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Birth of the Band: Read Inside Story From Robbie Robertson’s New Memoir

Guitarist/songwriter recalls early days with Ronnie Hawkins, meeting Bob Dylan and setting up shop at Big Pink

The true American journey of Robbie Robertson: an exclusive excerpt from his new memoirThe true American journey of Robbie Robertson: an exclusive excerpt from his new memoir

Robbie Robertson recalls how the Band formed in a detailed excerpt from his upcoming memoir, 'Testimony.'

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Getty

Robbie Robertson finally tells his complete origin story in a new memoir called Testimony, out November 15th. In this exclusive excerpt, he retraces the early history of the group that would come to be known simply as the Band.

In 1960, Robertson – a 16-year-old aspiring songwriter and guitarist from Toronto – is summoned to Arkansas by rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins to try out for a spot in Hawkins’ band, the Hawks. Robertson forges a friendship with drummer Levon Helm, and over the next two years helps recruit fellow Canadians Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, touring the American South and Canada.

One day Levon said, “Hey, Robbie, come with me. Let’s go visit my folks. I’m gonna show you Marvell, Arkansas, gateway to Indian Bay.” We’d be driving up in Ron’s big white ’59 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. He smiled. “That’ll turn some heads.”

On the way, he searched the radio dial, lit a Winston cigarette, told me about local legend Sonny Boy Williamson and drove, all at the same time. Sonny Boy had a show on Helena radio station KFFA. “That’s over on Cherry Street, 1250 on the AM dial,” Levon told me. “At 12:15 King Biscuit Flour presents Sonny Boy Williamson and his King Biscuit Entertainers. Brought to you by Sonny Boy Cornmeal!” Levon mouthed the sound of a blues harp. “Wah-oo-whaaa! And that’s just how the show gets started.” He laughed. “They call it West Memphis Blues!”

It just sounded so good, all of it. To my ears, this was poetry coming to life. The names of the towns and rivers, the names of all these characters, everything had its own rhythm down here. Images and sounds started getting stuck in my head.

When Levon and I returned, we ran over some of the tunes from the repertoire, including many songs from Ron’s first two albums, like “Mary Lou,” “Forty Days” and “Southern Love.” Ron was not known to be shy about making his band rehearse relentlessly. Levon showed me driving rhythm parts on the bass, twin-string and upper-octave stuff, playing it Chuck Berry–style. I practiced on my own, too, and ran over the songs until my fingers were bleeding. I couldn’t have been happier.

The Hawk was becoming half-pleased with the possibilities of his new lineup. This band was starting to have confidence and a “look,” something that Ron was always very conscious of. He said, “If my band is good-looking, that’ll bring the girls into the clubs  . . .  and sure enough the boys will follow.” Fred, the outgoing guitarist, was a handsome man with a weathered complexion and a more mature, Southern manner, old-fashioned in many ways and proud of it. Levon was the opposite. He looked young, shiny and magnetic with his blond hair, gleaming smile and highly contagious laugh. Ronnie himself always had a unique, sharp style. He looked the part, mischievous and dangerous in a lovable way – a lethal combination.

Ron saw me as more of a work in progress, but he went out on a limb and offered me the job. “I can see how hard you’re working, and you’re hungry,” he said. “I like that.”

“Great, thanks!” I gushed. “What’s the pay gonna be like?”

“Well, son,” he said, “you won’t make much money, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”

* * *

Many southern rockabilly bands had a fondness for uppers – bennies, dexies, black beauties, take your pick. “Diet pills” they called them, because they suppressed your appetite. They made you talk a lot, set your heart pounding and could make sex iffy for men. If you were a smoker on these “pep pills,” you hated to put one out. They were also known as truck-driver pills, for overnight long hauls. As a road band, constantly on the move, we found them handy for getting to the next job.

The Sixties had rolled in and with them the counterculture quest for expanded consciousness. Like most musicians, we were ready, our curiosity in tow. Some of the rounders who frequented the clubs had pot connections, and of course the jazz cats always knew where to find a hookup. You had to be careful whom you confided in, though; back then the authorities considered pot no different from hard drugs. The consequences of getting busted could be disastrous, especially for bands like ours that had to repeatedly cross the Canadian border.

