With Garth on organ they sported two keyboards and a sax; with Garth on sax they had a soul band's horn section. And despite his classical training. Garth developed a saxophone style in the classic mold. Even today, he will tell you that the art of rock & roll saxophone playing was all but lost in the late Fifties and the early Sixties with the introduction of the Otto Link metal mouthpiece and the arrival of King Curtis and Boots Randolph and their strangled, chicken-clucking sound.
"When the music got a little too far out for Ronnie's ear," Robbie remembers, "or he couldn't tell when to come in singing, he would tell us that nobody but Thelonious Monk could understand what we were playing. But the big thing with him was that he made us rehearse and practice a lot. Often we would go and play until one a.m. and then rehearse until four. And I practiced incessantly; I could go for it until my fingers were just raw. I was interested in doing what those other people couldn't do; I really wanted to be good."
They all drove from gig to gig in the Cadillac, with their equipment in the trailer. The circuit extended from Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee up through Missouri. Then there was the Canadian part: Toronto and out into Ontario. Sometimes they would drive hundreds of miles, from warm, almost tropical weather into sheets of freezing rain or snow. Levon remembers Hawkins looking out at an icy Canadian landscape from the speeding Caddy, turning to him gravely and saying, "Son, it's as cold out there as an accountant's heart."
But Arkansas, Ronnie's and Levon's home state, was their headquarters and prime stomping ground. Across its length and breadth they were legends, and not just for their music. Local bands did copy their arrangements note for note, and budding guitarists got both their kicks and their licks from catching Robbie at national guard armory dances or country roadhouses. "But the Hawks could eat and pop pills and fuck with the best of 'em," remembers a veteran Arkansas rocker. "Ronnie knew every whore between Helena and Toronto."
The lifestyle was decidedly fast. In central Arkansas, for example, they often played the Club 70, a big barn of a place just off the two-lane blacktop of highway 70 between the Little Rock city limits and the Jacksonville air force base. There was a brisk business in amphetamines in the parking lot. To get into the club you had to get past a bouncer who sat in a little glassed-in booth under a blue light, checking IDs. Sometimes a local with his T-shirt sleeves rolled up to his shoulders would sit down in front of the bandstand, chug-a-lug a quart of vodka, chug down a quart of beer for a chaser and dare anybody to start a fight. Sometimes a gang of tough Yankee slum kids from the air base would mock the Arkansas Razorback cheer, "Sooiee Pigs," by yelling "Soooieee, Pigshit," and then there would be real trouble: chairs and tables flying, bottles breaking, black eyes and more money out of the till to pay off the cops. After a night of that, the Hawks would pack, get in their Caddy and drive up into the Ozarks to Fayetteville, Razorback Valhalla, where they sometimes had to wade across a floor that was literally knee-deep in beer cans in order to get to the stage. Mostly, though, they played roadhouses. "You'd just be driving along," says Robbie, "and there'd be this place, out on the road somewhere. At night people would come from all around, it would be packed. You could tell by looking at it that it was only gonna be there for a short while, that somebody was gonna torch it at any given moment. It happened a lot. We'd play in a club and go back a year later and they'd have burnt it down and built a new one."
The Hawks split from Ronnie Hawkins in 1963 and worked for a time under Levon's feisty, determined leadership. And they almost became Sonny Boy Williamson's backup band instead of Bob Dylan's in the mid-Sixties.
"We were in West Helena, just hanging out and talking about the music," says Robbie. "Levon had grown up listening to Sonny Boy on King Biscuit Time [broadcast over KFFA radio in Helena] and we thought about him and said, maybe he's here. So we went down to the holler — Levon knew where everything was — and we asked some people if Sonny Boy was around. They said, 'Yeah, he's playing down at the cafe.' We went down and there he was, a big tall man in a bowler hat, white hair and a white goatee, wearing a suit he'd had made in England that was gray on one side and black on the other, and the reverse on the back. He looked kind of...fine.
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