At the heart of one of history’s most important groups was the quietest, entirely self-effacing sonic wizard Garth Hudson.
His contributions to The Band, the humble originators of Americana and country-folk-rock protagonists, are immeasurable, so limitless are his talents. Yet Garth has remained unfairly but quite happily anonymous – the ultimate musician’s musician – happy to dwell in the shadows and play. Now, Clash lifts the veil on the life and career of rock’s secret hero to celebrate his 70th birthday.
When was your birthday, Garth?
Garth: My birthday is in August – August the 2nd.
So just recently?
Well, happy birthday!
Why did you decide to come to London to continue your birthday celebrations?
Garth: Well, this was arranged thanks to Joe and Robin Bennett who have the Truck Festival, and it’s been going on for ten years now. We came over thanks to Robin and Joe And Maud, who contacted them through this device here [points to laptop]. We had heard about it and it’s a special event. I think it’s unique.
There may be another that happens for a weekend in honour of The Grateful Dead in the summer in Colorado or over there, and there may be dozens of them, I don’t know, but this one gets a special mention by those who travel from festival to festival; all those people who have the time and tickets to go from there to there.
They also asked you to stick around an extra couple of days to play here in the city.
No one really appreciates my left hand – maybe keyboard players…
Garth: Yeah. They came up with this venue – I was just wondering if I had been here before. I don’t think so. I played in London with The Band and also Burrito Deluxe, with Sneaky Pete Kleinow on steel guitar. Sneaky Pete was the first to use a steel in rock and roll. He is probably the star of… If you look back and try to determine when Americana was born, it was around that time and Sneaky Pete was part of that movement.
He passed on recently.
Garth: Yes he did. He was a funny, sharp, intelligent, creative guy. He created Gumby. He was a stop-frame animator. And in Ringo’s movie, the caveman movie…
Maud: It’s called Caveman.
Garth: …He did the dinosaurs, I believe.
Maud: But he also wrote the song for Gumby. I was gonna say, these two shows are meant to be promotional shows to test the waters here for some folks to come out and check out the combination we’ve got going here and if something comes of it maybe come back next year for a tour or a big event. There are always big events in the back of everyone’s mind.
Garth: Maud has designed a show, which would include The Dixie Hummingbirds, who we have recorded with, and Leon Redbone would be a likely candidate…
Maud: But that’s something else.
Garth: That’s something else?
Maud: Yeah, cos actually the boys are talking about maybe something to celebrate the release, they want it to be more The Band songs. This is unusual for us.
Garth: Yeah, the music that I do back over there, I have an 11-piece group. The drummer and the percussionist Steve are directly connected with the Latin music world, the Latino music scene.
Maud: The name of the band is The Best! with an exclamation point! There are some great players in it.
You’re the only member of The Band playing the music of The Band…
Garth: Oh no…
Sorry, I meant actively touring with the music.
Maud: Levon is doing his Midnight Rambles every other weekend. He even has kids’ rambles. And he is doing more of The Band songs as time goes on now that he’s got his voice back, because you know that he lost it completely with cancer, completely, even his talking voice. And here he is not only talking, he is singing better and better. He sounds like he never had any trouble.
Garth: He sounds great.
Maud: It’s just a real strong voice again. It’s thrilling.
Garth: We should mention his ‘Dirt Farmer’.
Maud: Oh, his new album.
Garth: Along with his Midnight Rambles and the afternoon kids’ rambles.
Will you be playing at any of Levon’s Rambles?
Garth: More than likely. I visited with them a while ago, a year ago, and his group has changed considerably. His horn, brass section, is very confident. It’s a good arrangement. Larry Campbell, who used to play with Bob Dylan.
Maud: We do a song that Larry Campbell wrote for The Dixie Hummingbirds. Do you know who The Dixie Hummingbirds are?
Maud: Well, they are a gospel group and the leader of the group now – it’s a male vocal group – is Ira Turner. He joined the group in 1936 when he was a kid, and he is still strong, man! What kind of music do you call that? He is one of the originators of the type of performance where you do acrobatics like jumping off the stage and jumping up and doing all kinds of athletics in the performance. He doesn’t do that NOW, because he’s older. What do you call that, doo-wop?
