Professor Louie and the Legacy of Rick and Levon
Were you able to make contact with Lee before his passing in April.
I had heard he had taken ill from some of his relatives a few months before it was announced. At that point, I really didn’t feel like calling Lee to talk about that so I just sort of let it take it’s course out of respect to everybody.
They knew if they wanted to reach out to me, they could call me at anytime and I would be there in a heartbeat. I just felt it wasn’t my place at that point to reach out. I didn’t feel comfortable. Lee and I had talked at different times – there was always leftover business from The Band.
I did go and walk around the property a couple days before the funeral when they had it open to the public. I stayed all day and made contact with a lot of friends and family.
Can you talk about your friendship with Rick?
That was a very special time in my life. Being friends with everyone that surrounded The Band was very special. Rick was one of the originators and also one of the most original people you ever met. The friendship evolved because when we were on The Band bus, I always brought a little keyboard and then Rick would come out with his guitar and say ‘Hey, this song goes like this.’ They wanted me to learn The Band repertoire because since I was co-producing the records, engineering and mixing the TV shows. They wanted me to have the knowledge of the music as much as possible, so I could do the best job for them. My energy at that time was 100 percent there. I wasn’t doing anything else. Rick was one that wanted to show me a lot of stuff.
So me and Rick started playing shows because we were hanging on the bus. One day he called me up, ‘Come on you’ll drive and bring your keyboard.” Of course I brought a better rig, I brought the accordion. And then I started singing along with him because why not, it’s Rick Danko and you want to practice your singing. Maybe not in the microphone, I was singing maybe 10 feet from the mic and he’d say, ‘You’re really singing great, you got to put that in the mic.’ We became more and more friends and I really tried to help him as much as I could because he had gone through problems and tragedies in his life and I had no problem jumping in and helping because he was showing me so much. We had a really nice relationship together and it was fantastic for the few years I did that with him. We had known each other since 1984 till he passed in 1999, but we didn’t start doing duo solo gigs till 1996.
Rick gave you the nickname of Professor. How did that come about?
My middle name is Louis. When I first got with The Band my engineering skills were analog, two-inch tape analog consoles with different outboard gear, building electronic gear, cutting tape and fixing things. Then it all switched over to the digital world and he knew I was capable of doing that. Here’s this guy arranging, he’s singing, he’s playing, helping us coordinate Mountain Stage, Television Shows and mixing, this guy must be a professor.
I really got to thank him because he made my career as a musician to start to making a living. He would start saying ‘Professor Louie,’ on live recordings and TV shows and the recording’s started living in infamy.
For a guy to do that of his stature was extremely generous … I’m sure he was doing it purposely to help me because he knew by getting me credibility by him would mean something to somebody. It exists in a lot of places on a lot of TV and radio shows and on live records.
When he passed, I wanted to keep it going. I would call up to play a place in the NY area and say ‘This is Louie Hurwitz who helped produce The Band records and they would say, ‘We don’t know who it is, we’re afraid to do this.’ Then I said, ‘Professor Louie, I played with Rick’ and they would say, ‘We want Professor Louie to play.’ So we had to call it Professor Louie and The Crowmatix.
It must have been really tough for you personally when Rick passed away?
It really sucked.
At that stage in the game, Rick was the glue that was keeping The Band together. We had done the Jubilation record and not everyone was happy with the record and not everyone was happy with the label (River North Records). There was a lot of craziness going on. Levon had gotten sick – diagnosed with throat cancer. There was a lot of weird feelings going on at that point because with all that stuff going on. Rick was keeping that glue together by his presence and when he passed, it sort of got unglued.
I had to give the eulogy at Rick’s funeral. His wife asked me to do that and there I had everyone in The Band including Robbie (Robertson) there, so that was a bad time to deal with all of that. I just tried to keep it rolling the best I could.
Do you still keep in touch with Garth?
With Garth we’re always connected. I helped him make his solo record ( The Sea To The North ) and we played a lot of shows over the years. There’s always some kind of communication. We haven’t played together in a few years because everybody is doing their own thing; traveling and playing a lot. Garth is a tremendous teacher.
When I last saw you perform you played several Band songs. What do you love about playing their music and do you feel a sense of duty or obligation to keep that music alive and well?
One of the things that I respected so much about The Band was that they never imitated the record, and they would play the songs in any fashion. They would keep developing them and change them every night.
I look at their songs as a classic American songbook. Those songs always seem fresh to me, maybe because I played them with the original guys and maybe because the songs were written so well and maybe because their approach wore off on me more than the music. Their approach to the music was more important than anything.
As far as feeling an obligation of keeping the music alive, I do feel an obligation because the audience is just as important to me as the musicians and the music. I happen to know that some people in the audience are coming there who have seen me play with Rick, Levon and Garth and are coming there, hoping that I’ll play some of those songs. And I think The Crowmatix are playing them with such honesty, it’s an extension of how it should be growing, not imitating.
And then you have the audience that never saw The Band or never saw me play with any of the Band members that still want to hear some of those songs and I think and I’m hoping they’re coming to see us because they’re feeling it’s very close to the source. And the closer you are to the source, the more real it is.
Is there a song by The Band that you perform that you feel most connected that you can call it your own song even though you didn’t write it?
“Whispering Pines.” We really made that one close to our own.
You recently released your 8th studio album, how would you describe the new record?
I’m hoping this record will really live forever because there are a couple songs that are just undeniable The record rocks out and it fits into that Band world.
And the record is dedicated to Rick and Levon.
The Band had a song called “Wheels on Fire,” that was on their first album. Rick and I used to play it live. So when I was thinking of the name for the record, those guys we’re on fire when they played, so we’ll just call it Wings On Fire.