Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song The Weight. This is a terrific folk-rock song by The Band. We will start with the original song by The Band, and then we will review covers from Aretha Franklin and also the Allman Brothers Band.
The Band and The Weight:
The Band was a Canadian-American country-rock quintet. Initially, they began as The Hawks, a backup band for singer Ronnie Hawkins. After they went out on their own, they were eventually hired by Bob Dylan when he switched from acoustic to electric music.
Nearly all of the Hawks played multiple instruments. They were comprised of Robbie Robertson on guitar; Richard Manuel on piano and drums; Garth Hudson on keyboards, saxophone and trumpet; Levon Helm on drums and mandolin; and Rick Danko on bass and fiddle.
Below, a photo of The Band. From L: Garth Hudson; Robbie Robertson; Rick Danko; Richard Manuel; Levon Helm.
The Hawks accompanied Dylan on an American tour in 1965, and subsequently on Dylan’s fabled European tour in 1966.
I was fortunate enough to catch Dylan’s storied “Albert Hall concert” in May, 1966. I have to say the event was “electric,” in every sense of the word. By the way, I saw the actual concert at Royal Albert Hall; the bootleg album titled ‘Royal Albert Hall 1966’ is actually a recording of an earlier concert on that tour that took place in Manchester.
The first half of the concert was simply Dylan, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. For the second half of the concert, Dylan emerged with a backup band. I now realize those were the Hawks – minus Levon Helm, who was sufficiently upset at the boos and heckling for Dylan’s electric rock that he pulled out of the tour.
The acoustics at Royal Albert Hall, at least in my section of the venue, were atrocious. However, the atmosphere was thrilling, and it was most impressive to see Dylan and the band wailing away on songs such as Like a Rolling Stone.
Following this auspicious beginning, members of the Hawks (initially, minus Levon Helm) rented a house, which they named Big Pink, just outside Woodstock, NY. Shortly after his European tour, Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident and moved near Big Pink to recuperate.
During this period, Dylan and the Band recorded a number of tapes in Dylan’s own house, and later in the basement of Big Pink. They included a number of new Dylan songs, in addition to covers of a number of popular songs that interested the group.
The resulting tapes became arguably the most famous bootleg recordings of all time. Various unofficial versions of songs circulated for several years. In 1975, a few of these songs were released on an album called The Basement Tapes. Finally in 2014, Columbia Records issued a 6-CD box set titled The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete. This collection contained 139 tracks that included virtually everything recorded at Big Pink.
Remember, this occurred at a time when the Beach Boys had released their album Pet Sounds, and the Beatles had responded with Sgt. Pepper. The trend was to produce complex and highly sophisticated records that relied on the most innovative technical effects available in the studio.
The Basement Tapes represented a move in precisely the opposite direction. They were simple, home-made tapes with no special effects. Electric instruments had to be turned way down in order that the vocals could be heard. Nevertheless, the music produced here was creative, melodic and moving.
The Band went on to produce a number of highly-acclaimed records of their own. The group was a genuine ensemble of virtuoso musicians who worked together to produce country-rock classics. A 2004 list by Rolling Stone magazine of the 100 greatest artists of all time listed The Band at # 50.
As time goes on, a number of important artists tend to drop off the public’s radar, as younger generations turn to different interests. I am concerned that this may be happening to The Band. My Indiana University colleague Glenn Gass teaches classes in the history of rock music, and he tells me that fewer and fewer of his current students have heard of The Band.
This would be most unfortunate, as I really enjoy The Band and would like to see their music appreciated for generations to come.
The Weight is an unusual and at times mysterious song. It describes a journey by the singer to “Nazareth.”
I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ’bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
Hey, mister, can you tell me, where a man might find a bed?
He just grinned and shook my hand, “No” was all he said.
