Levon and the Hawks: “A Real Treat in Store”

Levon Helm takes lead vocals with The Hawks with “Further On Up the Road.”

This blog has been rampant with references to Ronnie Hawkins, one of the Ozarks’ most famous rock ‘n’ rollers, even if he’s more of a household name in Canada than the United States. It can’t be stopped. He was, and still is, an interesting character.

As Hawkins settled for a music career up north, his backing band, comprised of mostly Canadians, became a household name in the United States. But there was one member, anGhosts of the Rockwood Club Arkansan, who also stood out, both through his music and, later, his acting roles, which included blockbuster movies like “The Right Stuff” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

But it’s unlikely that Levon Helm, an Arkansas Delta native who spent considerable time in the Arkansas Ozarks, had any idea what direction his career would take once his music partners – Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel – would break away from Hawkins to start their own group. So, by the end of 1964, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks became Levon and the Hawks.

This was a risky move.

Levon and Hawks Ad
An an open-letter advertisement encouraging people to check out the new version of The Hawks with Levon Helm as front man, replacing Ronnie Hawkins. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Hawkins had always been  the star of the group, with his outrageous stage antics, which often included body flips and other gymnastics. He took lead vocals with the group’s only major hit song, “Mary Lou.” People came in droves to Hawks concerts in anticipation of what “The Hawk” might do next.

An open letter advertisement taken out by Dayton Stratton, owner of The Rockwood Club in Fayetteville, shown to the left, indicates there was some worry about this new incarnation of the band. Here, Stratton made a plea to the public to come listen to the group, which was scheduled to perform a Christmas Eve show, even if it no longer had its original front man:

“This will be the first time the HAWKS have toured this area without their former leader and no doubt many will be hesitant to attend some of the dances for which they will be playing because of the absence of Ronnie Hawkins,” the open letter said. “For those of you who do not let skepticism stand in the way, however, there is, I believe, a real treat in store.”

Four years later, the group would be known as The Band.

From there, the group’s music would continue to evolve profoundly following their association with Bob Dylan as his backup musicians as well as the influences of Woodstock, New York, where they spent much of their time. The album Music from Big Pink would birth majestic pieces like “The Weight” followed by a self-title album that birthed more classics such as “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” There were many others.

But long before The Band would give its 1976 historical performance as shown in Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “The Last Waltz,” five musicians were just hoping there would be a good showing on an early winter’s night at The Rockwood Club.

7 thoughts on “Levon and the Hawks: “A Real Treat in Store””

  1. I was at that Christmas Eve performance at the Rockwood. My brother-in-law and his wife were here visiting their parents and my wife and I took them to the Rockwood that night. The guys were fantastic.

  2. Dayton’s son , Randy, has been a true friend of mine and Levon’s throughout our run, together,,
    Randy booked The Band and The Barnburners at times when good paying gigs were hard to find,,
    Bless Yo’ Heart, Son,,,
    Dayton is smiling down,,,


  3. Great picture of a real moment here. Levon’s standing in the middle of that line up for a reason.

    Ronnie’s website has a good discography that lists this for the session this came from:
    New York, September 18, 1961
    Ronnie Hawkins (vocals-1), Levon Helm (drums/vocals-2), Robbie Robertson (guitar), Rick Danko (bass), Jerry Penfound (saxophone-3), King Curtis (saxophone-3), unknown (chorus). Producer Henry Glover.

    Matrix Song title Label & Issue (45 rpm) Label & Issue (LP or CD)
    16309 I Feel Good – 1-3 Roulette 4400 Roulette SR 25255
    16310 Suzie-Q – 1-3 Roulette SR 25390
    16311 Matchbox – 1 Roulette SR 25390
    16312 Further On Up The Road – 2 Roulette SR 25390
    16313 Nineteen Years Old – 2 Roulette SR 25390
    Note: ‘Nineteen Years Old’ was wrongly listed as ‘What A Party’ on SR 25390 on the album ‘Mojo Man’. There are three takes of ‘What A Party’ extant.

  4. Those sessions, and the other stuff that the Hawks cut in 1961-1962 were produced by Henry Glover, a black noteworthy R&B producer (and Hot Springs native) who also worked with country performers, and co-wrote “Blues Stay away From Me” with the Delmore Brothers in 1949. I think they all sound great. Robbie is the sole guitar player for the first time. King Kutis! Another session has Doc Pomus on it, and another has Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, and Cissy Houston on backup vocals. Here’s a cut from that:

    It’s a whole different band than the 50s band, and all of the recordings have this R&B/Electric Blues sound, in a way that’s pretty raw for 1961.

  5. There’s even one song that Glover cut entirely without Ronnie
    Levon Helm (vocals/drums), Robbie Robertson (guitar), Rick Danko (bass), Jerry Penfound (saxophone), unknown (other instruments and chorus). Producer Henry Glover.
    Matrix Song title Label & Issue (45 rpm) Label & Issue (LP or CD)
    16271 What A Party Sequel (UK) NEC CD 266

    It’s not a great song IMHO. But I think that Glover was encouraging to, and saw possibilities in the Hawks working without Ronnie.

    & This is what Glover was doing in 1961:
    In early April 1961, Roulette Records president Morris Levy reactivated New York-based American record label Gee Records as a division of Roulette Records and appointed Glover artist and repertoire chief of Gee Records.[5] Glover’s first release was “Heart and Soul,”[5] a 1961 rhythm and blues rearrangement of the 1938 romantic-pop standard of the same name. “Heart and Soul” (1961) reached No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 popular chart in July of that year and appeared in the 1973 American comedy-drama film, American Graffiti.[6][7] Glover had further success in 1961 in co-writing Joey Dee & the Starliters’ number one “Peppermint Twist”; and two years later, The Rivieras recorded Glover’s song “California Sun” resulting in a Top 5 hit. Glover worked with Louisiana Red during the early 1960s, and also created for a short period his own record label. On it Glover recorded both Larry Dale and Titus Turner.[2] Glover also produced The Essex in 1963 and 1964.[1]

  6. Yeah, it would have been a good one to feature for the theme, but this is really a better song. “What a Party” is basically one of those “how many other singes can we namecheck in this song?” kind of songs. but, you can tell that Glover was trying to get a hit out of them. Morris Levy had tried to make Ronnie the next Elvis, and that didn’t work. Then he tried a folk album (kind of) and a country album, and then Levy basically gave up and let them go back to live work. I think that Glover was trying to take what they did live, and sell it, and may have been trying to market them to black audiences.

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