FOURTH COAST ENTERTAINMENT
By R O Donnell
May 1, 2015
"Professor Louie" Hurwitz
Every now and then a musician comes along who carves out such a unique footpath in the industry that few, if any, can follow it. They're so unique, in fact, that the so-called "mold" that made them is inevitably broken yet preserved piece by piece for all to see, so that we may stand in awe of its splendor. Such a human being is Aaron "Professor Louie" Hurwitz, Renaissance man.
High praises, I know, but in this day of hyped-up maladroit reality stars, thespians emulating rock icons, and the endless barrage of bleak "one hit" social media wonders, Professor Louie has certainly earned his due. For one-thing, the man is a bonafide multi-instrumentalist, playing numerous keyboards from the revered Hammond organ to the hand-held bellows-driven free reed aerophone, affectionately referred to as the squeezebox. He also has a seasoned set of lungs. Alongside his copious musical gifts, he's similarly a celebrated and sought after record producer and studio engineer. All this flair, all this capability and he still makes time to share his knowledge by traveling four times in one year to Siberia, Russia where he teaches students English through vocal instruction or by coaching one of his many masterclasses at the prestigious Common Ground On The Hill held at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. In a word, remarkable.
WHEN GOSPEL WAS HOT
Aaron Hurwitz's musical path originated studying piano and arrangement at such prominent institutions as New York City's Henry Street Settlement, Jazz Mobile, and at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) with alumni of the Count Basie-Ray Charles tradition. This brilliant training ground naturally led the young Professor Louie to the flourishing downtown New York Club scene. There he perfected his intoxicating fusion of R & B and Rock & Roll while exploring their roots-oriented styles leading all the way back to 17th century Gospels. Performing on organ or piano with home-grown troupes such as The Mighty Gospel Giants (of Brooklyn) who often shared the bill with other iconic Gospel groups comparably The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Brooklyn All Stars, all aided and abetted in his sophisticated take and inimitable sound.
"I listened to the radio a lot back then, "explains Prof. Louie, a cornucopia of music trivia and shoptalk. "Every Saturday night. That's how I heard many of the Gospel greats such as the Oak Ridge Boys, the Happy Goodmans, and the Blue Ridge Quartet. They were all big in the 70's. In the industrial part of New York there was this after hours club. I forget the name but it was owned by trombone player Nat Allan. It was down the steps of this abandoned subway station, located in one of those storefronts that used to sell cigars, give shoe-shines and such--crazy. Every Monday night it was packed with people wanting to hear their legends, all these Gospel giants coming together to sing after their regular gigs. What a time. I saw James Cleveland and Dorothy Norwood sing on the same bill. 1975-76. Gospel was still hot. It was everywhere."
The Big Apple certainly kept Professor Louie quite busy. From clubs to studio gigs, he was always in demand, but it was never enough to play in THE BAND, to simply be a part of the mix. His sharpened musical sensibilities wanted to exercise more artistic expression, which he discovered by way of studio engineering. This was a time of great innovation in that field whereby Analog tape was giving way to computer based music systems wherein hard disk recorders quickly followed. A richer, fuller sound could be accomplished and as the technical side of recording was evolving so was the producer's role. Such a refined process needed a more erudite vision. Especially if that vision was being nurtured by a person that was not only a consummate musician but a first-rate engineer as well. Professor Louie's unique journey certainly made him the perfect candidate in that regard, for he was more than equipped to oversee and manage the recording of any artist's music. He was, after all, a musician's musician.