[CHORUS] Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me
I picked up my bags, I went looking for a place to hide
When I saw old Carmen and the Devil, walking side by side
I said, “Hey, Carmen, c’mon, let’s go downtown”
She said, “I gotta go, but my friend can stick around”
Go down, Miss Moses, ain’t nothin’ you can say
It’s just old Luke, and Luke’s waiting on the judgment day
Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Annalee
He said, “Do me a favor, son, won’t you stay and keep Annalee company”
Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog
Said, “I will fix your rag, if you’ll take Jack, my dog”
I said, “Wait a minute Chester, you know, I’m a peaceful man”
He said, “That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can”
Catch the cannonball, now to take me down the line
My bag is sinking low, and I do believe it’s time
To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one
Who sent me here, with her regards for everyone
The song describes a series of frustrating experiences for the narrator. Nearly every encounter leads to an unsatisfying outcome, with the narrator complaining that it “puts the load right on me.”
The cast of characters includes “Anna Lee,” “Carmen,” and “Crazy Chester.” All of these were people known to Levon Helm from his boyhood in Arkansas.
However, the song also includes various obscure references that might have Biblical significance, such as characters “The Devil,” “Miss Moses,” and “Luke,” and a reference to “waitin’ for the Judgment Day.” The town “Nazareth” could refer to the biblical city where Jesus was born; on the other hand, Nazareth, PA is the hometown of the C.F. Martin guitar and musical instrument company.
The following version of The Weight was produced shortly before The Band’s farewell concert on Nov. 25, 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. This concert was subsequently immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s great 1978 documentary, The Last Waltz.
The performance here was filmed by Scorsese, so that both the video and audio are much better quality than the usual YouTube video.
In this version, The Band are joined by the Staples Singers, who take turns on some of the verses. Addition of the Staples Singers converts The Band’s original country-rock tune to more of a combination country and gospel song.
The initial verse is sung by Levon Helm, and is followed by a verse from Mavis Staples. Helm sings the third verse, Pops Staples the fourth, and bassist Rick Danko sings the fifth verse.
All of the musicians contribute on the choruses, and on the final verse. This particular version features Robbie Robertson on electric guitar, Richard Manuel on piano and Garth Hudson on Lowrey organ.
Following their final concert in Nov. 1976, The Band disbanded. For a time, the group members pursued individual projects. In 1983, members of The Band re-united, minus Robbie Robertson who was then working as a music producer. The Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. You can find their Hall of Fame bio here.
Currently, Robertson and Hudson are the only living members of The Band. Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986, Rick Danko died of heart failure in 1999, and Levon Helm died of throat cancer in 2012.
Unfortunately, there was considerable acrimony among The Band members after they disbanded. Levon Helm’s bitterness towards Robbie Robertson became evident with the publication of his autobiography in 1993.
A major focus of discontent was the fact that Robertson retained the songwriting credits for many of The Band’s songs, and therefore received substantial royalties whenever their tunes were played or re-recorded. Helm insisted that all members of the ensemble made significant contributions to their songs, and felt that the other band members had been screwed out of money that was rightfully theirs.
Another point of contention was the group’s dissolution and final concert in 1976. Helm maintained that Robertson had more or less forced the group to disband. Levon was also miffed that Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the group was focused on Robertson’s role as ‘leader’ of the organization.
It’s difficult to disentangle competing claims in situations such as this. However, it is clear that the aftermath of this great collaborative effort produced long and lingering resentments. What a shame.
Aretha Franklin and The Weight:
We encountered Aretha Franklin in our blog post on the Otis Redding song Respect. We also reviewed her performance of the Gerry Goffin-Carole King song (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. So here we will briefly review Aretha Franklin’s life and career.
Below is a publicity photo of Aretha Franklin from 1967.
Aretha Franklin is rightfully called the “Queen of Soul.” One of the most successful and iconic artists of her time, she was ranked #1 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
She was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she has sold over 75 million records, won 18 Grammys, and had over 100 songs listed on the Billboard charts, including 17 top-10 pop songs and 21 R&B singles that reached #1. No other female artist even approaches those numbers.
Aretha Franklin’s musical talents were apparent very early in her life. She sang in her father C.L. Franklin’s church and accompanied him on gospel caravan tours. There she met Sam Cooke, who was in the process of switching from gospel to pop music, and who mentored Aretha and introduced her to music-industry executives.
Aretha then signed a record deal with Columbia Records. Although she enjoyed some success at Columbia, this was limited because at the time she concentrated on producing covers of old pop standards.
