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, an 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.
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.