WOODSTOCK, NY & THE BAND
Award-winning guitarist, producer, singer and songwriter Artie Traum, who sadly passed away in 2008, was the friendly voice that encouraged Professor Louie to pack his bags for Woodstock, New York. This life-affirming move, a mere 62 miles from Manhattan, eventually led to his collaboration with the legendary Canadian-American rock group THE BAND. Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1989, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, and then receiving the Grammy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 was proof enough of THE BAND's monumental influence over the national music scene. This impression certainly impacted other major artists from the eclectic sounds of the Grateful Dead to psychedelic riffs of Pink Floyd. THE BAND's mix of classic country music and early rock & roll by way of the Motown-style rhythm and blues sound was a perfect fit for the Professor. He understood the musical vibe necessary to co-produce, engineer and perform on THE BAND's last three albums Jericho, High on the Hog and Jubilation.
The eighth studio album by THE BAND, Jericho (with a groovy album cover by Peter Max of the "Big Pink" house where Bob Dylan and THE BAND recorded music in the 60's) was a noteworthy release as it marked the first album to feature the latter-day configuration of the group: Rick Danko (bass guitar, guitars, fiddle, trombone, keyboards, and vocals), Levon Helm (drums, percussion, mandolin, guitar, and vocals), Garth Hudson (organ, keyboards, accordion, electric piano, saxophones, synthesizers, and horns), Richard Manuel (piano, keyboards & vocals), Randy Ciarlante (drums, percussion, and backing vocals), Rick Bell (keyboards, organ, piano, accordion, and backing vocals), Jim Weider (guitars and backing vocals), and Stan Szelest (electric piano). It was during this association that Rick Danko christened Aaron Hurwitz "Professor Louie."
"That was 1985, I think." The Professor reflects with an air of infectious fondness for the times. "Yeah, from the very beginning Rick was the most approachable of THE BAND. And there was so much going on, lots of projects swirling about, movie deals and so on. So Rick had some down-time and wanted to hit the road. He's an amazing musician, one of the best and he just wanted to keep playing. So I followed him to a few Chicago gigs and eventually that lead to us doing duos. We became Inseparable friends. It was during those times Rick started calling me the Professor, you know, "Professor Louie" on stage. Rick was one of the greatest musicians I've ever met, really the greatest. After he passed away, you know, for Rick and all the good times, I just kept the name."
His friendship with the renowned group magically morphed into numerous musical journeys involving television and radio as well as producing projects with the incomparable Danko, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson. These solo albums which included Times like These and Live on Breeze Hill brought together a backing group which consisted of the mega-talented Prof. Louie, drummer extraordinaire Gary Burke, supreme vocalist Marie Spinosa, sassy bassist Frank Campbell, and righteous rhythm & blues guitarist Josh Colow. An astonishing tribe of seasoned pros, they would inevitably go on to form the Grammy Nominated Americana musical group Professor Louie & The Crowmatix.
Professor Louie & THE CROWMATIX
Having the distinct honor of being the only band to have had a live concert recording released by the New York State Museum labeled The Spirit of Woodstock, their music steadily hits the national airwaves. You can hear their tasty mix of rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll on such syndicated programming as Rob Reinhart's independent radio show Acoustic Café and NPR's weekly radio broadcast E-Town out of Boulder, Colorado. All this melodic musical clout began officially touring and recording their original sound in 2001. Never taking a breath, they have released eight studio albums along with two live recordings, and their hottest endeavor Wings on Fire, was released on CD and on 180 Gram Vinyl to passionate reviews.
"Vinyl is hot again, turntables are back," beams the Professor, a slight adolescent twinkle in his voice. "I started in vinyl so it felt like home. All the groves are nice and wide for heavy base and so on. It's a different sound, not better but different. Back in the day, records were mixed, made specifically for vinyl and so they sounded better because that's what the medium was. Mastering was the trick. You really made individual records, you know, mixed the sound for the medium. We'd mix one specifically for the jukebox, another for the radio, and still another for the mass market. It was all about the mastering. Mastering labs, that's were that final process between studio mixes and what the audience is going to hear is performed before heading to the pressing plant. That's the "vinyl sound." There are only ten great mastering ears today, like Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine or Toby Mountain of Northeast Digital Mastering in Southboro, Massachusetts. That's a talent, that's a skill worth noting."
