Rock ’n’ roll bandleader Ronnie Hawkins, who hired and groomed Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson to back him in Toronto in the early 1960s, speaks to The Globe about the men who became the Band.
Hawkins takes part in a Thanksgiving-style dinner and a 35th-anniversary celebration of the Band’s final concert (The Last Waltz) Thursday night at The Hard Rock Café, on the same Yonge Street strip where the band then known as the Hawks earned their wings.
You were with them at the beginning in Toronto in the early 1960s, and you were there at the end in 1976, at The Last Waltz concert in San Francisco. Can you compare them, the Hawks and the Band?
They were never, ever what I call tight as they were when they were with me. We were playing too much. We were playing six and seven days a week, and I kept a regular rehearsal every four or five days just to change over new tunes.
To keep things fresh, because you were playing to some of the same people night after night?
I liked to stay in one spot, like the Coq d'Or Tavern on Yonge Street. So that band, over the course of a year and a half, became one of the tightest bands you could ever have, because of the playing time. That’s what it takes, playing all the time and practising all the time. And if you have potential – and they were young and had that potential – you got good.
How did it come together, the tightness?
They were already good, and then I hired [keyboard player]Garth Hudson to teach them a few things. Some of them boys didn’t know how to read music. When my great pianist Stan Szelest left, I brought in Richard Manuel. He wasn’t near the piano player as Stan was, but he had that throat that I liked. He had that throat that could sing that R&B stuff, which I couldn’t do.
You paid Hudson a little extra, to teach the guys music theory and harmony. Did Manuel get better?
After a year of practising and Garth showing him things, he got to where he was really good on the piano. Just pumpin', you know? So, he really got tight. And Ricky Danko on bass really got tight quick. And then they were ready.
They left you in 1964. And by 1976, they were ready to call it quits. Do you know why?
It was a shame they couldn’t keep producing. The combination was really a winner. But there were too many problems. Mostly having too much fun – too many drugs, probably, I don’t know. It was just too much.
Maybe they missed you cracking the whip.
Well, two or three times I was actually called by their manager, Albert Grossman, to see if I could come up and scare ’em straight. And they also brought me to California to see if I could talk some sense into Richard Manuel. He was kind of messed up the most. It worked for a little while, but you can’t keep people from doing anything.
The Last Waltz concert was famous for the lavish Thanksgiving dinner. Did you get a drumstick out of the deal?
I don’t even remember what they were serving. I went down to a wonderful party they had with Joni Mitchell and others. They had a little jam session. Eric Clapton got on drums. Dr. John got on guitar. Everybody was getting on different instruments.
How was Clapton on the skins?
Well, just joking, I said to him, “Eric, you better get back on guitar, because I don’t think you’re going to make it on drums.” And he said: “Well, Ringo did.”
Van Morrison was at the Winterland Ballroom that day. You were a fan of his?
He actually was the one I wanted to see. He was something else. I really enjoyed watching him rehearse. But his story was that he came into the Coq d'Or when he was 14 or 15 years old. His aunt and uncle, from Ireland, lived here in Canada. Van Morrison and his parents came to visit. And they got permission to come into the Coq d'Or.
So, like you, Morrison was there at the beginning and at the end. Which version of The Band was better?
Van Morrison, when he came to the Coq d'Or, saw the Band at its very, very best. But who would ever have realized that The Last Waltz would become a standard now? Every few years it comes back. It’ll be around forever, I guess.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The 35th Anniversary of The Last Waltz, Nov. 24, at Toronto’s Hard Rock Café (416-362-3636); Classic Albums Live performs The Last Waltz album in its entirety at Massey Hall, Nov. 25; also on Nov. 25, a Last Waltz tribute concert, featuring the Sadies, Chuck Leavell and Royal Wood, takes place at Marshall Hall in Kitchener, Ont. (paddlesinaction.com).