The members of the Band first came together as they joined rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins' backing group, The Hawks, one by one between 1958 until 1963. Upon leaving Hawkins in 1964 they were known as The Levon Helm Sextet (the sixth member being sax player Jerry Penfound), then Levon and the Hawks (without Penfound). (In 1965, they released a single on Ware Records under the name the Canadian Squires, but returned to the Levon and the Hawks name for a recording session for Atco later in 1965. At about the same time, Bob Dylan recruited Helm and Robertson for two concerts, then the entire group for his 1965-1966 world tour. They also joined him on the informal recordings that later became The Basement Tapes.
Dubbed "The Band" by their record company (a name believed to be derived from how they were referred to during their tenure with Dylan), the group left Saugerties, New York, to begin recording their own material. They recorded two of the most acclaimed albums of the late 1960s: their 1968 debut Music from Big Pink (featuring the single "The Weight") and 1969's The Band. They broke up in 1976, but reformed in 1983 without founding guitarist Robbie Robertson.
Although the Band was always more popular with music journalists and fellow musicians than with the general public, they have remained an admired and influential group. They have been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked them #50 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Every member was a multi-instrumentalist; in the above list, each person's primary instrument is listed first. There was little instrument-switching when they played live, but when recording, the musicians could make up different configurations in service of the songs. Hudson in particular was able to coax a wide range of timbres from his Lowrey electronic organ; on the choruses of "Tears of Rage", for example, it sounds like a mellotron. Helm's drumming was often praised: critic Jon Carroll famously declared that Helm was "the only drummer who can make you cry," while prolific session drummer Jim Keltner admits to appropriating several of Helm's techniques.
Singers Manuel, Danko, and Helm each brought a distinctive voice to the Band: Helm's southern voice had more than a hint of country, Danko sang in a tenor, and Manuel alternated between falsetto and baritone. The singers regularly blended in harmonies. Though the singing was more or less evenly shared among the three men, both Danko and Helm have stated that they saw Manuel as the Band's "lead" singer.
Robertson was the unit's chief songwriter (he sang lead vocals on only three studio songs released by the Band: "To Kingdom Come", "Knockin' Lost John" and "Out Of The Blue"). This role, and Robertson's resulting claim to the copyright of most of the compositions, would later become a point of much antagonism, especially that directed towards Robertson by Helm, who, in his autobiography This Wheel's on Fire, disputes the validity of Robertson's place as chief songwriter. As the Band's songs were often honed and recorded through intense collaboration between all its members, it is understandable that strains would later appear in the 1980s, when the bulk of songwriting royalties were going to Robertson alone while the others had to rely on income from touring. (This had not arisen as an issue in the late sixties and early seventies, when a number of Band songs, mostly credited to Robertson alone, were covered successfully by other artists - such as Smith's version of "The Weight" for the Easy Rider soundtrack LP and Joan Baez's famous cover of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in 1971.
Producer John Simon is cited as a "sixth member" of the Band for producing and playing on Music from Big Pink, co-producing and playing on The Band, and playing on other songs up through the Band's 1993 reunion album Jericho.
While most of the Hawks were eager to join Hawkins' group, getting Hudson to join was a different story. He'd earned a college degree, and planned on a career as a music teacher, and was interested in playing rock music only as a hobby. The Hawks were in awe of his wild, full-bore organ sound, and often begged him to join. Hudson finally relented, so long as the Hawks each paid him $10 per week to be their instructor: all music theory questions were directed to Hudson. While pocketing a little extra cash, Hudson was also able to mollify his family's fears that his education had gone to waste.
During The Last Waltz Hudson states, "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." The piano-organ combination was uncommon in rock music, and for all his aggressive playing, Hudson also brought a level of musical sophistication.
With Hawkins they recorded a few singles in this period, and became well known as the best rock group in the thriving Toronto music scene.
By 1964, the had group split from Hawkins over personal differences. They were tiring of playing the same songs so often and wanted to perform original material, and they were weary of Hawkins' somewhat dictatorial leadership. He would fine the Hawks if they brought their girlfriends to the clubs (fearing it might reduce the numbers of available girls who came to performances) or if they smoked marijuana. (Alcohol and pills were acceptable, but Canada then had stiff penalties against marijuana possession.)