Listening to their CD Whispering Pines (nominated for five Grammy Awards) is a divine and misty occasion indeed. From their haunting cover of the Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson nostalgic hit Whispering Pines off THE BAND's 1969 brown album to Lenard Cohen's heartbreaking In My Secret Life, the album has a soulful longing, a tearful ambiance. Yet in the mix are a number of uplifting toe-tappers such as Nighttime In the Switchin' Yard showcasing Prof. Louie preaching on his Hammond or the oh so expressive Miss Marie singing an R & B version of the Bob Dylan standard Serve Somebody. This is a dazzling array of classic tunes and genres seldom offered on the same play list, an eclectic musical bill that clearly exhibits why Professor Louie & The Crowmatix were inducted into both the New York Chapter of The International Blues Hall Of Fame and The Canada South Blues Hall of Fame.
Another heterogeneous mix of sounds can be found on their Wings On Fire CD. Billed as "Americana with a Twist," here are 13 tunes, mostly original, that offer a brilliant entrée of rock, country, blues and New Orleans flavored compositions. And for all you turntable purists, it's available on vinyl, too!
"We wanted to keep it pretty basic with just the original group, you know, with just a few great covers here and there. Wings on Fire is recorded in the studio but we wanted to capture it "live" with not a lot of technical. In the end, that CD is still the most requested by the crowd. When we play live, our fans shout out the titles to their favorites and we play them. That's what it's all about anyway: the music and the crowd."
Professor Louie & The Crowmatix are an ever evolving mix of master musicians but is comprised of mainly four stars: Professor Louie (organ/keyboards/accordion/vocals), Gary Burke (drums), Miss Marie (vocals/songwriter), and Frank Campbell (bass). Other members that swirl in and out of their glorious mix are the very talented Josh Colow (guitar), John Platania (guitar), and Todd Mihan (guitar).
Woodstock Records AND BEYOND
Of course this extraordinary journey would lead the Professor far beyond simply creating, playing, engineering, and producing. What better way to navigate a monster musical vision to an exhaustible completion than to possess and operate your own record label? With all that talent and know-how, it was just a matter of time before he presented equally skilled and like-minded musicians. And what better name to brand and cradle that entire happening than with a homage to the very town that co-nurtured his vast accomplishments? Hence, "Woodstock" Records was born.
"The legendary Bob Johnston, famous for producing Dylan's Nashville Skyline, and other greats like Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen... just an amazing guy. So Bob and I had made a lot of records together. Back in '92, we were on THE BAND tour bus and he tells me then that the record labels were at their demise and that I should start my own, make it a mainstay for the old-timers and the new guys. So Woodstock Records was launched in 1998 about when internet was taking off. It was perfect timing. It was great advice."
With over 50 albums and specialty CDs produced, engineered, and selling nonstop on their website and other outlets, Woodstock Records shows no signs of slowing down. A recent release and particular favorite is State Of The Union, a super unique resonance defined by rock-hard lyrics, great musicianship, and hand-clapping, foot-stomping melodies all written and performed by the sensational Waydown Wailers. (You'll be able to hear them live, opening for the Professor at the legendary Clayton Opera House in Clayton, NY, Saturday, May 30th at 7:30 PM.) And the soon to be released Rock 'n' Roll Barn is the first single from Professor Louie & The Crowmatix CD Music from Hurley Mountain.
PROFESSOR LOUIE & THE CROWMATIX
"Throughout the Hudson Valley a lot of barns were converted into recording studios, galleries, and dance halls," illuminates Professor Louie. "And in 1982, an old cow barn was transformed into a recording studio in Hurley, NY. That's where we recorded Rock 'n' Roll Barn, at the LRS Recording Studio in their Hurley Barn, of course."
And so Aaron Professor Louie Hurwitz's footpath continues onward, always distinctive, always genuine, challenging all with a musical vision to walk enthusiastically along.
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