By this time folk music had developed an enormous swell of popularity in Toronto: Gordon Lightfoot was causing a stir around town, and Ian and Sylvia Tyson were on their way to wide recognition. And just as Yonge Street had hosted the rock & roll explosion, a street in town called Yorkville became a focal point for the folk scene, drawing talent from all across the land. For the Hawks, folk came from the other side of the tracks. It was a kinder, gentler music, sung in coffeehouses where university students sipped cappuccinos. There was nobody drinking cappuccinos where we played, and we had only ever played electric, loud and hard. The Hawks were cut from a different cloth. “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning” had a certain toughness to it, but it still was no “Smokestack Lightning.” We wanted a sound that cut through you, music with a sense of danger and sex that reflected our world.

You could see it in the characters we hung around with. During our tenure at the Concord hotel, our crew included a fellow named Teddy “the Hungarian,” a strong, grizzly chap who would accompany us to the hotel after the gig and park himself in a corner, reading comic books and giggling to himself. If we asked nicely, sometimes Teddy would rip phone books in half for our entertainment.

Sometimes Levon invited a small, mentally challenged dancing dynamo who talked in riddles over to the hotel after the show. Freddie McNulty delighted Levon. He brought him to our Sunday-night gigs and let him sing and dance with us; he gave him money, protected him from bullies, bought him clothes and made everybody around appreciate Freddie’s unusual ways.

Robertson (second from right) with Helm (center) and Hawkins (front) in London, Ontario, 1963.

One night, Ronnie invited a pretty young lady who looked to be about 21 back to the hotel, where we were hanging around with our dates and friends. Before long, one of the road managers brought out a selection of pills and we passed them around like they were jelly beans, everyone choosing their favorite color. The girl with Ron picked out a Tuinal. He laughed and warned her that she could get very stoned on those babies, but she took it anyway and ended up completely wasted.

A few nights later, this young lady’s brother showed up outside the Concord at closing time with a crew of street thugs, yelling and threatening that they were going to kill the guys who had abused his sister. They had guns and knives. This felt serious. We ducked back into the club, where the owner, Jack Fisher, a savvy guy who rarely lost his cool, reached in a drawer behind the bar and pulled out a .38 pistol. He told someone to call the cops. Then he walked outside. “The police are on their way,” he called out to the mob. “So if it’s a gun battle you want, then that’s what you’ll get.”

The angry gang turned on their heels, scowling and swearing they’d be back. In the days that followed, they called the hotel with threats, showing up in parking lots or standing across from the hotel. Much to our relief, Ronnie got a call to do some recording in Nashville for a Hank Williams tribute album. We were packed up and on the road before you could blink an eye.

* * *

The danger was behind us but still in everyone’s thoughts. After we’d officially passed into the South, we pulled off the highway to visit a gun shop. We bought small derringer pistols, switchblades, black-jacks, brass knuckles, even tear-gas pens – whatever could be easily concealed and quickly accessed. By the time we pulled back onto the highway, we’d spent nearly our last dime, and the Caddies were like two mobile arsenals.

We were headed to Fort Worth, Texas, for a job at a club called the Skyline Lounge, where we had never played before. When we arrived, our jaws dropped open. The club was burned out, blown up.

“Looks like we finally hit the big time, son,” Ronnie said to Levon. “I hope you boys saved up your paychecks.”

Inside, we learned why the place was called the Skyline Lounge: There was no roof. There had been a fire, and the owner either had decided to go with it or couldn’t afford to fix it. We checked into a motel and returned to the club that night, ready to go on at 9 p.m. sharp. All told, the audience numbered less than 10.