This all changed in 1967, when three great things happened for Aretha. First, she switched labels from Columbia to Atlantic Records; second, she was introduced to the Muscle Shoals musicians; and third, she teamed up with producer Jerry Wexler.
Collaborating with Wexler and the Muscle Shoals musicians, Aretha incorporated her affinity for gospel into her popular music. She possessed a powerful voice, with tremendous range and a marvelous sense of timing.
The Muscle Shoals musicians gave her terrific backing, and Aretha and Jerry Wexler combined to produce creative and memorable versions of her songs. The results were stunning, and Aretha Franklin became a pop music sensation.
Songs such as Otis Redding’s Respect and the Goffin-King song A Natural Woman established Aretha’s reputation as the ‘Queen of Soul,’ a crown that she wears even today, in her mid-70s.
Here is Aretha Franklin’s cover of The Band’s song The Weight, from her 1970 album This Girl’s In Love With You.
Aretha converts The Band’s country-rock tune into a gospel-inspired R&B song. She is accompanied by Muscle Shoals musicians, most notably Duane Allman playing a mean slide guitar. We will encounter Duane again in our next section on the Allman Brothers Band.
There is additional accompaniment from a robust horn group, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka The Swampers. The final touch is added by a sassy group of backup singers. What an enjoyable song!
We are fortunate that Aretha has overcome some serious health and personal problems, and she continues to perform, even after a career of over 50 years. Despite the fact that Aretha has won nearly every imaginable honor in the music business, and the great respect she receives from her peers, her personal life has been marked by challenges and setbacks.
Aretha’s father C.L. Franklin had a scandalous reputation as a womanizer and he apparently fathered a child by a 13-year old girl. Aretha herself had her first child shortly after turning 13 and her second at age 14, and rumors abound regarding the identities of the anonymous fathers.
Her father was shot and became temporarily comatose after a home robbery in 1979, and her sisters Carolyn and Erma died of cancer in 1988 and 2002, respectively.
Aretha was the victim of reportedly rather violent domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband. She has had several health issues, some of which are related to dramatic swings in her weight over the years.
This was combined with her long but eventually successful struggle to stop smoking – a habit that was clearly detrimental to her voice, though efforts to quit her two-pack-a-day habit were also correlated with rapid weight gain.
However, Aretha Franklin has survived all this and still emerged as a marvelous singer and transcendent diva. We are so fortunate to have been able to experience her amazing career. Long may she reign as the ‘Queen of Soul.’
The Allman Brothers Band and The Weight:
The Allman Brothers Band was one of the great Southern rock bands. Along with groups like the Charlie Daniels Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, they re-defined Southern rock in the late 60s and 70s.
Brothers Duane and Gregg Allman grew up in Daytona Beach, FL and were budding musicians in the mid 60s. While Duane worked at Muscle Shoals, Alabama where he became the primary session guitarist, Gregg headed out to the West Coast in an elusive search for fame.
The brothers re-united in Miami in 1969, where Duane commenced to assemble a band. He had in mind a group with two guitarists and two drummers. After some preliminary efforts, Duane settled on a group that included guitarist Dickey Betts, bassist Berry Oakley, and drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson.
At Duane’s insistence, the group added his younger brother Gregg as the group’s lead vocalist and keyboardist. Eventually Gregg also became the group’s primary songwriter.
Below, a photo of the Allman Brothers Band from their 1971 Fillmore East concert. From L: Dickey Betts; Duane Allman; Gregg Allman; Jaimoe Johanson; Berry Oakley; Butch Trucks.
The Allman Brothers were seen as a very promising group, but it took them a while to find their groove. Although record company executives put them under considerable pressure to relocate to a major industry hub such as New York, the band chose to remain in Macon, Georgia.
Various members of the band found inspiration in different musical genres. While Dickey Betts had his roots in country and bluegrass, Duane and Gregg were more interested in a fusion of rock and roll with R&B. On the other hand, Jaimoe Johanson was a big fan of jazz, and in particular was inspired by Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
The net result was that the Allman Brothers adopted an R&B style that also incorporated aspects of both country and jazz. This was particularly evident in the group’s improvisational work.