Garth: No, I wouldn’t call it that. Well, The Dixie Hummingbirds are rated along with The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama and The Swan Silvertones. The Swan Silvertones had this amazing singer Claude Jeter with an amazing high voice. But there are others.
This is not city gospel; this is…um…guitar-based quintets and sextets. They would go and sing in church but the accompany would not be piano, it would be a guitar, and it differs quite a bit from the city or urban gospel songs, which is piano, Hammond organ, bass, drums, guitar often…
Maud: But just to tie up about The Dixie Hummingbirds, Garth and Levon were recording on their ‘Diamond Jubilee’ album and Larry Campbell produced it. He wrote this one song called ‘When I Go Away’ and we were listening to it and we thought it was this great old gospel song. Then we found out that Larry Campbell wrote it for The Dixie Hummingbirds to sing! We added it to our shows so we will be doing that one.
The two of you have been together and singing for a long time. What do you think is the secret to an enduring partnership?
Maud: Well, the more he sings, the more enduring…endearing? (Laughs) I try to get him to sing more and more!
Garth: The more identifiable I become! No one really appreciates my left hand – maybe keyboard players…
Maud: I do. It’s lovely.
Garth: It’s my singing that allows me to stand apart. Quote unquote.
Maud: Well, it could be that we have a great time. And with Garth he is perpetually progressive and with his sense of humour there are no dull moments there. I don’t think it’s possible for him to even get bored with himself! (Laughs)
Garth: Yeah, I’ve been studying elocution and clog dancing.
That must keep you busy?
Garth: No, infrequently.
Maud: (Laughs) Do you really want clogs in your article, Garth?
Garth: It’s got to have some zing!
Maud: I have seen you throw your foot up on the piano a few times, but I don’t know about clog dancing!
Garth: Oh yeah, okay, we were up there at the Juno Awards in Canada – this is where I really came out as a clog dancer. Ronnie Hawkins was presenting and introducing everybody. Ronnie Hawkins is an Arkansas legend who now lives near Peterborough, Ontario, in Canada. The Juno is the Canadian music awards and The Band was awarded a Juno. This was a long time ago. 1986? ’87? So Ronnie came up there and he was testing the mic.
I walked up and he did one of his dances – he does his camel walk – and the camera was on him. But then he goes like this [points], you know, like ‘You now’, so I did a number, you know, and whatever it was it was rhythmic and it started well and went along and ended well. Sure enough the camera was facing the other direction. I would not be ashamed of that footage. They were on Ronnie or somewhere else.
So that was discouraging. I figured, well, maybe a similar situation would come up, but I think we would have to plan it. Ronnie and I would have to get together beforehand. So I’m getting ready for that, because he was a majestic, wild animal, and funny – he has a thousand funny lines…
Maud: For every waitress! (Laughs)
Garth: And he lined them up in Toronto. That group was Ronnie Hawkins, Rebel Payne, Willard ‘Pop’ Jones, Robbie [Robertson] and Levon [Helm]. There is a picture, you can probably find it. They were a good-looking bunch. I was working with my group in Detroit… Do you mind me going on about Ronnie Hawkins?
Not at all!
Garth: A couple of times he came on up and met us years later at dinner one night in London, Ontario, he happened to be there and I said, “Ronnie, I’m glad you gave me that job. I don’t know what I’d be doing right now!” (Laughs) Who knows? It was Ronnie Hawkins – and of course Levon – who voted that I join the group.
Willard ‘Pop’ Jones had left – he’d got married I believe and moved back to Arkansas – and Stan Szelest, Richard Manuel had replaced Stan Szelest. Then Rick Danko replaced Rebel Payne. So I was the last to come and that was in 1962. I played organ and Richard Manuel – the greatest energy, the most tasteful energy piano player that I’ve heard; he is a study in rhythmic accuracy and push beats. They call them push beats. That means the rhythmic figure that would end a four-bar with something else – or going into the rhythmic phrase. But Richard Manuel was also a great drummer. A natural drummer; he had all these odd moves figured out. Levon said undoubtedly Richard Manuel is his favourite drummer. He is just a natural. And a great voice.
We recorded ‘Georgia On My Mind’ for President…who came after Nixon? Carter. For his inauguration or something we had this 45 recording and Richard was great. You want to see Richard in fine form? There’s a movie we should mention, Festival Express. Richard’s singing was just fine. In fact everybody was right on the money.
