We first ran this fascinating article way back in 2018. It seemed an especially good time to revisit it now.
After working with The Band for five years, we finally got a record company break. In previous years, it was very hard to release your own record. It was not like it is today. Indeed, The Band came from an era in which you needed to have a record company in order to move forward. We tried many attempts to get a record deal with a large label and finally, Rick Chertoff from Columbia/Sony Records gave The Band an opportunity. The only issue was material. Little did I know at the time that this would be the beginning of a long relationship between me and The Band!
See Related Content: “The 10 Best Songs By The Band You May Have Never Heard”
1. “Atlantic City,” Jericho (1993)
The Band had lost their main songwriters Robbie Robertson after The Last Waltz and Richard Manuel who had passed away, so Rick Chertoff decided he would assign different writers to work with The Band to get material together for their comeback album. He asked Jules Shear to come write with The Band. He wrote a song with the guys called “Long Ways Across Tennessee.” Garth and I worked on the demos and came up with great accordion lines to start the song then put them between verses, played the solos and made the accordion the lead instrument. Garth and I worked tirelessly on Jules’ demos and “Long Ways Across Tennessee” and the accordion lines and mandolin gave that song The Band sound. At that time it was a fairly innovative idea. We gave the demos to Rick but for many reasons, he never chose to bring The Band in the studio to record any of these songs.
He did present The Band with a few songs that he thought might fit. I remember being at Levon’s discussing “Soul Deep” by Marvin Gaye, Prince’s “1999” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Columbia Records had released Bruce’s album Nebraska a few years back with “Atlantic City” on it. He finally agreed to take The Band into the studio in New City, New York and bring in The Hooters to help The Band along.
The Band recorded “Atlantic City” along with a version of “Soul Deep” and “Blind Willie McTell” with Rick Chertoff but the winning track was “Atlantic City.” Garth applied the same treatment as “Long Ways Across Tennessee” to “Atlantic City” and it was magic. Since they recorded three songs in one night none of them were finished.
Not too long after that session, Rick Chertoff left Columbia (Sony) and that ended that deal for The Band. However, another affiliated company, Pyramid Records picked up The Band’s contract and gave us the go-ahead to start recording again. I always knew the version of “Atlantic City” that was recorded in New City could not be beat. However, with new people in charge, they tried and tried and could not even get close. Now it was my job as co-producer to go to back to Pyramid and let them know they had a hit version of “Atlantic City” if they could just purchase or lease the tape of the recording that was originally done in New City. They finally approved.
I went back into the studio, recorded all the harmonies with Rick, Levon, Randy, and myself singing the chorus and got Garth to work on all of his accordion parts to get them just the way he wanted. Levon’s drumming was just great. I finally got all the parts together and then I headed down to Lookout Mountain where Pyramid had their recording studio. I mixed all the parts together and got it just the way I wanted the song to sound. I brought my mixes of the songs back to The Band in Woodstock and they approved them.
I headed up to Gateway Mastering in Maine for Bob Ludwig to master the record. Bob is one of the best in the business and was the mastering engineer on Big Pink. I lobbied hard to involve Bob with the final sound of all The Band records I produced and that’s the sound we all hear today.
2. “Blind Willie McTell,” Jericho (1993)
I was never sure how Rick or Levon got a hold of this song but I know Rick was performing the song in some of his solo shows. When I first started working with The Band in the 1980s, it was in the repertoire but the arrangement was never settled on. When I was finally given the opportunity of producing the Jericho CD, I knew we had to nail it down. This was my first opportunity to help make major decisions by one of the greatest rock n’ roll bands in history, The Band, seventeen years after they made one of the most monumental music movies in history, The Last Waltz. I knew it was necessary for The Band to record a song by Bob Dylan and give it a true Band arrangement. They had tried recording “Blind Willie McTell” with another producer but no one in The Band liked that recording and the guys were not going to accept that version on their new record. I knew we had to re-record the song.