Robertson later said, "Eventually, he (Hawkins) built us up to the point where we outgrew his music and had to leave. He shot himself in the foot, really, bless his heart, by sharpening us into such a crackerjack band that we had to go on out into the world, because we knew what his vision was for himself, and we were all younger and more ambitious musically.
They recorded two singles and toured almost continually (usually billed as Levon and the Hawks), but they found little success, partly because without Hawkins, they lacked a magnetic frontman.
Also in 1963, Levon Helm met Cathy Smith, with whom he and other members of the Band would have a long association. Smith later met and influenced musicians Gordon Lightfoot and Hoyt Axton, and was involved in the death of John Belushi.
In 1965, Levon and the band met blues singer and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson. They wanted to record with him, offering to become his backing band, but Williamson died not long after their meeting.
Dylan invited them to tour with him. Levon and the Hawks were receptive to Dylan's offer, knowing it could give them the wider exposure they craved, but they simultaneously feared that their music was too different from his. They thought of themselves as a tightly rehearsed rock and rhythm and blues group, and they knew Dylan mostly from his early acoustic folk and protest music. Furthermore, they had little inkling of how internationally popular Dylan had become.
With Dylan, they played a tumultuous series of 1965 and 1966 concerts, marking Dylan's final change from folkie to rocker. According to some accounts (and as documented in a scene in Eat the Document) some of the Hawks joined in Dylan's reportedly copious drug use in this era. These tours remain some of the most storied in rock music history, and arguably mark a turning point in popular music.
At their best, Dylan and the Hawks were an electrifying live ensemble; These concerts saw them sometimes heckled by folk music purists (Helm was so bothered by the negative reception that he quit the group temporarily, instead working on an oil rig).
There were some abortive recording sessions with the Hawks, but Dylan was dissatisfied with the results. However, Robertson replaced Mike Bloomfield as Dylan's primary guitarist on sessions for Blonde on Blonde, released in mid-1966. The album's credits also include Danko on bass and Hudson on keyboards and sax.
With Mickey Jones on drums (replacing Sandy Konikoff, who'd taken over when Levon Helm departed suddenly), Dylan and the Hawks appeared at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in May, 1966. The gig became legendary when, towards the end of Dylan's electric set, an audience member shouted "Judas!". After a pause, Dylan replied, "I don't believe you. You're a liar!" He then turned to the Hawks and said "Play it fucking loud!" just before they launched into an acidic version of "Like a Rolling Stone
This performance was widely bootlegged (and mistakenly placed at the Royal Albert Hall). The recording of this gig became one of the most famous of Dylan's career, often inspiring a rapturous response in those who heard it. A 1971 review from Creem stated "My response is that crystallization of everything that is rock'n'roll music, at its finest, was to allow my jaw to drop, my body to move, to leap out of the chair ... It is an experience that one desires simply to share, to play over and over again for those he knows thirst for such pleasure. If I speak in an almost worshipful sense about this music, it is not because I have lost perspective, it is precisely because I have found it, within music, yes, that was made five years ago. But it is there and unignorable. When it finally saw official release in 1998, critic Richie Unterberger declared the record "an important document of rock history.
For a while, the Hawks returned to the bar and roadhouse touring circuit, sometimes backing other singers (including a brief stint with Tiny Tim).
Dylan invited the Hawks to join him in Woodstock, where they recorded a much-bootlegged and influential series of demos, subsequently released on LP as The Basement Tapes.
Their first album, Music from Big Pink (1968) was widely acclaimed. The album included three songs written or co-written by Dylan ("This Wheel's on Fire," "Tears of Rage," and "I Shall Be Released") as well as "The Weight," the use of which in the film Easy Rider would make it probably their best known song. While a continuity certainly ran through the music, there were stylistic leanings in a number of directions. Never a specifically "psychedelic" group, the Band's first record did contain at least one song ("Chest Fever") demonstrating some similarities with that genre. In contrast to his guitar playing with Dylan, Robertson opted for a more subdued, riff-oriented approach.
