The Band are revered for their seemingly mythological shared musical reciprocity, which revolutionized several musical styles and practically invented the americana genre. Though the group is known for boasting some of the most charismatic personalities in popular music, there was one man silently moving the needle all those years from the back of the stage. This of course was the soft-spoken, enigmatic brain behind The Band, Garth Hudson.
From the group’s days backing legendary frontmen like Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, to their emergence as in the late 1960s as one the premier musical outfits of the day, Hudson’s rich, contrapuntal organ – as well as various other instrumental contributions – lent an air of musical sophistication to The Band’s work which elevated it beyond that of even their most lauded contemporaries.
Today, Hudson, now 84, supposedly resides in an assisted care facility. Those close to the multi-instrumentalist say that, though he remains mentally adept, his physical condition has declined, and he has reportedly been said to feel like “a forgotten man.” One friend of the musician has urged supporters to send cards and letters of well wishes, as it is said he enjoys receiving them.
Fans of Hudson and The Band have been quick to respond, taking to social media to spread the word and to share their own stories of the impact that the virtuoso musician and his music have had on their lives.
Tyrell William Lisson, creator of The Band: A History, has committed years to researching the group’s music at length. When reached for comment, Lisson regaled to Classic Rock History his own experience speaking with the musician and studying his work,
“I think what I’ve learned over the past five years of researching Garth Hudson and The Band, speaking to and interviewing him is that Garth is a deeply kind and intelligent man. He’s willing to share and encourage music in whatever form imaginable. He remains such an influential figure, a pioneer who blazed trails with the organ in rock music. He’s someone that is to this day referenced and inspires. The fact that he’s now in assisted living and having trouble is deeply saddening. Garth has plenty still to offer.”
Music archivist Eric Lallier likewise propounded Hudson’s enormous influence which spanned over countless styles and genres, asserting,
“Garth Hudson is a musical force unlike any other. In a group of incredible musicians, he was the ribbon that tied each song together. Garth was the backbone of The Band’s sound. He plays the keyboard with the elegance of Johann Sebastian Bach, the soul of Teddy Wilson, the virtuosity and stride of Art Tatum, the uplifting gospel of the Anglican Church, and the sense of humor of Fats Waller. He plays the saxophone with the emotion of Vido Musso, the power of Lee Allen, and the swing of Clifford Scott. He plays the accordion with the warmth and intensity of norteño greats like Juan Torres and Flaco Jiménez. He has curated a catalog of sonic textures unlike any other musician before or since. His virtuosity is evident in every measure. He gathered inspirations from all genres to create a sound so distinct it still hasn’t been duplicated, and it never will.”
Far and away, the most musically proficient member of any group of musicians with which he played, Hudson’s playing married complex classical components with down-and-dirty elements of traditional blues. His astounding musical range acted as a key component in what made the music of The Band so unique. In fact, it is said that, in the early days of the group, Hudson was actually paid by his fellow members to give them music lessons.
Some of the most notable recorded instances of Hudson’s impeccable musical instinct include his funky, wah-laden clavinet contribution (which predated Stevie Wonder’s own on “Superstition” by a number of years) to “Up On Cripple Creek,” his emotive saxophone solo for the outro of “The Unfaithful Servant,” and of course, the epic, fiery organ introduction of “Chest Fever” from The Band’s landmark debut album, Music from Big Pink.
The Band’s lead guitarist and chief songwriter, Robbie Robertson, sold the rights to his likeness and publishing to the Iconoclast firm in a deal worth over $20 million, earlier this year. The deal included Robertson’s work with The Band, as well as his solo and film soundtrack work. As Robertson had previously bought former bandmates Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Hudson, out of their publishing shares, this deal does not stand to benefit Hudson or the families of his late bandmates.
Financial compensation has long been an issue of contention between members of The Band, as well as fans of the group. Robertson famously received credit for the writing of the lion’s share of the group’s material, an issue which drummer and vocalist Levon Helm fiercely contended in his final decades of life.
Helm, the sole member who held out from Robertson’s publishing buyout, did not mince words in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. The drummer was candid about his disapproval of the way writing credit was ultimately distributed, contending that the band’s music was composed by the group as a whole, and citing lack of financial understanding of the industry as the reason for not demanding shared credit upon the initial release of the work.
In any case, Robertson has maintained the bulk of the group’s publishing over the years. During his lifetime, Helm would cite this as a source of the financial strain incurred by other members of the group following the dissolution of its original lineup in 1977. Hudson, notably, has struggled in recent years, experiencing multiple foreclosures and having several of his belongings sold off by a landlord in 2013.
The Band: A History can be followed on Twitter at @TheBandPodcast
Eric Lallier can be followed on Twitter at @kingharvest_
Fans Mobilize in Support of The Band’s Garth Hudson article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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