About halfway through our first song, a girl started dancing her way toward the stage from the back of the joint. As she came closer, I gradually realized that the club employed a one-armed go-go dancer to entice people to get up and dance. She spun over to one table, sprightly swinging her lone arm in the direction of the people seated there. We were spellbound, watching the patrons trying to avoid her gaze. At last, a few songs later, a lone couple got up and joined her on the dance floor. Things were picking up. The owner of the place looked on approvingly. Still, I wondered, how is the guy going to pay us?

Suddenly, a tussle broke out in the middle of the dance floor. The next thing I knew, one of the guys had pulled out some kind of weapon. With no warning, he shot tear gas at the other guy from very close range. The man clutched his face and crumpled immediately. Everyone shrieked and ran. As the cloud of gas drifted on the wind in our direction, we were left teary-eyed on the stage, playing for no one.

When we wrapped up – which wasn’t much later, as no one could breathe for the gas – the club owner approached us with more great news. “Boys, this building ain’t exactly secure enough for you to leave your musical equipment unattended.”

“You’ve got people stealing drum sets and guitars?” Ronnie asked.

The owner nodded. “We sure are sorry about that. If I were you, I’d stay here and guard ’em.”

Our booking ran for a week, so we decided to take overnight shifts in pairs, guarding our instruments with our new handguns. Throughout the week, the owner, whose name was Jack, would pop in on us in the middle of the night.

“Does that guy ever sleep?” Rick groaned, shifting his pistol to his other hand.

You could tell by Jack’s grinding jaw that he was into uppers. He had another club over in Dallas that seemed to be doing well, and he was trying to get the Skyline off the ground, too.

The crowds were picking up night by night, but Jack didn’t want to pay us until the weekend. We were hungry. Desperation set in. Being from Canada, we had brought big overcoats with us, so we threw them on and headed to the nearest Piggly Wiggly grocery mart. One of us picked up a loaf of bread and some mustard, while the other filled his overcoat with bologna, cheese, cold cuts and a few cupcakes for good measure. We stuffed our bellies like long-lost refugees, headed back to the Skyline, finished our gig, got paid – not as much as we’d hoped – and hit the highway, thinking that the strangeness was over.

Only it wasn’t. A few months later, on November 22nd, 1963, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, and two days later, his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was in turn shot by a mysterious nightclub operator with ties to the Mob. As the assailant’s face was splashed across newspapers for days on end, a bizarre realization settled in for all of us Hawks: The owner of the Skyline Lounge was none other than Jack Rubenstein – otherwise known as Jack Ruby. The man who had hired us only a few months before to play his weird, burned-out club in Fort Worth, Texas, had shot and killed the assassin of President Kennedy.

* * *

Robertson, Helm and the band break off from Hawkins, hoping to record under their own name.

In the summer of 1965 we had booked a gig at a big dance club in Somers Point, New Jersey. Tony Mart’s was a hot spot, a popular club that sometimes had three bands playing on separate stages over the course of the evening. In between dates, we would head up to New York City to meet with production companies that had seen us play and were interested in signing us.

One afternoon, blues guitarist John Hammond came by the hotel where I was staying to collect me for a trip downtown to a hip record store. I threw him the keys to one of the Monarchs and he floored it, ripping down Seventh Avenue. Then he hit the brakes and said, “Oh, man, I forgot something. A friend of mine is recording around the corner and I promised I would stop by. Can we go in for a minute and say hello?”

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, and then to John, “You wanna hear something?”

“Yeah, 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. “All right, go ahead, play it back.”

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.

* * *

Robertson, Helm, Manuel, Danko and Hudson end up backing up Dylan on his infamous 1965–66 world tour; at every show they are greeted by boos from audiences unhappy with Dylan’s switch to electric. Helm abruptly quits the band in frustration at one stop. After they come off the road, Robertson, Manuel, Danko and Hudson are back in New York City, trying to figure out their next move.

In this Jan. 20, 1968 file photo, Bob Dylan, center, performs with drummer Levon Helm, left, Rick Danko, second left, and Robbie Robertson of The Band at Carnegie Hall in New York, in Dylan's first public appearance after his 1966 motorcycle accident.