I sat down with Levon and Rick and the first thing we discussed was having a song on the record that they could split the lead vocals taking different verses and lines. This recording technique was used early on in their first recordings. Everyone would sing the song and then pick who sang the best lines and verses. They agreed that “Blind Willie McTell” could work that way because the song had six verses. Once we had the idea for the new arrangement, I had to go back to the record company, ask them for a budget to go to Bearsville Studios right outside of Woodstock, New York, and re-record the song with the new arrangement. To add more pressure, it became my job to call Bob Dylan’s management and make sure the song could be re-recorded and if it made the grade be placed on the new Band record.
See Related Content: “Robbie Robertson: His Musical Legacy.”
I was given the go-ahead by everyone involved. We went into the studio and started working a very long session starting early in the afternoon and finishing up the next day early in the morning. We wanted to capture the live feel of The Band so I asked all six members to come to the session and play on “Blind Willie McTell.”
Our concept to record the song was to lay down the music first with instrumental breaks between verses. After a few takes, we realized that Garth was not being utilized enough and started to come up with an arrangement that he could be featured with some great fills. We also decided we needed to have the vocals sung live.
I was the engineer and had to make sure there was enough separation between the instruments and the vocals so if we got that magic vocal, it would not get masked or interfered with by any instruments on the vocal tracks. This is always a challenge for engineers especially with drummers who sing.
On this session, Levon worked tirelessly to capture the correct vocal and drum beat so we recorded the song over and over until he was satisfied and felt he really knew the song. Rick who opens with the first verse had to get his phrasing just the way he wanted so he did not mind to record the song as many times as it would take to get the right version. This was not The Band style in the studio and if we did not get the right take on a song by the third time, we would move on and try the song another day.
When you can record with the whole group live in the studio you can hear exactly how it will sound. We needed to do this to make sure we had beat the original version. It is the best way to get a strong feel and the proper dynamics. Because of the great talent of the guys, we were able to utilize Levon playing drums and singing. Randy Ciarlante, the second drummer of The Band, could then lay down the beat, add cymbals and toms along side of Levon. Richard Bell, the great keyboard man on electric piano, could hold down the groove as Garth could create mysterious sounds utilizing the synthesizer and soprano sax, and Jimmy Weider could play the acoustic guitar to give the song that acoustic feel which kicks the song off. Rick on the bass who was singing verses was able to lay the bass line working with Levon and Randy. It really started coming together and at one point Levon came up to me and said that the song is finally marching.
I left the studio feeling like we accomplished our mission but I still had to pick the strongest vocals per line and verses which I did by myself in the control room. This was before digital recording so it was extremely time-consuming to balance the vocals, pick the strongest performances and go between Levon and Rick on who was singing what. Luckily for me, Rick gave me a hand. Garth decided that we should overdub Champion Jack Dupree on acoustic piano. You can hear him on those high acoustic piano fills. We added Garth on more soprano sax and Levon on mandolin.
What you hear on this version are the live vocals and instrumentals on that first night of recording. I have to say that “Blind Willie McTell” by The Band is as good a recording as any of their classic recordings, so mission accomplished.
3. “Free Your Mind,” High on the Hog (1996)
To fulfill The Band’s obligation with Pyramid Records we had to make another CD. With the constant touring to promote Jericho, the guys did not have time to do any writing so the search was on for songs to record. Some of the new members of the newly reformed Band would do quite a bit of writing and we would record these songs but nothing was coming together for Levon, Rick, or Garth.
In order for The Band to honor their record contract, they needed to record songs by other artists. It made sense at the time to keep everyone together because new releases are usually followed by a tour. It also gives the press something to write about and provides the fans something new.
One Saturday night I was hanging with Levon at his barn; we were watching Saturday Night Live. The guest musical act was En Vogue. At the time they were one of the hottest groups on the scene. That night they sang “Free Your Mind” on the show. I thought Levon was going to jump out of his skin when he heard it. He thought it was just one of the greatest songs with a positive lyric message. He declared that he would refuse to record or work on the new Band record until we recorded this song. Everyone thought he was kidding around but he was serious. I mentioned to him that he would have to change some of the words to fit and that it was a challenge to make the music and sound fit into a Band recording.
