The Band - Biography
The Band’s first album Music From Big Pink (1968) arrived in a cloud of mystery, in a day when the rock press was still young and albums were not yet launched on a tsunami of hype. Canadian journalist Rob Bowman, who annotated reissues of the group’s albums, rightly calls the record “enigmatic.”
The five hirsute musicians whose picture appeared in the gatefold jacket were identified by name only; like their photograph, they seemed funky yet spectral, and looked as if they had stepped from another era. Their sound was likewise gutsy yet elusive – an indefinable collision of rock, country, blues, gospel, and soul -- swathed in nimbuses of woozy horns, guitars that stung and wobbled by turns, and unearthly keyboards; even the oddly-tuned thump of their drums sounded unique and unprecedented. Their three lead voices, so different in range and timbre, interlaced unpredictably. Their songs – some co-authored by Bob Dylan, who also painted the album’s Marc Chagall-like cover – were tales left half-untold.
The Band came to us as virtual unknowns; within two years, they would be one of the most celebrated and influential rock units on the planet.
Their backstory would trickle out in magazine stories, and on the bootleg Dylan albums that crept into the musical grey market in the closing years of the ‘60s. It was surprising to learn that this most American-sounding quintet comprised four Canadians, most of them raised in Ontario, and a lone U.S. citizen. The Band was originally known as The Hawks, the backup group for the itinerant latter-day rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who played his money gigs in Toronto’s rough Yonge Street clubs. They joined Hawkins one by one, after serving with such obscure combos as The Jungle Bush Beaters, Robbie and the Robots, and The Rockin’ Revols.
Marvell, Arkansas-born drummer Levon Helm was the first to come on board with Hawkins in the late ‘50s. He was soon joined by Jaime Robbie Robertson, a precocious Toronto 16-year-old who quickly graduated from roadie duties to the lead guitar chair, penning some songs along the way. Rick Danko, from Simcoe, was recruited to play rhythm guitar, but hurriedly learned bass after a defection from the Hawks’ ever-shifting lineup. Richard Manuel, from Stratford, took the piano chair. Finally, the well-schooled keyboardist-saxophonist Garth Hudson, the coveted leader of the Ontario group Paul London and the Kapers, was enticed to sign on with the purchase of a Lowrey organ.
Various configurations of these Hawks appeared on Hawkins’ early ‘60s singles and albums for Roulette Records; most notably, Helm, Manuel, and Robertson (with Danko on rhythm guitar and six-string virtuoso Roy Buchanan surprisingly sitting in on bass) propelled the Hawk’s ferocious 1963 version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” By the following year, the backup group had struck out on its own; they recorded their own work, unsuccessfully, as Levon and the Hawks and the Canadian Squires.
Fate intervened when Mary Martin, Toronto-bred secretary for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, recommended Robertson (who had been present at the recording session for “Like a Rolling Stone”) to Grossman, who was seeking a guitarist to support the newly electrified and newly controversial Dylan. Robertson and Helm faced jeering crowds behind Dylan in Forest Hills, New York, and at the Hollywood Bowl. When Dylan offered the two musicians a gig supporting him on his ’65-’66 tour of America, Europe, and Australia, the pair said they’d play if the rest of the Hawks were part of the package, and Dylan assented. (During this period, The Hawks backed Dylan in the studio on such fiery material as “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”; the group also appears on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” on Dylan’s 1966 masterwork Blonde On Blonde.)
The Hawks set forth on one of the most riotous road trips ever undertaken by a rock band. One member would not last out the siege: Helm resigned the drum chair during the U.S. leg of the tour at the end of 1965, angered and appalled by the loudly vocal abuse from Dylan’s betrayed folknik fans. (“I wasn’t made to be booed,” he wrote in his candid 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire.) The rest of The Hawks played on through the spring of ‘66, stirring a glorious, stately racket behind the ascendant rock star.
After Dylan’s grave July 1966 motorcycle accident, he summoned Robertson, Manuel, Hudson, and Danko to rustic Woodstock, New York. The Hawks holed up in a pink ranch house, and informal recording sessions commenced, with Hudson engineering and Robertson and Manuel filling the drum chair, first at Dylan’s home and then in the basement at “Big Pink.” This ramble through country, folk, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll, soon to be known via the underground leak of some acetates as “The Basement Tapes,” would produce original songs – Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” Dylan and Manuel’s “Tears of Rage,” and the Danko-Dylan collaboration “This Wheel’s On Fire” – that would surface on The Band’s debut album.
Robertson was also writing prolifically, and Grossman began shopping The Hawks’ demos to secure a record deal. In late 1967, they were signed to Capitol Records. Enticed back with the prospect of a large label advance, Helm rejoined the others – then provisionally known as The Crackers -- for sessions in New York and L.A. that successfully recaptured the intimacy of the “Basement Tapes” recordings.
Issued under the tabula rasa-like moniker of The Band, Music From Big Pink announced the advent of something special on the jaded and overamped late-‘60s rock scene. Soulful yet haunted, reverberating with echoes of a shimmering American past, and flying in the face of then-rampant psychedelia, the album was not a huge commercial success – it peaked at No. 30. But it had an enchanting effect on many who heard it: It spurred Eric Clapton to break up his supergroup Cream and strike out in new directions, while the Beatles’ George Harrison was an outspoken fan. It also contained an instant classic in Robertson’s “The Weight.”
