Incognito: Garth Hudson

Incognito is our weekly look at the neglected musical geniuses behind some our favorite live acts. Because these instruments don’t play themselves.

By nature, the band The Band itself has always suffered from upstaging of some sort. First it was by Ronnie Hawkins, who had them work as his backing band, The Hawks until 1964. Then, Bob Dylan had them behind him as The Band during his infamous 1966 electric World Tour. Even without big name headliners, fans frequently point to Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm as the better known members within The Band. All the while, original member, Canadian keyboardist Garth Hudson remains unrightfully underrated.

Hudson grew up as a classically trained pianist in Ontario, where he began writing songs and playing professionally with local dance bands at age 12. He joined The Hawks in late 1961 as the oldest member at age 24, and only on the condition that he received the title “musical consultant” and $10 per-week for music lessons and theory. This gave Hudson an authoritative position within the band, and helped him quell his parents anguish over his decision to join a rock group after a lifetime of musical education. They went on to collaborate with Dylan for Blonde On Blonde, The Royal Albert Hall Concert, and the post-motorcycle-accident Basement Tapes—which was recorded in The Band’s pink house in West Saugerties, New York.

As a member of The Band, Hudson played keys and saxophone for the band in their original incarnation, and was an integral part of their most famous albums, Music From Big Pink, Rock of Ages, and the final concert/documentary, The Last Waltz—the iconic rock event that marked The Band’s end in 1976. He mastered the Lowrey organ during a time where most rock artists insisted upon using the Hammond organ. The result was Hudson’s creation of a style and sound that was way ahead of its time.

Hudson remains a highly sought after sessions musician, and has continued to record and release music since The Band’s heyday. He toured with a reformed Band, played with his former bandmates on their solo projects, and has collaborated with Roger Waters. In 2002, he joined Burrito Deluxe, an offshoot of the Flying Burrito Brothers, until his bandmate, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, died.

Check out this backstage footage of Hudson jamming on the accordion with fellow Band member Levon Helm in 1983.