The Band (Contemporary Musicians)
The five musicians who would become known collectively as the Bandobbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Levon Helmirst joined forces as a backup band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s. In 1965 and 1966 they toured with Bob Dylan for a memorable series of concerts, Dylan literally electrifying the world with his new sound. After the tour, the Band settled near Woodstock, New York, and began recording their influential first album, Music From Big Pink. They also continued to record songs with Dylan. Throughout their career togetherhich ended on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, with a concert filmed by director Martin Scorsesehe Band released a variety of important original material, much of which is today considered classic rock and roll.
The Band's roots originated in the early form of rock and roll known as rockabilly. As the craze for this rhythm and blues/country hybrid began to decline in the U.S. in the late 1950s, Arkansas-based Ronnie Hawkins decided to take his band of musicians, which included drummer Levon Helm, to Canada. Touring the Great White North, he picked up Canadian musicians along the way. Guitarist Robbie Robertson was only 15 when he joined the Hawkins aggregation in Toronto, and the other members of what would later become the Band signed up one by one.
Eventually, Hawkins fell out of style with Canadian audiences, too, so his backup group continued without him as Levon and the Hawks. When asked by Melody Maker in 1971 to explain how a primarily Canadian band had absorbed so much of the American South, Robertson replied, "When we first got rolling, we spent five years together playing almost totally in the South .. . with Ronnie [Hawkins] and without Ronnie."
Arrived as Things Got Electric
After half a decade as a road band, the Hawks moved to New York City at the invitation of folk and blues singer John Hammond, son and namesake of the renowned talent recruiter and record producer. They arrived just as Hammond, Bob Dylan, and other New York-based folk singers were experimenting with electric amplification. Dylan and Robertson occasionally jammed together, and both Robertson and Helm were part of the band that backed Dylan for the electrified second half of his August 28,1965, Forest Hills, New York, concert. Helm told Rolling Stone in 1968, "We had never heard of Bob Dylan, but he had heard of us. He said, 'You wanna play Hollywood Bowl?' So we asked him who else was gonna be on the show. 'Just us,' he said."
Dylan played the Hollywood Bowl on September 3, 1965, beginning a world tour that would take him through the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. The tour showcased Dylan's newly electrified sound, which was also featured on his just-released Highway 61 Revisited. Winding up at London's Royal Albert Hall in May of 1966, the tour concluded with two legendry concerts. Dylan's backup bandobertson on guitar, Richard Manuel on piano, Garth Hudson on organ, Rick Danko on bass, and Levon Helm on drumsemained unnamed. Although Helm played a few concert dates in September and October of 1965, he was replacedfter a falling out with Dylanor the rest of the tour by Sandy Konikoff and then by Mickey Jones. Of the Band's stature as a result of their road time with Dylan, the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll related, "People came to see Dylan and went away marveling at his band; by the end of the tour, their place in rock and roll history was secure."
After the tour the Band decided to get off the road for a while and settled down in West Saugerties, New York. Not coincidentally, Dylan lived nearby, in Woodstock. Together, they jammed in a home recording studio in the basement of a house they dubbed "Big Pink." As Rolling Stone described it, "Big Pink is one of those middle-class ranch houses of the type you would expect to find in development row in the heart of suburbia rather than on an isolated mountaintop high above the barn architecture of New York State's rustic Woodstock."
Friends Just Called Them "the Band"
"The band began to grow mustaches and beards and wear hats. It was in Woodstock that people started referring to them as The Band," Rolling Stone reported. Robertson explained their nameless status to the magazine, stating, "You know, for one thing, there aren't many bands around Woodstock and our friends and neighbors just call us the band and that's the way we think of ourselves. And then, we just don't think a name means anything."
The Band's first album was appropriately titled Music From Big Pink. It included cover versions of three previously unreleased Dylan compositions, "I Shall Be Released," "This Wheel's on Fire," co-written with Danko, and "Tears of Rage" co-written with Manuel. Most of the other songs on the album were penned by Robertson or Manuel. According to the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, "[Music From Big Pink] was a revolutionary album in many ways: The emphasis was on ensemble work rather than on the soloing that had previously dominated rock; the melodies, few of them blues based, were delivered by an ensemble that was almost orchestral in scope, yet comprised of only five musicians; the lyrics were elusive, like Dylan's, but with a distinctive and compelling cast. Enigmatic? You bet." In addition to recording songs for their first album, the Band had also backed Dylan in the studio on some of his compositions, which were released in 1975 on the two-album set The Basement Tapes.
The Band's second album, simply titled The Band, was their breakthrough LP; though the group had by then relocated to Hollywood, this tribute to rural living and times gone by earned them sizeable financial reward and enabled them to tour as a headlining act. Soon other artists, including Joan Baez, began recording their songs. Billboarddescribed the group's sound in a 1969 concert review, explaining, "The Band is essentially a folk group with a souped-up sound, and yet, though highly amplified, their tones do not jar. They are, instead, listenable, even soothing." By this time Robertson had emerged as a gifted songwriter and producer.