The Band was cemented in the mass consciousness with the release of their eponymous sophomore album in 1969. Recorded in the pool house of a Hollywood Hills house owned by Sammy Davis, Jr., The Band is considered by many to be the precursor of contemporary Americana. Alternately bawdy and elegiac, its richly-textured music, bursting with carnival horns and traditional string-band instrumentation, surveyed a beautiful and often hazardous American countryside in instantly indelible numbers like “Across the Great Divide,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” and “Up On Cripple Creek,” a hip-shaking, gleefully leering Helm performance that became The Band’s only top-30 hit. The album reached No. 9, cementing the group’s reputation; in January 1970, on the heels of its release, The Band appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Following up two of the most extravagantly praised albums of the day proved a difficult chore. Stage Fright (1970) was a much darker entry than its predecessors; the somber, harrowing atmosphere of such tracks as “The Shape I’m In,” “Stage Fright,” and “The Rumor” was no doubt influenced in part by a period of escalating heroin use by Helm, Danko, and Manuel. Despite some powerful performances, it received mixed reviews and was met with diminishing sales. The same reception was accorded Cahoots (1971), despite the presence of Helm’s brilliant singing on the Dylan cover “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the storming Van Morrison-Richard Manuel vocal fencing match “4% Pantomime,” and the rollicking single “Life is a Carnival.”
The presence of New Orleans R&B maestro Allen Toussaint’s lively arrangements on the latter number led to a mid-career highlight. Toussaint was drafted to write the charts for a retrospective performance by The Band that was augmented by a full horn section and recorded live at New York’s Academy of Music on New Year’s Eve 1971. The resultant album, Rock of Ages (1972), proved a stomping, energetic re-reading of the group’s repertoire, and renewed their status in rock’s top ranks.
Somewhat spent, The Band marked time with the release of Moondog Matinee (1973). Issued near the tail end of the rock ‘n’ roll revival of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the album looked back at the genesis of the group’s sound in the Toronto bars with punchy covers of old rock ‘n’ roll and R&B numbers by such acts as Chuck Berry, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, The Platters, and LaVern Baker. The set belongs to Richard Manuel, who rose to the occasion with high-water-mark vocals on Bobby Blue Bland’s “Share Your Love” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”
The Band was reenergized when Bob Dylan summoned them to record a new album with him. Planet Waves (1974) was released shortly after Dylan and the group began a joint U.S. road trek that marked the first time the musicians had appeared together since a pair of one-off 1968 appearances. Tickets were sold by mail-in lottery, and 6 million requests were received for a total of 600,000 tickets. Fierce, dynamic performances from the tour were released on Before the Flood (1974).
For their next studio album, The Band abandoned the confines of the studio for their own jerry-rigged recording retreat, aptly named Shangri-La, in the oceanside Southern California paradise of Malibu. Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975) can be considered the group’s true swan song, and it proved to be a sublime, consistent, and committed work. Highlighted by the bawling rocker “Ophelia,” the Canada-to-Louisiana historical narrative “Acadian Driftwood,” and the towering ballad “It Makes No Difference,” heartbreakingly sung by Danko, it was the crowning glory of The Band’s career.
In the fall of 1976, Robbie Robertson told his bandmates that he planned to retire from touring. The guitarist concocted the notion of a final concert – “The Last Waltz” – that would look back on their career from the Hawks epoch on and feature an array of star guests who had served as inspirations, mentors, and colleagues. The Band quickly cobbled together a half-hearted selection of odds and ends to fulfill their Capitol recording contract; the album was released after the fact as Islands (1977).
Prefaced by a dinner and ballroom dancing, “The Last Waltz” played out at San Francisco’s Winterland on Thanksgiving 1976 against the backdrop of a set borrowed from the San Francisco Opera. Director Martin Scorsese filmed the proceedings (released theatrically, with an accompanying soundtrack album, as The Last Waltz in 1978), which included intense performances by The Band and guest turns by Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Van Morrison, and Neil Diamond. After a closing encore rip through Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” the five original members of The Band waved and bid adieu to live performing.
Minus their principal songwriter Robertson (whose role as thus has been disputed in recent years by the other bands memebrs, with Helm and Danko stating that the band's best music was more a collaborative effort over all) – who went on to work as a solo artist, film producer, writer, and sometime actor, and label A&R executive – the other members of the band regrouped in the early ‘80s to tour and record again. During one 1986 road trip, Richard Manuel – depressed and debilitated from years of alcoholism and drug abuse – hanged himself in a Florida motel room. In 1993, The Band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Rick Danko, another Band member plagued by hard living, died in 1999. Levon Helm, who attracted attention as an actor as Loretta Lynn’s father in the 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, battled throat cancer and won a Grammy Award for his 2007 solo album Dirt Farmer. Helm eventually died from the disease on April 17, 2012.
Traveling south in the ‘60s from the country where they honed their skills, The Band captured the vistas of their adopted nation with fresh eyes and ears. As critic Greil Marcus put it in his 1975 book Mystery Train, “[T]hey were committed to the very idea of America: complicated, dangerous, and alive. Their music gave us a sure sense that the country was richer than we had guessed; that it had possibilities we were only beginning to perceive.” They may be said to be the quintessential American rock band.