(Photo credit: Elliot Landy)
By the late 1960s, The Band was one of the most popular and influential rock groups in the world, and the group’s members shared an extensive collaborative history dating back to the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Between 1958 and 1962, the then-teenaged multi-instrumentalists Levon Helm (drums, vocals), Robbie Robertson (guitar, piano, vocals), Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Richard Manuel (keyboards, vocals, drums), and Garth Hudson (keyboards, horns) first performed and recorded together as members of Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band, the Hawks. In late 1963, the Hawks struck out on their own and became Levon & the Hawks, playing and recording under this name in 1964 and 1965.
In 1965, Robertson met with Bob Dylan in New York, just as Dylan was seeking an electric guitarist for his touring band. The Band was born, with all of the former Hawks backing Bob Dylan on the road from October 1965 through 1966 as he incensed audiences in the U.S., Australia and Europe, performing electric sets. Disheartened by the vocally disdainful ‘folkie purist’ audience response to their first plugged-in performances with Dylan, Helm left The Band in November 1965.
After the 1966 tour concluded, The Band woodshedded for the next year in upstate New York, often in the company of Bob Dylan, forging a highly original sound that in one way or another encompassed the panoply of American roots music: country, blues, R&B, gospel, soul, rockabilly, the honking tenor sax tradition, Anglican hymns, funeral dirges, brass band music, folk music, modern rock, fused and synthesized in ways that no one had ever thought possible before. Levon Helm rejoined The Band in 1967, as the group prepared to record their first full-length album, Music From Big Pink. The Band’s line-up remained intact until they disbanded in November 1976, following the live recording and Martin Scorsese’s filmed documentation of their final concert for The Last Waltz.
Released in 1968, Music From Big Pink received glowing reviews; a journalist for Life magazine wrote that The Band “dipped into the well of tradition and came up with a bucketful of clear, cool, country soul that washed the ears with a sound never heard before,” and icons such as Eric Clapton and George Harrison extolled the virtues of the album in print. While it only reached the No. 30 slot on Billboard’s album charts when it was initially released, over time ‘Big Pink’ has become recognized as one of the most important and classic albums in the history of rock.
In 1989, The Band was inducted into the Canadian Juno Hall of Fame, and five years later they were accorded the same honor by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2008, The Band was honored with The Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement GRAMMY® Award.
Sadly, three members of The Band, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm, have passed away, but The Band’s legacy lives on, in their recordings and in their tangible influence on popular music since they first hit the scene, wowing not only Bob Dylan, but many other major players of the day, including Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Miles Davis. Making Americana music before the term even existed, Rick, Levon, Garth, Richard and Robbie collectively constituted the only ensemble to ever rightfully earn the sobriquet, The Band.