At the end of July, Albert called me at the hotel with a tremor in his voice. He said Bob had been in a bad accident on his motorcycle. Bob had flipped over on the bike and fractured his neck. I was shocked. “What hospital did they take him to?”

Albert explained that Bob had gone for treatment to a particular doctor in Middletown, New York, from whom he could receive private and intensive care. I asked the key question: “Is he going to be able to recover from this without permanent damage?”

“It’s too early to say,” Albert replied.

I tried calling Bob’s wife, Sara, but she was with him at the doctor’s. Then I told Garth, Rick and Richard. We were all really worried, not knowing how badly Bob was hurt. When someone says “broken neck,” you can’t help but think the worst. When Sara got back to me, she said they thought Bob would heal in time, but it could be a slow process. He would need some traction and then he would have to wear a neck brace as long as necessary. She said, “I’m sure he’ll check in when he’s recovered a bit more.” In the meantime, Albert said, all touring would be canceled indefinitely. We would remain on standby until we knew how well and when Bob would recover.

Back in the city, the guys had been looking for a rehearsal space; everything they found was too expensive. And when I tried to get a room for my girlfriend, Dominique, and myself at the Chelsea Hotel, the manager said they were almost completely booked up; the only room left was on the main floor and looked out onto a dark alley.

When I mentioned our problem finding a rehearsal space to Albert, he said, “I think you guys really should consider finding a place up in Woodstock.” The good news was that, after a short time, Bob was recovering from his injury really well: He only had to wear the neck brace part-time and could turn his head without turning his whole body. He suggested Richard, Rick and Garth come up to Woodstock, too, and we could play some music and maybe do some filming as well.

It felt good for us all to be together again, playing some tunes and having some laughs. Bob liked the idea of us moving up there, so Rick went on a mission to search out what we were looking for, usually dragging Richard along. The idea was to find a clubhouse – a place where the guys could live, with a space for us to make music. Dominique and I were the only couple, so we would get a separate place.

* * *

One day Rick came bounding into the “Red Room” at Bob’s house, where we sometimes played music. “I think I found it!” said Rick. “It’s very private. You wanna go see?” We drove to West Saugerties and up a remote side road to a long driveway. When we turned in, there it was: a pink ranch-style house in the middle of a hundred acres – a ridge of mountains, a good-size pond and nothing but space and wilderness all around.

The house was modestly furnished with essentials, just enough for a quick move-in, and ready to go. A large fireplace greeted us, and on the mantel was a decorative device put there by the landlords. Standing about eight inches tall and a foot wide was a picturesque lowlands scene with a river running through it to distant mountains. When Richard hit a little switch on the side of the device, the river lit up as if it were flowing.

Richard rejoiced. “This could be just what we need.”

I agreed. “Let’s take it!” The slightly ugly pink house had four bedrooms, a dining area, a kitchen, a living room and a basement. That was my focus: turning that subterranean space into what we’d needed all along. The goal was to use whatever gear we could from our live show to create a setup that would let us discover our own musical path. I brought over the little quarter-inch tape machine I’d been using at Bob’s house. The only effect was an Echorec tape delay, which was a bit noisy with hiss, but who cared? This was it!

* * *

I couldn’t wait to take bob out to West Saugerties to visit Big Pink. He picked me up in his blue station wagon. He had his dog, Hamlet, with him – a big black German shepherd-poodle mix with curly fur and a distinct funky smell. As we cruised toward Big Pink, I told him about our clubhouse music-factory concept, and that the boys and I thought we were onto something. Bob had recorded mostly in proper studios, and I didn’t know yet if he could relate to this idea.

As we trailed up a long side road, I rolled down my window to let some of Hamlet’s scent escape. “Where is this place?” Bob asked, amused. “Man, nobody’s going to bother you out here!”

Canadian-American rock group The Band. Pictured Robbie Robertson in 1971.

