A Motown song given this distinctive half-time feel by Levon Helm, the Band’s “Don’t Do It” shared little — not even a title, really — with Marvin Gaye’s ancestral original. And yet it said much about the way early R&B music worked as an often-unacknowledged undercurrent in the group’s rootsy amalgam of sounds. You may not hear it in that cadence, so earthy and resonant of Levon, but you certainly do in Helm’s teeth-clinched pain as he squeezes out “pleeeeeease” — turning that single word into an eruption of heartbreak.
It became, in 1972, the second and final song from the Band to reach the Top 40, after “Up on Cripple Creek.” But “Don’t Do It” was already a fan favorite by then. In fact, such was the latent power of their update that, as Helm writes in his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, one Bay Area DJ chose to play a bootlegged version of “Don’t Do It” during the earlier Stage Fright era rather than the Band’s latest single, “Time to Kill.” “I know Stage Fright disappointed some, who felt it lacked that one killer song to tie it all together,” Helm added. “In San Francisco, someone wrote that ‘Don’t Do It’ was that missing link.”
The hit version of “Don’t Do It” emerged from Rock of Ages, recorded during an extended stand in late 1971 at New York City’s Academy of Music. That rather muddy-sounding take, from December 29, would go to No. 34 on the Billboard charts the following autumn. An expanded Live from the Academy of Music arrived in 2013, adding a new trove of unheard songs even as it gave Rock of Ages a long-awaited new shine.
Chief among that multi-disc set’s treasures was yet another opportunity to explore “Don’t Do It” via a soundboard mix from the New Year’s Eve performance. We hear, maybe for the first time, how their brilliant transformation of this song was supposed to sound — in all of its visceral glory. Never has this update’s anguish seemed so present, to say nothing of the Allen Toussaint-arranged horn stabs, Garth Hudson’s manic and magical wizardry on the keys, and Rick Danko’s enigmatic bass. “Don’t Do It” was, quite simply, reborn.
“I never got it like what I thought it should be,” Robbie Robertson told me last year. “I did the best I could at that time, and under the circumstances. But I’ve been living with this, Nick, all of these years – and there were things in the mix, the overall mix, that I was never happy with. I got myself into a predicament, and I had to just ride it out. See, when the record came out — the Rock of Ages record, years ago — the reaction to it was wonderful. In the package now, there’s that great review that Ralph Gleason did [for Rolling Stone in October 1972]. He was one of the best; he was so knowledgeable in music. It was always such a pleasure to read his stuff, or to talk to him about music. So, I couldn’t complain about it then! [Laughs.]”
It’s perhaps no surprise then that the Band returned to this cathartic gem over and over in concert. A squalling, nasty little version of the song also played through the opening credits of The Last Waltz — though the track, in fact, served as that 1976 concert’s encore.
Contrast any of these rambunctious versions with the 1964 original, which was actually called “Baby Don’t You Do It.” The Holland–Dozier–Holland-composed and produced song, a No. 27 pop hit for Gaye on the Motown-subsidiary Tamla label, is a sleek, handclap-driven confection — more memorable, perhaps, for its call-and-response with the Andantes than for anything else.
The Band’s versions, on the other hand, arrive with ozone-scented crackles of emotional lightning. Listen as Danko, still unfurling a serpentine bass line, offers a keening second voice that only adds shape and force to Helm’s unforgettably bewildered cries. (Danko’s endlessly mysterious groove is perhaps best heard on this 1973 recording from Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium.) Meanwhile, Robertson’s riffs are metallic, rockabilly and wild, even as Richard Manuel and Hudson brilliantly tangle on the piano and organ, respectively. They could have dragged those parts out of the back door of any Delta shotgun-shack saloon.
Together, the Band creates something more than what came before. It became something deeper, something harder to quantify, something that felt both like sweet release and the worst kind of hurt — the very heart of what great rhythm and blues has always been. And, at the same time, uniquely their own.