- Rick Danko
- Levon Helm
- Garth Hudson
- Richard Manuel
- Robbie Robertson
The Band’s earthy synthesis of country and early rock drew on folklore and fable, attaining near mythic static itself.
Revered for their musical prowess and unique blend of sounds, the Band has performed everywhere with everyone. Who else can say they backed Bob Dylan, played Watkins Glen with Grateful Dead and gave a farewell concert with Neil Young, Muddy Waters and Joni Mitchell immortalized on film by Martin Scorsese?
The Band, more than any other group, put rock and roll back in touch with its roots.
With their ageless songs and solid grasp of musical idioms, the Band reached across the decades, making connections for a generation that was, as an era of violent cultural schisms wound down, in desperate search of them. They projected a sense of community in the turbulent late Sixties and early Seventies—a time when the fabric of community in the United States was fraying.
Guitarist Robbie Robertson drew from history in his evocative, cinematic story-songs, and the vocal triumvirate of bassist Rick Danko, drummer Levon Helm and keyboardist Richard Manuel joined in rustic harmony and traded lines in rich, conversational exchanges. Multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson provided musical coloration in period styles that evoked everything from rural carnivals of the early 20th century to rock and roll revues of the Fifties.
In an era of divisive politics, the Band produced music that crossed generational and historical borders. They did so with an ensemble brilliance borne of many years spent playing on the road. They began as the Hawks, back up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, a boisterous journeyman who found steady work in Canada. Four of the five Hawks—guitarist Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson and pianist Richard Manuel—were Canadian. Drummer Levon Helm hailed from Arkansas. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks toured the states and provinces until late 1963, at which point the backing musicians split from Hawkins to continue on their own as Levon and the Hawks.
Bob Dylan recruited them as his backup group for a 1965-66 world tour. As the Hawks (minus Helm, who stayed behind), they helped effect Dylan’s transformation from an acoustic folkie to an electric rock and roller. Those shows were revelatory and controversial, as Dylan and the Hawks plugged in and played with electrifying abandon, arousing great consternation among some folk traditionalists. One of the most legendary of all rock concerts, during which Dylan—backed by Robertson, Manuel, Danko, Hudson and drummer Mickey Jones—faced down a contentious audience in Manchester, England, on May 19, 1966, finally saw official release in 1998 as Bob Dylan Live 1966.
Dylan’s collaboration with the Band continued throughout 1966 in upstate New York, where he recuperated from a motorcycle accident. Working in casual sessions with the group (including Helm) at a rented house in Woodstock, Dylan put together a heavily bootlegged body of material that would eventually see release as The Basement Tapes (1975). All the while, the Hawks—now calling themselves the Band—recorded a large number of original songs. The material they wrote and arranged at the pink house, using what drummer Levon Helm described as a “workshop approach,” surfaced on Music from Big Pink (1968) and on side four of Dylan’s Basement Tapes.
Appearing in July 1968, Music from Big Pink, went against the grain of the rock mainstream by presenting a clutch of enduring songs that had a rustic, backwoods ambiance. Most were written by guitarist Robbie Robertson, including his masterpiece “The Weight,” which was steeped in biblical imagery. As a songwriter, Robertson drew from influences that were both obvious (Bob Dylan) and somewhat obscure for a rock and roller (filmmakers John Ford, Luis Buñuel and Kurosawa). Dylan was a distinct presence on the album, collaboration on “Tears of Rage” with Manuel and “This Wheel’s on Fire” with Danko. His hymnlike “I Shall Be Released,” making its recorded debut on Music from Big Pink, closed the album. Though it didn’t chart high or sell in great numbers, Music from the Big Pink was undeniably one of the most influential albums of the Sixties, heralding the arrival of a more roots-oriented movement in rock music.
Music from Big Pink was followed by 1969’s The Band, an even more incisive mix of the history, folklore and myth that defined our collective understanding of America. As played by the Band, rock and roll unmistakably felt like part of a continuum that stretched back to the days of juke joints, fish fries and medicine shows. Widely regarded as their signature work, The Band soared on the strength of Robertson’s songwriting ("Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), the band members’ empathetic, loose-limbed musicianship and the conversational blend of voices from Helm, Danko and Manuel. They were at their peak here of creating a kind of North American mythology out of words and music.
More albums followed, all of them solid, if not as groundbreaking as the first two. Stage Fright, which Robertson described as “more of a good-time record,” appeared in 1970 and the somewhat checkered Cahoots (“I just wasn’t as inspired to write,” confessed Robertson) came out a year later. The Band performed at such legendary rock festivals as Woodstock, the Isle of Wight and Watkins Glen, and they maintained a grueling pace as a touring band. On December 31st, 1971, they performed a New Year’s Eve concert that marked their last performance for one and a half years.
In the mid-Seventies, the Band cut an album of oldies (1973’s Moondog Matinee); reunited with Dylan for the Planet Waves (1974) album and tour (which resulted in the live album Before the Flood ); recorded the best of their later albums (1975’s Northern Lights, Southern Cross); and then took their leave in 1976 with a memorable concert finale, "The Last Waltz," held at a favorite venue, San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. The musical program, on which such luminaries as Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and Joni Mitchell joined The Band onstage, was recorded and released as a film and triple-album set.
Subsequently, Robertson gravitated toward film work, assembling soundtracks and directing his own project, Carney (1980). He’s also pursued an intermittent solo career that began with 1987’s Robbie Robertson. Levon Helm found acting work (Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980) and has recorded six albums as a solo artist. Rick Danko was the first member of the Band to release a solo record—1977’s Rick Danko—and he went on to work in a trio format with folksinger Eric Andersen and Norwegian singer/songwriter Jonas Fjeld.
The original band members, minus Robertson, regrouped and began touring in 1983. Three years later, their troubled pianist, Richard Manuel, hanged himself in a Florida motel room after a club performance. The surviving members continued as The Band and released Jericho, their first album of new music in sixteen years, in 1993. Hudson and Danko joined Robertson onstage to perform “The Weight” on the night of the Band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, while Helm—whose acrimonious feelings toward Robertson were revealed in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire—was conspicuously absent. Danko died of heart failure in December 1999. Helm passed away on April 19, 2012 after a battle with throat cancer at the age of 71.
Capitol Records embarked on an ambitious reissue program of The Band’s albums in 2000, bolstered with remastered sound and bonus tracks.
Inductees: Rick Danko (bass, vocals; born December 29, 1943, died December 10, 1999), Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, vocals; born May 26, 1940, died April 19, 2012), Garth Hudson (organ, horns; born August 2, 1937), Richard Manuel (piano, drums, vocals; born April 3, 1943, died March 4, 1986), Robbie Robertson (guitar; born July 5, 1943)