Piano and Organ Created Unique Sound
One of the unique aspects of the Band's sound was their use of both piano and organ. When asked by Melody Maker how they happened upon this innovative combination, Robertson said, "We were into gospel music... not particularly spiritual gospel music, black gospel music, but white gospel music. It was easier to play, and it came more natural to us. We were trying to get a bigger sound going one had like piano, guitar, bass and drums for a long time, and we tried horns and all kinds of things but there were too many people. So we realized that the only instrument that could make that fullness, and take the place of horns or anything like that, was an organ. We met Garth [Hudson] at that time, who was a hundred times superior to any of us.... I mean he was, to us, just a phenomenon. He could play rings around all of us put together." Robertson concluded by saying he liked the sound because "it's full, it feels much more secure."
The Band's next releases, Stage Fright and Cahoots, disappointed many of their fans and received mixed reviews. At the end of 1971 they mounted a New Year's Eve concert at New York's Academy of Music; recordings from the show were released as the two-record Rock of Ages. It was a strong effort, but it contained little new material. The group's next albumhe title of which, Moondog Matinee, was a reference to pioneering rock disc jockey Alan Freed's radio showontained rock and roll oldies.
Toward the end of 1973 members of the Band appeared as backing musicians on Dylan's Planet Waves LP. Shortly after the recording sessions, Dylan and the Band announced a joint tour. It was Dylan's first scheduled tour in eight years; fittingly, it had been the Band who had accompanied him on his last tour, the landmark mid-1960s world expedition. The 1974 cross-country tour began in Chicago and ended in Los Angeles. Most of the tour dates were at large venues, including stadiums and coliseums like New York City's Madison Square Garden and Los Angeles's Forum.
Dylan Remained Catalyst to Greatness
The tour was a major event. The concerts featured alternating setshe Band backing Dylan, Dylan accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, and the Band doing its own songs. On a good night, some 30 songs might be performed. But, as noted by Billboard's Sam Sutherland in his generally enthusiastic review of a concert in Philadelphia, "One of the few disappointments of the afternoon was the lack of new material from The Band. Robbie Robertson's own writing has revealed a richness of style, and a unique sense for distinctly American problems and experiences... .But their sets here... focused on their older material."
Sutherland went on, however, to compliment the Band on its role as backup for Dylan. "As it stood, their contributions to Dylan's tunes were extraordinary. Had they simply recaptured the drive of those tunes performed during their tours in the mid '60s, the music would have been strong enough. But their evolution since, while subtle, became palpable in the new force behind those tunes, a force equally generated by Dylan." The superb two-album set Before the Flood captures the excitement of that 1974 tour and includes many of Robertson's most popular and highly regarded compositions. Among these are the best-selling "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," which gained much recognition as a Joan Baez cover.
In 1975 the Band released Northern Lights-Southern Cross, their first album of original material since 1971. The following year they played live for the first time since 1974, at Stanford University, where they were received with great enthusiasm. Later in 1976 they announced that they would no longer appear live. Their final national performance was on NBC-TV's Saturday Night Live.
Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham staged a farewell concert for the Band on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, at San Francisco's Winterlandhere, according to the The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, they had first performed as the Band in 1969. The Band was onstage throughout the concert, which featured guest appearances by luminaries including Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Stephen Stills, Ringo Starr, and the man who had given them their break and whom by then they had eclipsed, Ronnie Hawkins. The five-hour concert was recorded and released as an album; an acclaimed film of the extravaganza, by director Martin Scorsese, was released in 1978. Both the album and film were titled The Last Waltz.
Early in 1977 the Band released Islands, the last fruit of their contract with Capitol Records. Although the group had curtailed concert performances, there were expectations that they would continue to record together. But this was not to be. Individual members went on to solo projects or became involved in record production; Helm, for one, dabbled in actingis role as country singer Loretta Lynn's father in 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter was widely praised. Robertson, who also did some acting, has perhaps been the most visible and successful in his solo career. In the end, though, the group that Sam Sutherland had called "our most mature and authentic rock 'n' rollers" simply disappeared after reigning at the forefront of popular music for more than a decade.
On Capitol Records, except where noted
"The Weight," 1968.
"Up on Cripple Creek," 1969.
"Rag Mama Rag," 1970.
"Time to Kill," 1970.
"Life Is a Carnival," 1971.
"Don't Do It," 1972.
"Ain't Got No Home," 1973.
Music From Big Pink, 1968.
The Band (includes "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), 1969.
Stage Fright, 1970.
Rock of Ages, 1972.
Moondog Matinee, 1973.
(With Bob Dylan) Before the Flood, Asylum, 1974.
(With Dylan) The Basement Tapes, Columbia, 1975.
Northern Lights-Southern Cross, 1975.
The Best of the Band, 1976.
The Last Waltz, Warner Bros., 1978.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Páreles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Rolling Stone/Random House, 1980.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
Billboard, October 25, 1969; November 24, 1973; January 19, 1974; July 10,1976; November 20,1976; December 11,1976.
Guitar Player, December 1976; January 1988.
Look, August 25,1970.
Melody Maker, May 29,1971.
Musician, September 1987.
Rolling Stone, August 24,1968; January 29,1976; December 16, 1976; December 30, 1976; May 19, 1977; June 26, 1980; November 4,1991.
Time, January 12,1970; March 17,1986.