The Band Biography
Last updated: 06/05/2012 12:00:00 PM
by Jason Ankeny
Originally rising to prominence as Bob Dylan's backing group, the quintet known simply and authoritatively as The Band later emerged as one of rock music's most seminal acts. Crafting highly literate, austerely luminous songs probing the mythology of the American experience (the great irony of their work, given the Canadian origins of all but one of their members), their music fused the rural beauty of old-time country and blues with the spirit of rock 'n' roll to forge a uniquely evocative aesthetic far removed from the work of their contemporaries.
The Band comprised guitarist J.R. "Robbie" Robertson, pianist Richard Manuel, organist Garth Hudson, bassist Rick Danko and drummer Levon Helm; Robertson was the unit's chief songwriter, and Manuel, Danko and Helm shared vocal duties. The group slowly came together under the tutelage of American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who first hired the Arkansas-born Helm before relocating to Toronto at the close of the 1950s, where he gradually recruited the other four musicians to round out his backing unit, dubbed the Hawks.
L-r: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson in the Catskills posing for Music From Big Pink. Photo © Elliott Landy.
After scoring a 1963 hit with a cover of "Bo Diddley," they left Hawkins to tour on their own, performing on the American club circuit under names including Levon & the Hawks, the Crackers and the Canadian Squires while honing a loud, gritty repertoire heavily influenced by R&B, soul and gospel.
Upon recording two songs in New York, "Go Go Liza Jane" and "The Stones I Throw," Levon & the Hawks returned to Canada; while performing a club date they were spotted by fledgling blues singer John Hammond Jr., who recruited them to play on his 1964 debut single "I Wish You Would." Through Hammond, they were introduced to Dylan, who enlisted Robertson and Helm to play in his newly-electrified backing group for a controversial August, 1965 Forest Hills performance; Dylan and Helm soon had a falling out, but the rest of the group, with replacement drummer Mickey Jones, subsequently signed on for Dylan's landmark 1965-1966 world tour, sparking a longstanding collaboration that resulted in some of the most brilliant music in the rock canon.
In 1966, Dylan was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. During his recovery period he sought refuge in the secluded upstate New York area of Woodstock, and the Hawks (newly reunited with Helm soon joined him there, taking up residence in a large house nicknamed Big Pink. A period of intense writing and recording followed, with the much-bootlegged results officially appearing in 1975 under the title The Basement Tapes; here the Hawks, soon to rechristen themselves The Band, began to develop the lyrical, pastoral style of their finest work, and they ultimately began crafting material independently of Dylan.
Finally, in 1968 The Band's debut LP Music From Big Pink appeared to widespread critical acclaim, with songs like "The Weight" and "This Wheel's on Fire" emerging as instant classics. Upon moving to Hollywood, The Band began recording their second LP, a self-titled masterpiece issued in 1969; a commercial success as well as a critical favorite, both "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek" became FM radio favorites, and established Robertson among the greatest songwriting talents of his generation.
The Band's first headlining tour followed, with life on the road subsequently becoming the subject of 1970's Stage Fright, which sacrificed the focus on history and myth so prevalent on the first two records in favor of a more contemporary vantage point. Cahoots followed a year later, and featured a guest appearance by Van Morrison on the track "4% Pantomime;" Rock of Ages, a two-record live set arranged by Allan Toussaint, was issued in 1972. For 1973's Moondog Matinee, an affectionate tribute to the formative days of rock 'n' roll named in honor of influential disc jockey Alan Freed's radio show, The Band dipped into their past to resurrect favorite chestnuts like "The Great Pretender" and "A Change Is Gonna Come."
They soon reunited with Dylan, backing him on 1974's studio LP Planet Waves as well as on the massive tour later documented on the Before the Flood live set. In 1975, The Band released Northern Lights--Southern Cross, their first collection of new material in four years; after Robertson produced Neil Diamond's 1976 effort Beautiful Noise, the group reconvened for Islands, issued in 1977.
Prior to Islands' release, The Band announced their break-up, with a celebratory final concert to follow at San Francisco's Winterland on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. Director Martin Scorsese filmed the event, named The Last Waltz; a star-studded group of friends and admirers including Dylan, Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Muddy Waters also took the stage, yielding a three-LP set released in 1977. In the wake of The Band's demise, Helm pursued both acting and musical careers, while Danko quickly resurfaced with a 1977 self-titled solo LP; Hudson turned to session work, Manuel appeared to retire, and Robertson maintained a low profile, scoring several subsequent Scorsese films and starring in the 1980 feature Carny.
In 1983, The Band regrouped; only Robertson refused to take part in the proceedings, and was replaced by guitarist Jimmy Weider. The group spent the next several years on the road before tragedy struck when, on the night of March 4, 1986, Manuel committed suicide after a concert in Winter Park, Florida. In 1987 Robertson finally issued his eponymous solo debut; its lead track, "Fallen Angel," was a heartfelt tribute to Manuel, but while both Danko and Hudson made guest appearances on the record, Robertson again refused to rejoin when the remaining trio continued touring throughout the late 1980s. In 1993 The Band issued Jericho, their first LP in 16 years; High on the Hog followed in 1996 and two years later they celebrated their 30th anniversary with Jubilation. Danko died in his sleep at his home in Woodstock on December 10, 1999.