Maud: Rick [Danko] too. You know, some people said, ‘Oh Ricky, you look so loaded’ and stuff like that, but you know what? It shows his essence, not his loadedness. It shows his skill, his talent and his sensitivity and instinct with other people. He got all those people to do that, you know? He made sure everyone was involved and the mic was right there. He made sure everything was right for everybody and everyone had a good time.
Garth: He was flying. When I saw the footage a few years ago for the first time…
We began playing songs that had a verse and a chorus rather than the 12-bar blues songs.
Maud: At the Toronto International Film Festival.
Garth: When I saw him I thought, well, Rick is more of himself than I had ever seen him and maybe anybody had ever seen him. He had control over everything that was going on. The words… They were doing ‘Ain’t No More Cane (On The Brazos)’ with Janis [Joplin] and Jerry [Garcia]. He was funny, he was great. He was more of himself than anyone has ever seen.
When Ronnie Hawkins brought you into his group, you joined on the provision that you’d be the musical teacher. To what extent did you actually fill that role, or was that just a scam to tell your parents?
Garth: Oh no, definitely. I came in and… They had their repertoire. They had what they do together, so the changes were subtle. I think the first change that I made was in ‘Georgia…’ I changed the chord progression, which is the one that Richard recorded in honour of Jimmy Carter. But I did buy theory books, little theory books, one for each guy. It was one that I studied, a little blue book. Well, they put them away. There wasn’t much you could get them to do. You would have had to hand out music paper and pencils and erasers and chain them to a desk somewhere to get that part of it done.
Ronnie had said that he thought that they should read more. Ronnie also wanted the group to study acting and had brought that up from time to time from the beginning with the earlier group as well. So we rehearsed a lot. When we were set in Toronto we’d play at the Concord Tavern on Bloor Street West. We’d stay after and rehearse for a couple or three hours, three nights a week, for quite a period of time. Of course, time was different when you’re young – that’s what they tell me anyway!
You know, when you’re in high school you do all kinds of things and when you think back you think, ‘Boy that must have been three or four years’ and it’s like one year! In one year all kinds of things happened when you’re 16, 17 or 18. In the interview last night for the CBC radio thing…
Maud: CBC? You mean BBC? It was Radio 2.
With Mark Radcliffe?
Maud: Yeah, that was it.
Garth: They asked what song or recordings had changed my life, I think that was the general drift. It’s a good question, a great question. I came up with four or five. The first one was a song… When I was a kid we had a wind-up 78 player and so we had this 78 record ‘Wise Old Horsey’ and the other side was ‘Gee It’s Great To Be Living Again’ and the singer was Cecil Broderick. It was released by MRA, which is Moral Re-Armament. What that is we don’t have to get into.
It was originally referred to as Buckman. If you look in an encyclopaedia for MRA, Moral Re-Armament, you’ll see a guy who put this concept together; definitely a right-wing movement that could be brought into parish halls and churches with their film ‘Out of the frying pan, into the fight’. One of their purposes in life was ‘no peaceful co-existence with Communism’. This was the early-Forties.
It was a right-wing organisation, so we’re not sure where the private funding came from, but they did have a centre studio and residence in training centre on Machinac Island – that’s a beautiful island where the Great Lakes come together in Ontario. There’s Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, which is at the bottom of Hudson Bay where it all comes together and the Great Lakes mingle.
So that was the centre for North America and the other was in Caux in Switzerland. When I was in Switzerland a couple of years ago I went to the guy at the desk in the hotel and said, “You got a map?” He said, “Yeah”. I said, “Do you know where Caux is?” He said, “No”. Apparently it has another name – it has two names – and on the map I did locate it but it has a couple of names. A little place, probably in the mountains, picturesque, inaccessible, difficult to find.
There’s more to it than that, but I had these records. When their team, I think they called it, came through Ontario, they’d have their two or three nights in the parish hall with their film and their speakers and so on, encouraging fellowship get togethers and absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute brotherly love. When they came through, this fella – I remember his name, Billy Wake – this was 1943 or 1942 – Billy Wake got us these…cascades? I’m not sure. They were shiny, they looked like new LPs and there were about 12 to 15 songs by Cecil Broderick, who sang the American songs like “Take The Spirit Of The West Where E’er You Go’ and ‘The Old Hometown’ and ‘Barber Bill’ and ‘Junior The Steer’ – it seemed to be that some of these songs were for children.