After the success of Big Pink, the band went on tour, including a performance at the Woodstock Festival (which was not included in the famed Woodstock film due to legal complications) and an appearance with Dylan at the UK Isle of Wight Festival (several songs from which were subsequently included on Dylan's Self Portrait album). That same year, they left for Los Angeles to record their follow up, The Band (1969). From their deliberately rustic appearance on the cover, to the songs and arrangements within, the album stood in contrast to other popular music of the day. Although it should be noted that, by this point, several acts, notably Dylan - on John Wesley Harding - and The Byrds - with Sweetheart of the Rodeo - had made similar stylistic moves. The Band featured songs that evoked oldtime rural America, from the civil war ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") to unionization of farm workers ("King Harvest Has Surely Come").
These first two records were produced by John Simon, who was practically a group member: He aided in arrangements, and played occasional instruments (piano or tuba). Simon reported that he was often asked about the distinctive horn sections featured so effectively on the first two albums; people wanted to know how they had achieved such memorable sounds. Simon was slightly embarrassed to admit that, besides Hudson (an accomplished saxophonist), the others had only rudimentary horn skills, and achieved their sound simply by creatively utilizing their limited technique.
Rolling Stone magazine lavished praise on the Band in this era, giving them more attention than perhaps any other group in the magazine's history; Greil Marcus's articles in particular contributed greatly to the Band's mystique. The Band was also featured on the cover of Time Magazine's January 12, 1970 issue.
A critical and commercial triumph, The Band, along with works by The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, established a musical template (sometimes dubbed country rock) that later would be taken to even greater levels of commercial, if not artistic, success by such artists as Eagles. Both Big Pink and The Band also influenced their musical contemporaries, with both Eric Clapton and George Harrison citing the Band as a major influence on their musical direction in the late 1960s and early 70s. Indeed, Clapton later revealed that he had wanted to join the group.
After recording Stage Fright, the Band was among the acts participating in the Festival Express, an all-star rock concert tour of Canada by train that also included Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. In the concert documentary film, released in 2003, Danko can be seen intoxicated participating in a drunken jam session with Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Joplin while singing "Ain't No More Cane."
At about this time, Robertson began exerting greater control over the Band. This has become a point of antipathy, especially between Helm and Robertson. Helm charges Robertson with authoritarianism and greed, while Robertson suggests his increased efforts in guiding the group were due largely to some of the other members being unreliable. In particular, Robertson insists he did his best to coax Manuel into writing or co-writing more songs, only to see Manuel's talents overtaken by addiction.
Despite mounting problems between the musicians, the Band forged ahead with their next album, Cahoots (1971). Cahoots included tunes such as Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," "4% Pantomime" (with Van Morrison), and "Life Is A Carnival," the last featuring a horn arrangement from Allen Toussaint. Toussaint's contribution was a critical addition to the Band's next project.
One of their most notable later albums is the live recording Rock of Ages (1972), recorded at a 1971/1972 New Year's Eve concert and featuring the line-up, bolstered by the addition of a horn section, in exuberant form. The horn arrangements were written by Allen Toussaint. Bob Dylan appeared on stage for the concert's final four songs, including a version of the rare song "When I Paint My Masterpiece".
In 1973 the Band released Moondog Matinee, an album of cover songs. There was no tour in support of the album, which garnered mixed reviews. However they did open for the Grateful Dead for two summer shows at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey. They also played at the legendary Summer Jam at Watkins Glen. This massive concert took place at the Grand Prix Raceway outside Watkins Glen, New York on July 28, 1973. The festival, which was attended by over 600,000 music fans also featured the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band.
Next, the Band reunited with Dylan, first in recording Dylan's album Planet Waves, released in January 1974, and then for the Bob Dylan and The Band 1974 Tour, which played 40 shows in North America during January and February 1974. Later that year, the live album, Before the Flood was released, documenting the tour.
In 1975, The Band released Northern Lights - Southern Cross, their first album of all-new material since 1971's Cahoots, all eight songs were written exclusively by Robertson. Despite poor record sales (due to the elongated period of inactivity by the band) the album is favored by critics and fans alike. Levon Helm regards this album highly in his book, This Wheel's on Fire: "It was the best album we had done since The Band." Highlights from the album included the Helm sung New Orleans sounding "Ophelia" and Rick Danko's emotionally driven vocal on "It Makes no Difference," both of which were performed live in The Last Waltz. Another notable song from the album was the epic story "Acadian Driftwood" which was also performed at the Last Waltz, but not included in the movie. The album also produced more experimentation from Hudson switching to synthesizers, heavily showcased on "Jupiter Hollow."