He went right to work changing the lyrics brilliantly. He did not care if the song fit or not it was a song with meaning to him and I think that Levon who grew up in the South when segregation was the law, it had a deep meaning for him to record this song. If I am producing a song it is my job to make the creative ideas of the artist happen as best as I can. The beat of “Free Your Mind” is infectious, and the modern sound of En Vogue’s recording really got him.
I decided to ignore all the nay-sayers and figure out the approach of how to record the song. The song had to be built with a different approach that we had used before. We would record the drums first and then start building the arrangement opposed to recording with everyone at once. We recorded most of High on the Hog at Levon’s barn. The building has a garage with an extremely live sound. It is cement block, a true garage band sound, perfect for this song. The garage is over the control room so I ran microphone lines down into the garage to tie into the recording board.
Randy (second drummer in the reformed Band) set up his drums in the garage. Randy was the best choice to go first. We tuned the drums to a more modern sound and laid down the beat. We recorded the basic drum track and started building the song from there. Next Richard Bell on synthesizer played the hypnotic bass part of the song. Garth and Richard were always experimenting with new synth sounds. He had the perfect sound for the bass line. Rick doubled the bass line with his electric bass and Jimmy did the same on guitar to really fatten the line and make it jump out. We now had a strong foundation and started building that Band sound. Levon added toms and cymbals getting it to a more exciting place. It was time to add the vocal and Levon recorded his lead, singing in one take, sitting on the couch in the control room and it was brilliant. He had been working on the words the whole time we had been getting the foundation together.
Garth was starting to come up with incredible synthesizer parts, intro, solo section, counter lines to get the song into that creative space that only he could do. We now had all the Band members contributing to the song. After all the guys had got their parts together, it still sounded like it was missing something, so I played what we had for Tom “Bones” Malone and asked him if he could come up with a four-piece horn arrangement. I also asked Richard Bell to write a horn arrangement. Both of them really got it. We recorded two different arrangements with the same players. We recorded the horn section at Levon’s studio. There is a small alcove in the main room as you walk up the front steps. The alcove has windows in the back and the sides are open into the big room. I could place the mics in different spots giving the horns a unique sound that was special to the recording. The horn section had strong players consisting of “Bones,” Howard Johnson, and Ron Finck. I was then able to sort through the horns and combine both at different times. They played the arrangements great and the song was complete.
Levon and I listened back and our final thought was our arrangement of the song needed some editing. We made the edits and the song became more effective. At some point when recording a full record, the company wants to hear the progress so they came to Woodstock to listen. They traveled with an entourage and had their secretary with them from down south. She knew the song and flipped when she heard this version. It took all the label people by surprise and with her reaction they got excited. “Free Your Mind” became the single that Pyramid released off of High on the Hog. Pyramid liked it so much they went on to make a promotional video. Additionally, The Band performed “Free Your Mind” on the Jay Leno Show.
Recently, I was on the radio doing an interview at WDST in Woodstock, and out of nowhere, the music director starts letting me know that “Free Your Mind” was one of his favorite Band tracks ever and wanted to know all about the origin of The Band recording it. Well, here it is.
4. “Bound By Love,” Jubilation (1998)
Jubilation was my third full CD that I was producing for The Band. I had worked with them on many other projects and by this time I had produced over 100 songs with them and all the members had confidence that together we could make a great record. We changed labels to Platinum Records out of Chicago, giving us a lot of freedom on choice of material. However, at the end of all negotiations, they decided we should have two well-known stars on the CD. The Band was not much into this idea so it made my job much harder. Not only did they require two famous musicians but they had to approve of the artists. I had presented well-known musicians that were friends with The Band to the label but I was refused more than once.
