The Band

  • Canadian-American roots rock band formed in 1968. The members for the classic lineup were Robbie Robertson (guitars, vocals, songwriting), Rick Danko (bass guitar, fiddle, vocals), Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, guitar, lead vocals), Garth Hudson (organ, accordion, saxophone), and Richard Manuel (keyboards, drums, vocals). All members originated from the Toronto Canada area, except Helm, who was from Arkansas, but moved to Toronto early in his music career.
  • The origins of the group started with The Hawks, which was the backing band to rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins originally was based in Arkansas, and when he moved his home base to Toronto in 1957, Helm followed him – Helm was 17 years old. Hawkins tended to weaken his musical competitors by hiring their best musicians, and Robertson, Danko and Manuel joined the Hawks this way by the summer of 1961. Hudson finally joined in 1962 when Hawkins agreed to pay him $10 per week to be the group’s instructor, and after Hawkins agreed to purchase a new state of the art Lowrey organ for Hudson.
  • Hawkins and the Hawks recorded a few singles and became hugely popular in Toronto. Hawkins forced the group to spend hours rehearsing, which made the musicians experts at their instruments. By late 1963, the Hawks grew tired of Hawkins’ leadership and they left, briefly forming a group called the Levon Helm Sextet (adding a sax player), and then renaming themselves Levon and the Hawks when the sax player left. In 1965, they released a single using the name The Canadian Squires, and soon after, they recorded again as Levon and the Hawks.
  • In the summer of 1965, Bob Dylan hired the group to be his backing band for his first “electric” tour. For a year, they toured as Bob Dylan and the Band. Folk music lovers did not approve of Dylan going electric, and concerts often had hecklers from the crowd. They tried some recording sessions but the results generally were not good, and only a couple of songs were acceptable for Dylan’s next album.
  • In July 1966, Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident, forcing him to retreat to Woodstock to recuperate. The Hawks stayed busy playing at bars and backing other artists, including Tiny Tim. In February 1967, Dylan invited his band to join him in Woodstock. Danko, Manuel and Hudson rented a pink house nearby, which they named The Big Pink. The next month, still without Helm, they recorded some demos at both Dylan’s house and The Big Pink – the recordings were subsequently bootlegged. The Dylan sessions ended that fall. Helm rejoined his bandmates, and they began writing and recording their own songs. They decided to be known as The Band, since that’s how everyone referred to them anyway.
  • Their debut album, Music From Big Pink, was released in 1968. It was widely acclaimed, with 3 songs written by Bob Dylan. The single The Weight, with Dylan’s I Shall Be Released as the B-side, barely charted, peaking at #63 on the Hot 100, but over time it became a signature piece for The Band – Rolling Stone puts it at #41 on its list of the Greatest Songs of All Time.
  • The follow-up album from The Band became their biggest seller. Self-titled The Band, it was released in 1969, and this mostly Canadian band had an album that was embraced as all-American. The album peaked at #9 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and they released a single with 2 A-sides, both of which became legendary Americana songs – Up on Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. The latter made the Rolling Stone GOAT list at #249, and the album itself landed at #45 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Album list. Other Americana folk rock classics from the album included Rag Mama Rag, Across the Great Divide and King Harvest (Has Surely Come). The success of this album paved the way for the development of country rock in the 70s.
  • Between 1970 and 1977, The Band released 6 more studio albums, as well as a live album. They also released 2 studio albums and 1 live album with Bob Dylan. Singles from these albums didn’t sell particularly well – only 1972’s Don’t Do It managed to sneak into the Top 40 in the U.S. The Dylan albums were more successful.
  • As time progressed, Robertson exerted more control on the group, which particularly annoyed Helm, though Robertson claimed it was necessary as the other members fell deeper into addiction. By 1976, Robertson was tired of live shows, and he convinced his bandmates to stop touring, with one final farewell concert planned on Thanksgiving day in 1976.  The show became known as The Last Waltz. Guest performers at the show included Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond and others. The concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese, and it is recognized as one of the greatest concert films of all time. A live album of the same name, along with the film, was released in 1978.
  • The Band went on hiatus until 1983, when they reformed without Robertson. From 1983 to 1989, they toured, even after Manuel committed suicide in 1986. In the 90s, they recorded again, releasing 3 albums during the decade. The first 2 were largely covers of other artist’s work; the final studio album had more originals than covers. While the albums and singles were not successful in sales, critics and fans enjoyed them, even with the absence of Robertson. Danco died in 1999 of heart failure at the age of 55. Helm died in 2012 of throat cancer – he was 71.
  • The Band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, and in 2011, they were listed at #50 in Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2008, they were honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Hundreds of country rock artists have been influenced by this pioneering group. Here’s a clip of The Band performing The Weight from their farewell concert, The Last Waltz. Enjoy this classic, including Mavis Staples’ marvelous vocal solo !

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