Somers Point '65

 

[Editor's Note: This story was originally published in 2005. It was updated June 16, 2010 with new information]

In the 40 years since Bob Dylan "plugged in" for his notorious electric tour, it's become even more evident how that string of concerts affected the world of popular music.

As author Ron Bowman notes in the fantastic liner notes to the recently released boxed set, The Band: A Musical History (Capitol), Dylan's 1965-66 tour with the Hawks (later re-christened the Band) set the standard for future rock performances.

"Dylan and his fans had come out of the world of folk music where audiences remained seated, respectful, and paid rapt attention to what was being delivered from the stage," writes Bowman. "Dylan performed with those expectations in mind ... [and with] the Hawks effectively signaled the transformation of rock and roll to rock, the shift from the performer as pop idol to the performer as artist."

After debuting his live electric sound to a crowd of folkies (some booing) at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and releasing the groundbreaking, six-minute single, "Like A Rolling Stone," Dylan decided to take his new sound on the road. He also turned to one of the summer of '65's most popular Jersey Shore bar bands to back him.

Levon and the Hawks were playing a summer-long engagement at Tony Mart's on Bay Avenue in Somers Point, an immensely popular nightspot -- especially among Philadelphia-area college students -- for its seven bars, go-go girls, and constant supply of hip bands.

The five-piece Hawks were a hard-playing, rugged group of virtuosos whose original sound was an intense combination of R&B, rockabilly, soul, country, folk and rock music. Even a few years before they would release their highly influential Music From Big Pink album (as the Band), the group stood out from their contemporaries.

"It was incredible because so much of what was going on at Tony Mart's at that time was more like schtick and pop music," says Carmen Marotta, a Somers Point councilman whose father, Anthony Marotta, owned the club, which closed in 1982. "But this was a band that was incredible for their virtuosity and their intensity and their jamming."

Led by Arkansas native Levon Helm (drums, vocals) and Canadians Richard Manuel (piano, vocals), Rick Danko (bass, vocals) Robbie Robertson (guitar, vocals) and Garth Hudson (organ, saxophone), Levon and the Hawks played six nights a week at Tony Mart's. In return, they received a regular paycheck ($1,300 a week), plus room and board for the entire summer.

As Marotta remembers, although the band was still wearing suits and patent-leather shoes, they were so into their music that some nights they had to be pulled from the stage.

"One night, my father had to send guys to the stage three times to shake the group off because it was two o'clock and it was illegal to play music after [that time]," says Marotta.

Although he was only nine in 1965, Marotta remembers the Hawks' amazingly tight four- and five-piece vocal harmonies, which even back then, were one of their trademarks. People from all over, Marotta recalls, were coming to the Mart that summer to see "these white guys singing soul and blues and funk."

A front-page story published in the August 24, 1965 edition of The New York Times noted that Tony Mart's was "the wildest spot on the New Jersey shore and perhaps the entire eastern Seaboard."

A few weeks before the article came out, which included a photograph taken inside Tony Mart's showing the back view of a band playing, which could very well be the Hawks, Bob Dylan got word of this hot playing act. It's been rumored that Dylan sent down some folks from New York to catch the Hawks play at the Mart.

According to Marotta, some believe Dylan came down to check them out himself.

"My sister, Tina, swears that there was a skinny guy in a trench coat that came down, but it's never been authenticated," he says.

In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, Helm remembers that Dylan phoned Tony Mart's in August 1965. After introducing himself to Helm he asked him: "Howja like to play the Hollywood Bowl?"

Marotta says Helm probably took the call in a phone booth located towards the rear of the Mart.

"That's where you would take those kinds of calls," says Marotta. "It was the only place you could hear."

Soon after the phone call, it was Robertson who went to New York to meet Dylan, agreeing shortly thereafter to play guitar with Dylan on a few scheduled dates. Helm eventually joined the band, too, playing a late August show in Forest Hills, N.Y. and then the Hollywood Bowl.

Although the rest of the Hawks wouldn't join Dylan on the road until Septemeber (for a show in Austin, Texas on the 24th and Dallas on the 25th) and then from October 1965 through the following year, the Hawks ended their residency at Tony Mart's soon after Robbie and Levon went to play with Dylan.

As Michael Corcoran wrote in the Austin American-Statesman in 2005, "The Austin appearance and the next night's concert in Dallas were the only two shows in the month between concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. Many biographies gloss over these historic dates and there are no known bootlegs.  At a San Francisco Press conference a few months later Dylan is still commenting about the reception from the Texas audiences."

Marotta remembers that Tony Mart's sent them off with a big party.

"They were beloved," says Marotta. "My father got them a cake on their last Sunday night. It was announced that they were leaving. Nobody cared about Dylan. The focus was that we were losing the Hawks."

Tony Mart's may have lost a great bar band, but Bob Dylan gained one of the greatest ensembles that ever backed him. He would continue to work with them intermittently until 1976 when the Band decided to call it quits.

In a recent interview, featured in the new Martin Scorsese picture No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Dylan acknowledges the significance that the band he "discovered" in Somers Point had on his historic 1966 tour:

"The guys that were with me on that tour, which later became the Band, we were all in it together, putting our heads in the lion's mouth," says Dylan. "And I have to admire them for sticking it out with me. Just for doing it, in my book, they were, you know, gallant knights for even standing behind me."

Dylan's alluding to the constant booing he and the Hawks had to endure each night during that tour as most of the audiences wrongly expected to hear only acoustic Dylan. In fact, the adverse reactions from some of the audience members were enough to cause Helm to drop out of the tour altogether.

Marotta says that years later Helm once told him that the band was very unhappy after first leaving the Mart to join Dylan.

"They were wildly popular and they were worshiped at Tony Mart's," he says. "Then they went and played that first gig and got booed and they were like, 'What the hell are we doing here?'"

Four decades later, it's obvious. They were changing rock music forever.


Further Listening

A few recent releases showcase the highly influential and always magical creative output of the Band and Bob Dylan.

The Band: A Musical History

This five CD, one DVD box set comes with a 108-page book, and takes you from 1961 recordings of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks up to material from The Last Waltz. Among the 102 tracks are album cuts, outtakes, live recordings (some with Dylan) and dozens of rare recordings including two from the summer of 1965 recorded in Somers Point. Although the track list refers to "(I Want To Be) The Rainmaker" and "The Stones I Throw" as being recorded in a "Hotel Room in Somers Point," Marotta notes that this is an error. "There was no hotel room," says Marotta. "The Hawks stayed over top of Tony Mart's. These would have been recorded [there] -- or in the house next to my house, which they leased."

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

This nearly four hour "picture," released last month and airing subsequently on PBS, documents Dylan's early journey from his childhood in Minnesota to his arrival on the early '60s Greenwich Village folk music scene to his turbulent 1966 world tour with the Hawks.

Insightful interviews with Dylan, Joan Baez, Al Kooper, and many other Dylan contemporaries give priceless glimpses into the artist and the period of time surrounding his early recordings. A related 2-CD soundtrack (the seventh volume of Columbia Records' long-running Bootleg Series) features 26 previously unreleased Dylan recordings including outtakes from the Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde sessions. A Nov. 30, 1965 take of "Visions of Johanna" features the Hawks.