All The Band members were writing with co-writers and the material was coming together. Levon had a song he was working on with Bobby Charles; Randy and Jimmy were writing songs together, and Rick Danko was utilizing a very talented songwriter from Woodstock, New York (Tom Pacheco); and I was pushing Garth to write a composition for the last song of the CD. I had a premonition that this was going to be the final recordings of The Band and I wanted Garth to get a song on the CD. The decision was made to have this CD be more acoustic. We would keep the electronic instruments down to a minimum. Rick recorded most of the bass parts on an upright which he had not done before. We rented a 1911 Steinway Grand for the record so the piano would have that old parlour session sound and the accordions and harps were always ready.
In searching for known artists, letters went out and fortunately for us, John Hiatt sent a song that really hit Rick, called “Bound by Love.” The song had a strong message and fit right into what we were doing: Garth on accordion, Levon on mandolin, Jim Weider on acoustic guitar, Richard Bell on piano, and simple drums by Randy Ciarlante. We all jumped in on the harmonies.
When we played the song for John Hiatt he really wanted to play a high string guitar and sing some lead lines with Rick. Not only did we get a great song, we got John Hiatt on the last Band CD. It was a pleasure working with John and The Band liked the song and performance. Platinum Records could not have been happier with our choice of song and guest artist.
5. “French Girls,” Jubilation (1998)
I had been recording/engineering with Garth Hudson for years and we had a great working relationship, especially since we are both keyboard players. We traveled the world together recording all kinds of music with different musicians. Before and during all recording sessions, Garth would play these magnificent solo pieces on the keyboards. I always tried to keep the tape machines running when Garth was playing. At one point I even had a designated machine just for him. It was important to record everything he played as he is a musician who comes along once in a lifetime.
The way Garth liked to work was too improvise his parts, listen, and then notate them. This is a very intense way to work. This method turned his improvised parts into hook lines or melodic interludes. He could double, harmonize, and write counterpoint to the original improvised music I recorded and then apply them to all the instruments that he played.
While I was working on the Jubilation CD, I had a sad feeling that this was going to be the last record that would be under the name of The Band and I thought it only proper that Garth should close it out with one of his compositions. I kept playing all the different short solo pieces that I had recorded, but he kept ignoring them.
One night Garth and I were working on overdubs of a song and you could hear from a distance a thunderstorm brewing. Levon’s studio is a barn and not soundproof so the elements from outside can end up being recorded. Just as I was thinking about shutting down the equipment, a loud crack of thunder happened and Garth started playing. I recorded all of it, the thunder and Garth’s short piece on a synth. The next night — we always worked starting around midnight — we got together and I mentioned to him that The Band had enough songs for this CD but was missing a contribution in writing from him. It would be effective if he could write the last song of the album. I now had his attention so I played the short piece I recorded the previous night.
He listened intently and loved the thunder as the intro and that got him motivated. He wrote out the original improvised piece from the previous evening and then started writing tenor, soprano, and bass saxophone lines with harmonies and melodies, combining them with his accordion, all to that one original melody he played on the synth. We recorded all the parts as overdubs weaving in and out of the original piece. “French Girls” was what he wanted to call it. I wasn’t sure if he meant it but I went with it.
At the end of the composition, he created the sound of footsteps that gives the listener the feeling of someone walking away. The song and the arrangement, in my opinion, add up to pure genius and beautiful. “French Girls” comes across as “this is it.”
Before we wrapped up the recording, I played “French Girls” for Levon and he loved the composition and like Garth, was impressed with the thunder intro. He just didn’t think the sound was strong enough, so Levon and I worked in the studio on making it bigger, by doubling, looping, adding reverbs, echo’s until he thought it was the right sounding explosion. It definitely gets your attention and it is not only the last Band song on Jubilation but also the last song The Band ever recorded.
– Aaron “Professor Louie” Hurwitz
Photo Credits: Professor Louie portrait at top courtesy of the artist; all other photos by Marie Spinosa