Richard had a pot of coffee brewing when we arrived, and Rick was stocking the refrigerator. “Just like home,” Garth remarked as he stood in the entrance with a screwdriver in hand. Bob looked the joint over like a sergeant appreciating a tidy barracks. When he saw the setup in the basement, he scratched his chin, looking pleased. “This is great. Can you record anything here?” In response, Garth played back some experimental taping we had done. Bob could feel our vibe loud and clear. He said there were a couple of song ideas he had kickin’ around and it would be good to try them out with us at Big Pink.

After a quick game of checkers, a coffee and a smoke, Bob would sit down behind the typewriter. Sometimes that was a signal for me to hit the basement and get a couple of guitar parts going, making sure there was tape on the machine. We were always afraid of running out of tape and were too poor to buy extra, so we recorded on a slow speed.

Pretty soon Bob and the other guys would descend the stairs and take their positions behind whatever instrument they felt like playing. Bob would strum a little intro on the acoustic guitar and away we’d go. “Too much of nothing can make a man ill at ease/One man’s temper might rise, while another man’s temper might freeze.” More often than not, we would have a tough time making it to the end of the song without breaking up laughing.

Nominally, the logic behind these recordings was to put together a collection of new Bob Dylan tunes that other artists might cover. After we would lay down a cut like “Too Much of Nothing,” Bob might comment, “OK, that one would be good to send to Ferlin Husky.” He was only half-kidding.

Songs poured out of Bob and we tore through them; if lightning struck and you weren’t around, the show went on without you. I had to run a couple of errands before the stores closed, and when I got back, they had recorded “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” and “Million Dollar Bash.” We smoked a jay and laughed ourselves to pieces at these recordings.

Albert began seeing the Hawks in a different light – hearing Richard and Rick sing and getting a flavor of our kind of songwriting created a space for us in his mind, independent of Bob. He called me the next day and said he wanted to pursue getting us a record deal right away. His first choice was either Columbia, Bob’s record label, or Warner Bros. This was music to my ears, and I couldn’t wait to share the good news with the boys. For the first time, everybody had a sense that we were on track with our musical journey.

* * *

“Hey, boys. Hey, Duke. What’s going on, baby?” Levon said over the line from Memphis. “I’ll tell you what’s going on,” I told him. “You need to get your skinny butt up here to the Catskills as quick as the wind will carry you.” It was good to hear his fantastic chuckle. My heart jumped a beat. “When you get here, you should stay over at my house with me and my girlfriend, Dominique.”

“Whoa, you got you a girlfriend, do you? Well, I’ll look forward to meeting the sweet thing.”

Then Garth, who never got too outwardly emotional, said, “I really look forward to seeing you, Levon,” and I could hear he was touched by that.

Richard called out, “Come on, Lee, we already got your drums set up.”

“I can get up there by Tuesday. How’s that?”

“Perfect,” I said. “See you then.”

Bob, too, was happy to hear that Levon was going to join us at Big Pink. Nobody had any hard feelings from his sudden departure – that was all water under the bridge at this point.

The boys and I drove down to pick up Levon at LaGuardia Airport in Richard’s 1947 four-door Oldsmobile. There he was, with his suitcase in hand, looking good and healthier than the last time we had seen him. It felt great to see his “sorry ass” again, as he would say. First we cruised to Big Pink to show him the clubhouse, which we were feeling quite proud of. He took it all in with a look of wonderment. “Damn, boys. I like this,” he said, laughing. Then, as Rick handed him a pipe of grass, “Hell, I’m liking this more and more all the time.”

Robertson and Dominque on their wedding day, 1967.

Anticipating Levon’s return, I had written a tune called “Yazoo Street Scandal.” Levon had once shown me a street in Helena, Arkansas, called Yazoo, and Yazoo was a pretty common name in the Mississippi Delta. The song had some of that voodoo Southern mojo to it, which made it an obvious fit for Levon to sing. We congregated down in the basement and played it for him. I had sung the original recording into a tiny harmonica mic, or “conscious mic,” as Rick called it. Extremely low-fi, reminiscent of what your subconscious might sound like coming through an old-time radio. “Man, that feels good,” Levon said. He turned to Richard. “Beak, is that you playing drums? Man, that’s some good shit.”