Then for the UK, the singer’s name was Henry McNicol. Half of them were by Cecil Broderick, half of them were by Henry McNicol. One of them was called ‘Jock McGinty’ – it was funny stuff. It was well written, like British music hall style stuff. So they had these troops or teams going out all over the world with ‘Songs Of The MRA’ – another one was ‘The Mither In Law’, and ‘Herbie McGuff’.
They sound Scottish.
Garth: Yeah, it was definitely Scottish. So I heard that accent sung when I was a little kid. So that was the first recording, ‘Wise Old Horsey’. The second one is ‘Don’t Want No Anchovies On My Pizza Tonight’ by a Dixieland or New Orleans group. I don’t know who they are – at some point I’ll have an archivist research that one. Then the next one was Duke Ellington’s ‘Cotton Tail’. That was the theme song for Jazz Unlimited from CJBC in Toronto every Saturday afternoon.
Then the last one that they chose to play and they wanted me to talk about was ‘Blues For The Red Boy’ by Todd Rhodes – when you hear it you’ll hear the excellent blues jazz player, excellent. That has to do with what we do now: rock and roll. That was at the beginning. Alan Freed was there and gathered together or promoted the phrase ‘rock and roll’.
You’ve apparently been compiling a box set of Levon And The Hawks material for a while now and is yet to be released. What’s happening with that?
Garth: More material keeps showing up, from tape recorders in ladies’ purses…
Maud: And in attics and barns and stuff.
Garth: Under the couches and under the porches…
Have these been found by other people?
Garth: Yeah, a lot of them are like that. Some are studio recordings, some are live recordings… there’s quite a lot.
Maud: There’s a great archivist that Garth is working with on that, and a couple of associates in Toronto that are restoring them as close to the source as possible – most things right from the source – and his name is Jan Haust, and Peter Moore…
Garth: He’s a restoration specialist.
Maud: Well, he also masters albums, like by Neko Case and a zillion people.
Garth: He just did Oscar Peterson finished in 5.1 Surround Sound. He cleans up things. He has the greatest German equipment, $100,000 software.
Maud: So that’s the team really; Garth, Jan and Peter.
So is there a date we can expect this?
Maud: It’s still being constructed, but most of it is done. But it WILL come out.
Garth: What Jan has been finding is stories too. So he is writing. He also writes for television…
Maud: There will be a book with it…and a DVD.
Garth: As far as the Toronto rock and roll scene, he has a lot of recordings from various places of the early groups. He’s been working on The Hawks thing now for 15 years maybe and new things keep showing up.
Maud: It’s not gonna be too longer now.
When you all decamped to Woodstock and starting messing around with Bob for what would become ‘The Basement Tapes’, you were apparently having a great time, finding your own style and way as a band. How important were those sessions to your development as The Band?
Maud: You mean the transition from The Hawks to The Band?
Yes. Do you think that’s where you found your feet?
Garth: Mm-hmm. We began playing songs that had a verse and a chorus rather than the 12-bar blues songs. We did a few of those before but we didn’t anymore. We did songs with the standard form, the form of standards; ‘Georgia…’ was one. But not many of those. It was more the country format: verse, chorus, verse, chorus… And that’s the way that a lot of the writing that was going on around us at the time, that was the common format.
We were watching Bob Dylan sit down at a typewriter and type out a song. That’s what happened at Big Pink upstairs in the living room. I don’t remember him writing on the yellow legal pads so much – maybe some notes were made that way – it was mainly a typewriter.
He’d sit down at his old Olivetti and type it out. Then we’d go downstairs and record it. It was done that quickly; he may have thought about it and the concept beforehand but he did things very quickly and it reminds me about a saying in Nashville: if you can’t write your song in half an hour then it’s probably not gonna make it – you’re gonna get hung up. It comes from the Acuff/Rose people – Roy Acuff and Billy Rose people who are publishers. If you can’t write your song in half an hour, you’re in trouble – which is always true.
