In the early sixties a group of musicians came together to back an up and coming Canadian rockabilly artist named Ronnie Hawkins. They were Rick Danko (bass guitar, double bass, fiddle, trombone, vocals), Garth Hudson (keyboard instruments, saxophones, trumpet), Richard Manuel (piano, drums, baritone saxophone, vocals), Robbie Robertson (guitar, vocals), and Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, guitar, vocals).
This core group of musicians honed their craft behind Hawkins and began touring as The Hawks. The group ultimately outgrew the Canadian and went their own way citing creative differences. The truth is the band was destined for other things and grew tired of playing the same stuff every night. They wanted to create.
There is a view that jazz is ‘evil’ because it comes from evil people, but actually the greatest priests on 52nd Street, and on the streets of New York City were the musicians. They were doing the greatest healing work. And they knew how to punch through music which would cure and make people feel good.
– Garth Hudson The last Waltz
Over the next few years a collaboration with Bob Dylan would set the stage for the coming of The Band. After hearing The Hawks play one evening in a Toronto night club, Dylan invited Helms and Robertson to join him on tour. The duo announced their loyalty to bandmates and told Dylan they would only go as a group. The Hawks ended up touring with Dylan from September of ’65 to May of ’66. This tour is generally regarded as the period that Dylan shifted from folk to rock. The collaboration with The Hawks played a big part in that transition.
While touring the group of musicians became disjointed around Dylan’s obsessive amphetamine usage. Many of the group joined the star in his drug use; others expressed their concern. Levon Helm grew increasingly upset over matters and within three months of beginning the tour, Helms departed and spent several months working on an oil rig in the Golf of Mexico.
During that period The Hawks and Dylan had little to show for their efforts in the recording studio. By the time Dylan’s next album Blonde on Blonde had moved production from New York to Nashville, Robbie Robertson replaced Mike Bloomfield as primary guitarist. Robertson joined Dylan in Nashville. The rest of The Hawks were not invited. Blonde on Blonde released on May 16th of ’66.
The Hawks, including Robertson, continued to play honky tonks and roadhouses while Dylan took a break from music. During his vacation, Bob Dylan was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in upstate New York. He went into seclusion at his home in Woodstock to recover. As he began to heal, Dylan becoming more anxious and increasingly restless, invited The Hawks up to visit. While there they put together in Dylan’s basement and other locations around Woodstock what has become the much bootlegged Basement Tapes.
Although not a part of The Basement sessions, Levon Helm returned to New York shortly after Dylan returned to the studio in Nashville and rejoined his old band-mates. They rented a big pink house in in West Saugerties (near Woodstock) and in that house the music that would define The Band was born. (The photo at the top is of the band outside “Big Pink”)
If you give it good concentration,
good energy, good heart and good
performance, the song will play you.
– Levon Helm
As the story goes settling on a name for their group was not an easy task. Everything they suggested was turned down by their label. Helm suggested since they were always referred to as “The Band” when touring with Dylan that maybe they should just use that. The name stuck.
In July of 1968 they released their first album, Music from Big Pink. One track, “The Weight,” went on to be used on the Dennis Hopper/Peter Fonda film, Easy Rider. The Weight peaked at #63 on the Billboard charts.
The cover illustration for the album is artwork by Bob Dylan who wrote three of the tracks on Big Pink.
The big pink house in West Saugerties today is a private residence. The owners keep the music tradition alive by having regular jam sessions in the basement with musicians from all around the Woodstock area.
Over the next few years The Band would release several other albums considered some of the best compilations of the generation. Their self-titled album The Band included the mega hits, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek.
The period marked some of the most creative expression by the group. Robertson began exerting more control of the band. Helm was in near constant friction with the self-proclaimed leader. By 1976, Robertson was tired of touring and ready for a break. He proposed one big show to end their touring career. That became the genesis for The Last Waltz.
The Waltz show played at the legendary Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976. With supporting footage director Martin Scorsese released the concert documentary in 1978. During the show The Band was accompanied on stage by musical friends, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan,Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell,Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood,Bobby Charles and Neil Young.
The Band went their separate way shortly after. In 1983 they reformed without Robbie Robertson and began touring again. Shortly after Richard Manuel committed suicide in a Florida Hotel. Helm would later write about the extent of Manuel’s alcoholism dating back to well before The Last Waltz.
The set’s release puts an end to the Band … for now.
I keep saying, ‘Now I’m done with the Band,’ .
I’m just not keen to be going back up into the attic and
going into the trunks. I’m more interested in tomorrow.
– Robbie Robertson
Over the years The Band would tour in different incarnations with others sitting in to play, Eric Clapton and John Hiatt to name a couple. The Band appeared with Roger Waters at the The Wall Live in Berlin concert in 1990, and in Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert celebration in New York City in October 1992. The group was the opening band for the final Grateful Dead shows at Soldier Field, in Chicago, Illinois in July 1995.
On December 10, 1999, Rick Danko died in his sleep at age 55. The Band never played together again.
In 2002 Robbie Robertson purchased all other former members’ financial interests in the group, with the exception of Helm. That gave him major control of the group’s material, including latter-day compilations.
Garth Hudson continues to make music on the local scene in New York.
Levon Helm rode out some hard times in the late nineties. He battled back from surgery in 1998 to remove throat cancer and endured several months of radiation treatment. His renovated barn/recording studio at his New York farm was reduced to ashes in a devastating fire. The death of his long time friend and band-mate Rick Danko was exceptionally hard on Helms. But he moved on and through a series of late night session which became known as the Midnight Ramble, he retuned his voice and continues to perform today.
Helm’s forged a career outside music by acting in several Hollywood films most notably as Narrator, Jack Ridley, in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Most recently he played Confederate General John Hood in the 2009 film In the Electric Mist with Tommy Lee Jones and John Goodman.
To the best of my knowledge, Levon Helms and Robbie Robertson never put aside their differences.
The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.