PHILADELPHIA — One of the most mind-blowing episodes in South Jersey music history is that in the summer of 1965, Levon & the Hawks were the house band at Tony Mart’s, a dance club in Somers Point. The group was fronted by drummer Levon Helm and four Canadian members, including guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, who died last week at 80.
And it was there that the band — who would soon become known as The Band — first made the connection that would change the course of music history.
“When we first got there, it was like a gig on our way to New York,” Robertson told me in 2016, while promoting his memoir “Testimony.”
But the band soon hit it off with the club owner, the Sicily-born Anthony Marrota. They also realized that one of their favorite artists, country singer Conway Twitty, was also in residence at the club. So, they ended up sticking around for the entirety of the season.
They frequently headed to a club called the Wonder Gardens in Atlantic City to see Philly-based jazz organists like Brother Jack McDuff, who were favorites of the Hawks keyboard player Garth Hudson, the only surviving member of The Band.
“To have the opportunity not to travel, and have easy access to New York City,” Robertson said. “And have Atlantic City right there, where we would see these amazing jazz groups: Shirley Scott and her husband, Stanley Turrentine. Jimmy Smith, who was one of the kings of that Hammond B-3 sound.”
In “Testimony,” Robertson wrote, “On the first weekend we were there, you could tell the audience was into our type of music. …When we went on, the place came alive. By Saturday night the club was so packed you couldn’t move. Tony Mart pushed his way through the crowd and called up to us, ‘Hey, turna upa tha jukebox!’ and gave a little grin.”
On days off, Robertson and his bandmates would often head to New York, where they first met Bob Dylan, who was recording a new song called “Like A Rolling Stone.”
After they were back in South Jersey, one day Robertson took a call in Tony Mart’s back room from Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, summoning him back to New York.
That started a collaboration with Dylan that would begin in late 1965, with the Hawks backing Dylan on his initial tour after he first went electric in a legendary culture-quaking performance at the Newport Folk Festival. The collaboration lasted for years including “The Basement Tapes” recordings of 1967 and the live album “Before The Flood” in 1974.
“The setup (at Tony Mart’s) was great,” Robertson said to The Inquirer in 2016. “There were three bands on three stages, so there was always music and dancing. Plus, there were a lot of pretty girls in Somers Point. We would go to the beach during the day sometimes in Ocean City, meet girls and invite them to the club at night. … And then I got this call from Bob Dylan. So all of these things added up, and Tony Mart’s was an amazing crossroads on our journey, a really important thing for us.”