Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 262
Wed. Nov 27, 2013
“Up on Cripple Creek”
According to Barney Hoskyns in his book Across The Great Divide: The Band in America, “Up On Cripple Creek” started off as a “throwaway number” that thanks to pianist extraordinaire Garth Hudson who singlehandedly turned this studio creation into one of the most majestic songs on The Band’s self titled 1969 album. Levon Helm explained how “Cripple Creek” morphed from idea to full fledged song when The Band’s drummer said, “It took “Cripple Creek” a long time to seep into us. It was like it just had to simmer with everybody a while. We cut it two or three times, but nobody really liked it. It wasn’t quite enough fun. But we fooled around with it, and finally one night we just got hold of it., doubled up on a couple of chorus parts and harmony parts, and that was it.” While Levon Helm’s rip roaring vocal was one of the definite highlights of “Up On,” I believe it was multi-dimensional keyboard/organist Garth Hudson who brought the sounds of “Cripple Creek” ablaze.
The secret of Hudson’s dynamic organ sound wasn’t a keyboard but a clavinet. Want to talk about influential, not only did The Band spark Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles but also Stevie Wonder as Don Was explained in Classic Albums when the current Rolling Stones producer famously said, “If you listen to “Up on Cripple Creek” I believe Garth was the first guy to use a clavinet as a funk rhythm tune…it was before [Stevie Wonder recorded] “Superstition.” I mean listen to it, I always thought it was a Jew’s harp but you listen to it and [Garth’s] playing a funky wah-wah clavinet.”
Robbie Robertson talked in Classic Albums how Garth’s clavinet was the essential instrument during the recording of “Cripple Creek,” when he explained, “This effect that Garth has the clavinet and the organ are kind of like the lead instrument. The thing that sticks out isn’t the guitar nor the piano, but this Jew’s harp clavinet thing.”
Even though Hudson, as per Robertson’s dissection of “Up On,” technically plays the lead instrument on “Cripple Creek” and his sound is the most dynamic feature, Garth get’s little or no songwriting credit, When asked about his own contribution to The Bands songs, he told Clash Magazine, “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.” Now, after doing all my research, I would’ve liked to have seen the credits on The Band’s song reads: lyrics by J.R. Robertson and music by The Band. That way everybody wins. Robertson and The Band would share credit on the magic they created in songs like “Cripple Creek” where Hudson is The Band member in the rhythmic spotlight; and he wasn’t the first, each of his bandmates, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm took turns as the focus on some of The Band’s greatest songs they recorded at the Pink Room basement, Ray Charles’ pool house and every other place they crafted the memorable music we love and are still in awe of today.
The best praise of Garth Hudson comes from his band-mate and drummer Levon Helm who described The Band’s organist in his book This Wheel’s on Fire as, “To us Garth Hudson was a phenomenon… he was as interested in good polka music as he was in Bach. He could play with Miles Davis or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or at the Grand Ole Opry. We just had to get Garth into the group.” My favorite story about Garth Hudson was revealed in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, The Band’s organist had to be paid an extra $10 a week so he could tell his parents that he was a music teacher and not the keyboardist in one of the most influentially acclaimed bands in America. But being a rock star in his parents’ eye was creating music that could be heard as evil in his part of the country but to that Hudson would reply, “But actually the greatest priests on 52nd Street and on the streets in New York City were the musicians. They were doing the greatest healing work, and they knew how to punch through music which would cure, make people feel good.”
Garth Hudson was the one who was making The Band’s legion of fans and followers feel good when he would punched in his legendary organ and clavinet sound in “Up On Cripple Creek.” When asked by Something Else Reviews, about the genre of “Americana” The Band created, Hudson replied, “We had all our sources. I admired Charles Brown as a singer and piano player. He was very smooth. I found out later on that he played stride and pop songs, or “AABA” songs, very well and had a considerable repertoire. As you think back, during the period he was playing, Nat Cole was also playing. Remember that Nat Cole took the guitar player that was playing with Charles Brown – Oscar Moore. So, there was overlap. All of it blended together.”
Hudson always seemed to deflect his own legacy and instead would take the time to praise his idols like in the interview he did with Clash Magazine, when The Band’s organist said, “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.” Garth Hudson became one of the most influential organist/piano playing genius by trying to emulate the unbridled enthusiasm of his heroes like George Shearing. And that joy can be heard through every key he played on The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek;” incidentally Hudson and his bandmates showed the same energetic fervor when The Band played this single on their historic performance on Ed Sullivan’s Show on November 2nd, 1968.
Robbie Robertson once said when describing The Band’s legacy to Radio.com, “I hoped when we were making music originally, that we would have a timeless quality to what we were doing.” Thanks to Garth Hudson and his passionate rhythmic joy is what makes “Cripple Creek” one of the most timelessly majestic songs on The Band’s 1969 self titled album. Hudson’s clavinet and organ sounds are the lead instrument in this legendary song but even without the songwriting credit, Garth still remains one of rock ‘n’ rolls greatest piano playing innovators of all time, even inspiring Stevie Wonder to use the clavinet in Wonder’s 1972 world wide smash—“Superstition.” The proof was in Garth’s playing and Robertson was right when he described The Band’s organist as “He’s one of the most special musicians that God ever put here.” Enough praise, it’s time for you to press play to relive the genius of Garth Hudson today with the gloriously gratifyingly groovin’ sounds of The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.”