The concert was filmed by director Martin Scorsese, and was subsequently combined with interviews, as well as separately-recorded soundstage performances with country singer Emmylou Harris ("Evangeline") and gospel-soul group The Staple Singers ("The Weight"). Released in 1978, the concert film-documentary was accompanied by a triple-LP soundtrack.
Helm received many plaudits for his acting debut in Coal Miner's Daughter, a biographical film about Loretta Lynn, and for his narration and small supporting role opposite Sam Shepard in 1983's The Right Stuff while the remaining members interspersed session work with occasional solo releases.
In 1984, Rick Danko joined members of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and others in the huge touring company that made up "The Byrds Twenty-Year Celebration." Several members of the band performed solo songs to start the show including Danko who performed Mystery Train.
Hudson has released two acclaimed solo CDs, The Sea To The North in 2001, and LIVE at the WOLF in 2005, both featuring his wife, Maud, on vocals. He has also kept busy as an in-demand studio musician.
In 2007 Helm released a new album, an homage to his southern roots called Dirt Farmer, which was awarded a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album on Feb. 9, 2008.
While the reunited Band was touring, on 4 March 1986, Manuel committed suicide in his Florida hotel room. It was revealed later that he had suffered for many years from chronic alcoholism. According to Levon Helm's autobiography, in the later stages of his illness, Manuel was consuming eight bottles of Grand Marnier per day.
The band participated in former Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters' 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.
Richard Manuel's position as pianist was filled first by old friend Stan Szelest (who passed away not long after), then by Richard Bell. (Bell was best known from his days as a member of Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band.) The reformed group recorded Jericho in 1993 with much of the songwriting being handled outside the group. Two more post-reunion efforts followed, High on the Hog and Jubilation, the latter including guest appearances from Eric Clapton and John Hiatt.
On 10 December 1999 another member was lost when Rick Danko died in his sleep at age 56. He had been a long-time drug user. In 1997 he had been found guilty of trying to smuggle heroin into Japan. He told the presiding judge that he had begun using the drug (together with prescription morphine) to fight life-long pain resulting from a 1968 auto accident. No drugs were found in his system at the time of his death.
Although The Band received The Grammy's Lifetime Achievement Award on 9 February 2008, there was no reunion of all three living members, as Levon Helm held a "Midnight Ramble" in honor of the event in Woodstock, NY.
In the nineties, a new generation of bands influenced by the Band began to gain popularity, including Counting Crows and The Black Crowes. Counting Crows indicated this influence with their tribute to the late Richard Manuel, "If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel Is Dead)", and by covering Band songs during live performances. The Black Crowes would often play some of the Band's most popular songs during concerts, including "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down", which appears on the band's DVD Freak 'n' Roll into the Fog.
Chicago's Umphrey's McGee has covered both "Ophelia" and "Don't Do It". Both were covered for the first time at their DVD-released New Years Eve concert from 2004 Wrapped Around Chicago. "Ophelia" appears on that release. They have also covered "The Weight," twice with Huey Lewis on vocals.
Southern-based "jam band" Widespread Panic has covered "Ophelia" consistently from 1987 to 2007, and in 2006 they began covering "Chest Fever" as well. In 2004 southern rock-revivalists Drive-By Truckers released the track "Danko/Manuel" on the album The Dirty South. My Morning Jacket's southern rock/alt-country sound is often compared to the Band, especially in songs such as "Lay Low" and "Just Because I Do".
In 2006 it was announced that a tribute album was in the works including My Morning Jacket covering "It Makes No Difference", Death Cab for Cutie covering "Rockin' Chair", and Gomez covering "Up on Cripple Creek." Released on 30 January 2007, the compilation album, entitled Endless Highway: The Music of The Band, included contributions by Guster, Bruce Hornsby, Jack Johnson and ALO, Leanne Womack, The Allman Brothers Band, Blues Traveler, Jakob Dylan, and Rosanne Cash amongst others.