It felt so natural to have Levon back in the brotherhood, but I could tell he was taking it all in one step at a time.

Levon and I got into the blue station wagon Bob had given me and drove back into town so I could show him around. We ended up at my house, where I introduced him to Dominique. They hit it off right away. Levon and I took some uppers and stayed up all night telling stories. I filled Levon in on all of our crazy experiences playing around the world with Bob. “It all seems like a dream now, like it couldn’t have happened.” I knew Levon hadn’t been thrilled working with Bob in the past, but I couldn’t express strongly enough how I thought he would feel completely different at this stage. “Bob’s been so supportive, and one of the best friends a guy could ask for. You’ll see.”

I saw a look in Levon’s eyes that told me his concerns were set at ease. “Well, if you say so,” he said, “I’m good with that. I’m in.”

* * *

One day, when Dominique was using our station wagon, Bob picked me up and we headed to Big Pink. He drove cautiously through the center of Woodstock and onto the highway that led to West Saugerties. We were only going about 25 miles per hour. Cars were passing us, some honking their horns. I noticed Bob was wearing glasses I hadn’t seen before.

“How’s your eyesight?” I asked, with images of Mr. Magoo floating in my mind.

He answered, “Pretty good. I just got some new specs.”

“Yeah, I noticed that, but why are you driving so slow? You’re driving like an old lady,” I joked.

He replied seriously, “You can’t be too careful these days. Do you know how many people make a living by jumping out in front of cars and then suing you for everything you’ve got?”

I looked at him, a bit taken aback. “What? Who told you that?”

“Just look in the newspapers. Every day, there’s somebody all bandaged up, suing a guy who was just driving along. But they pick their targets well. They’re out there just waiting for you.”

Back in the car later that day, Bob looked concerned about something and drove a little more hastily than on the way out.

“I’ve had some weird shit happening at my house and I need to make sure everything’s OK,” he said.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“People. Strange people just show up at my door anytime – night or day. It’s really upsetting for Sara, and I don’t know who these people are or what they want. It makes me angry dealing with this shit all the time. You move up to the country for some quiet peace of mind, and they come like invaders on my doorstep.”

This wasn’t the first time we’d had this conversation. “When you’re famous, this comes with the dinner,” I reminded him, “especially the kind of fame you’ve created. People think you’ve got some miraculous insight and they want to be close to that magic.”

“I don’t have any fucking magic!” he blurted.

“Well, obviously they think you do,” I said. “Why don’t you try what other ‘famous’ people do? Hire some security or build a gate. Or have your guy, Bernard, deal with them. He can send them away.”

“He’s tried, but they keep coming. He doesn’t know how to deal with that.” He slapped the steering wheel. “I don’t want to have to build a gate. I don’t want to live like that.”

* * *

One morning while I was running some errands in Woodstock at the hardware store, I overheard a couple saying, “That guy there is with the band. You know, they play with Bob Dylan and stuff.” When I stopped into the Woodstock Bakery in Bearsville, where a grumpy old German woman and her husband made exquisite croissants and pastries, a patron in the shop referred to me as being in “the band.” There weren’t other bands around town at that time, so we got used to hearing ourselves described like this – on evenings when the boys and I were having a bite at Deanie’s, the main restaurant in town, folks would stop by our table and ask, “You making any good music these days?”

We’d usually answer, “We’re trying. Got an album coming out soon.”

They’d walk away saying, “That’s the band. They live up here.”

I said to Rick, sitting across the table from me, “Everybody around here calls us ‘the Band.'”

“That’s what everybody’s been calling us for nearly two years now,” said Richard.

Rick laughed, “We are ‘the Band,’ simple as that. All those other silly names bug me. I don’t even like thinking about it.”

I passed the idea on to Albert Grossman. He thought it was perfect, almost like having no name at all.

One thing we did know for sure: We were a real band.

Adapted from Testimony, copyright © 2016 by Jaime Robbie Robertson. To be published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on November 15th.

In This Article: Robbie Robertson, The Band


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