In Macon, the Allman Brothers band members lived in communal style. They gained a reputation both for their impressive improv jams, as well as for their hard-living lifestyle and heavy drug use. The band became cult favorites in the South, but they remained relatively unknown nationally.
This all changed dramatically in 1971. Over three days in March 1971, the band recorded a live double album at the Fillmore East Theater in New York. The resulting album, At Fillmore East, became a runaway best-seller, and established the group’s reputation for hard-rocking R&B music.
In particular, Duane Allman’s soaring guitar solos were beautifully complemented by contributions from the other musicians. Furthermore, the band showed itself capable of brilliant improvisational work, and more or less immediately they established a national following.
Around the same time, Duane sat in on several recording sessions for the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. Duane and Eric Clapton had begun jamming together, and they seemed to bring out the best in each other.
With Duane on slide guitar and Eric playing his Fender Stratocaster, their work on Layla was absolutely dazzling, and further established Duane’s reputation as one of the greatest living blues guitarists. Although tempted by an offer to join Derek and the Dominos, Duane returned to the Allman Brothers band.
Unfortunately, the first great incarnation of the Allman Brothers band was tragically short-lived. Within months of the release of At Fillmore East, two of the band members and two of their roadies checked into rehab for heroin addiction. Just one month later, Duane Allman was killed when his motorcycle collided with a flatbed truck. And just a year later, bassist Berry Oakley died following a collision of his motorcycle with a bus.
The band soldiered on, adding new musicians and continuing to tour. However, the communal harmony that had characterized the band in their early days began to unravel. Although the popularity of the Allman Brothers Band remained extremely high, the individual members noted a deterioration in the quality of their work.
Gregg Allman had moved from Georgia to the West Coast, where he was spending most of his time with his girlfriend Cher.
Gradually, the members of the band grew apart during these tours, with sound checks and rehearsals “[becoming] a thing of the past.” … The shows were considered lackluster and the members were excessive in their drug use.
As a result, the band dissolved in spring 1976. Initial efforts to get back together produced a couple of albums, but not a cohesive group. Eventually, in 1989 the Allman Brothers Band re-united for a 20th-anniversary tour.
Founding band members Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and Jaimoe Johanson added guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody. They returned to the studio with long-time producer Tom Dowd, and began a heavy touring schedule.
In 1999, the group added drummer Butch Trucks’ son Derek as a guitarist. Although for several years original guitarist Dickey Betts had been the de facto leader of the group, considerable dissatisfaction arose over the musical directions the band was taking.
In 2000, the Allman Brothers Band members sent Betts a letter informing him that the band intended to tour without him. Betts filed suit, and was ousted from the group.
Here is a live performance of The Weight by the Allman Brothers Band, from a concert at New York’s Beacon Theater in March, 2012. The group features Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks on guitar.
Nearly every year, the Allman Brothers performed at the Beacon. Here, the group produces a 10-minute jam that does not disappoint. Susan Tedeschi and Ruthie Foster share the vocals on this song.
The Allman Brothers’ version of The Weight is a shout-out to Aretha Franklin’s cover of The Band’s tune. The vocals clearly reflect this, and in addition Derek Trucks’ slide guitar reprises the contributions of the late, great Duane Allman to the Aretha Franklin song.
A couple of minutes into the jam, Warren Haynes takes a guitar solo. Next, we receive extended contributions from the large horn section. While the guitar work shows off the group’s blues roots, the horns are clearly providing jazz-inspired solos.
Following the sax and trumpet efforts, Derek Trucks produces a virtuoso guitar solo. The group takes its sweet time finishing off the piece, but all in all this is a quintessential Allman Brothers jam.
The Allman Brothers band retired in 2014. They returned to the Beacon Theater for a final show on Oct. 28, 2014, where the band reprised several of its classic songs from their first five albums.
In 1995, the Allman Brothers Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sadly, on this occasion Gregg Allman was so drunk that he was unable to make it through his acceptance speech. However, this had a silver lining, as Gregg was sufficiently embarrassed by the incident that it motivated him to get clean of alcohol and drug abuse.
For the surviving band members, we wish them continued success in their endeavors.