The music that you were making there was so far removed from what everyone else was doing, even though at that point in the Sixties there were so many interesting and unique things happening in music. Did you listen at all to your contemporaries to see what they were doing?
Garth: Oh yeah. We heard everything coming from San Francisco. Not everything, but there was a period where you’re driving along in the car from Saugerties to Woodstock and you’d hear Grace Slick. There was something about her voice.
It was the mantra, long note thing possibly. We were also listening to East Indian music a little bit, and the Bengali Bals, which is more basic than the sitar music from the north. They’re from an area near Bengal in India. Albert [Grossman] had them over – he was Bob Dylan’s manager.
They were on the cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’.
Garth: That’s right, exactly.
Maud: Who was in that picture?
Garth: Perna daus, Luxman –this was the early group – and Hari Krishna Das… Was there five of them or three? Luxman is back in his home town. He is a real ball. He is exceptional. His town people revere him. Perna is the laureate, the bell cantor, and he goes all over the world. He is successful, he comes to America often. He plays a kramk. There are three or four spellings to be found. It’s unique and is from that area. It’s the only place you’ll find it in India. It’s a great instrument.
My percussionist Steve said, “What is that sound?” He heard it on the record. I said it was a kramk. He’d never heard of it. He said, “I gotta get one!” They’re Latin players – I got two in the section, Ernie Colon and Steve Elson. It’s a wild sounding thing. I won’t describe it to you. Look it up. You’ll hear it on ‘The Seas Of The North’. We’ll just leave it at that.
Were you listening to the British bands of the time?
Garth: Oh yeah. We had the Cream recording; we played it in the living room there. Also The Beatles, sure we had their recordings. I was saying, we heard long tones being used in the music. It was like music was stretched.
One song that was by Bob Dylan, ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ by The Byrds, I think. I noticed that the guy was a great singer. It was very specially put. Whatever happened in the studio, they may have done several takes, but that was a magic take or overdub, however he did it. His name was…lead singer of The Byrds?
Garth: Yes. He’s still around. That cut through everything. I remember hearing that sound, the approach, you know? I’d like to hear that again. I haven’t heard that for a few years. ‘Chimes Of Freedom’.
Every member of The Band said that they’d come to you with advice on music, while Robbie says that he’d ask about chord progressions or structures while writing a song, so you must have had major contributions in many of The Band’s songs, but are not credited for any. Does that frustrate you at all?
Garth: Everybody influenced songs. Everybody, to one degree or another, so it becomes songwriter versus those who surround them, those who enfold them, and that’s all I have to say about that.
What do you think the legacy of The Band is? How do you think you are remembered?
Garth: Well, we have the recordings and it’s not like chalk on the sidewalk, it’s written in stone. So it joins the hundreds of thousands of recordings since the beginnings of the century in the archives. American music has a fascinating history and over here at the Institute we encourage the young player/performer/arranger/composer to explore certain eras, I guess.
So I have initial compilations which would suggest further study, and putting together compilations is one of the important courses, it’s one of the important requirements. They’re initially given for homework a CD of say McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. OK, to get back to the beginnings of rock and roll, Todd Rhodes played with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1929/30/31 and then in ’51/’52, Alan Freed used his theme ‘Blues For The Red Boy’ to introduce the Moondog Matinee from 5:05pm to 5:55pm for Muntz TV[?] and Manachevas Kosher Wine[?].
So I found my secret space in the basement; I ended up in the basement. My parents didn’t know what to make of this music. I didn’t know they were all black. I didn’t know this was a powerful statement by the black Americans until I bought a Rhythm And Blues magazine – I’ve still got it, number one, and there they are! In one issue they included George Shearing in one of the last three or four pages, but everybody else was black. I listened to music and I was in to jazz by that time, and all I knew was that someone over there in Cleveland, Ohio, was having a whole lot more fun than I was. I guess that’s why the Alan Freed introductory theme is important.
A lot of keyboard players heard that for two or three years – I don’t know, he wasn’t there long – and then he went on the road and went to New York City. Todd Rhodes was off and on that roadshow as a separate band with baritone, tenor, alto trumpet, so we had called that ‘urban small horn band jump swing blues’. So here’s Todd Rhodes with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and later on he’s in on the beginnings of rock and roll with Alan Freed.