Formed: 1967 in Toronto
Years Active: 1967-1976
- Robbie Robertson (guitar, piano, vocals)
- Richard Manuel (piano, harmonica, drums, saxophone, organ, vocals)
- Garth Hudson (organ, piano, clavinet, accordion, synthesizer, saxophone)
- Rick Danko (bass guitar, violin, trombone, vocals)
- Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, guitar, bass guitar, vocals)
- Canadian Music Hall of Fame (1989)
- Robbie Robertson (member) Canadian Walk of Fame (2003)
- American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1994)
- Ranked #50 in Rolling Stones 100 Greatest Artists of All Time (2004)
- Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2008)
Most Well-Known Songs:
- “The Weight” (1968)
- “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” (1969)
- “Up On Cripple Creek” (1970)
- “Rag Mama Rag” (1970)
- “Life Is a Carnival” (1971)
- “Don’t Do It” (1971)
- “Ophelia” (1976)
The Band is one of the most idiosyncratic phenomena in music history. They were often used as a backing band by solo artists but they were their own band. They were considered to be responsible for the purest American music of the day, but they were not American, they were essentially Canadian. They were embraced as strongly by music critics as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones but to a significantly lesser degree by the public. Their albums charted much better than their singles. Their biggest hit—”Up On Cripple Creek”—peaked at only #25 on the Billboard Pop Charts (1970). In contrast, they had three Top 10 albums (six if those with Bob Dylan are included). Their album with Bob Dylan, Planet Waves (1974) was #1 in the U.S.. The Band’s self-titled 1969 album went platinum in the U.S.. Moreover, their singles tended to do better in both Canada and the U.K. than in the U.S.. For example, their classic “The Weight” (ranked #41 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, published in 2004) made it only to #63 on the American charts but was a Top 40 hit in both Britain and Canada, peaking at #21 and #35 respectively.
Perhaps one of the reasons they were loved by critics was that they were all very talented musicians. Each member of the band could play several instruments. Singers Manuel, Danko, and Helm each brought a distinctive sound. Helm had an American twang that gave The Band a country flavour; Manuel alternated between baritone and falsetto, and Danko was a tenor. Robbie Robertson was the group’s chief songwriter and sang lead on only three of their recorded songs.
Besides the critics, fellow artists lavished praise on them. Eric Clapton has said that he had wanted to join the group.
The Band evolved from the backing group of American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins and later worked significantly with American artist Bob Dylan. In 1958, Ronnie Hawkins and his backing band went to perform in Ontario where they were paid more money than in the southern U.S.. The members of the group left, one by one, and were replaced gradually by Canadian musicians. Backing Hawkins, they were known as The Hawks. They were so popular that Ronnie Hawkins became known as Toronto’s answer to Elvis Presley. But, in 1963, with an overbearing personality, Hawkins became the odd man out and was given the boot by his own group, the group of Canadians that he’d assembled. The group became known as Levon and the Hawks or The Canadian Squires and recorded a few singles including “The Stones That I Throw”, a minor hit in Canada.
In 1965, they went to the U.S. to serve as Bob Dylan’s backing band, The Crackers, helping him in his transition from folk to rock. They released their first album, Music From Big Pink in 1968, which includes their acclaimed song “The Weight”, a song featured in the biker flick Easy Rider. Critics point out that the music on the album was an entirely different style than what anyone else in the music business was doing at that time. Bruce Eder says, “It was as though psychedelia, and the so-called British Invasion, had never happened…. The press latched on to the album before the public did, but over the next year, the Band became one of the most talked about phenomena in rock music.”
The group made their debut as The Band in 1969, releasing a self-titled album, dominated by Robbie Robertson’s writing, that contained the songs “Up on Cripple Creek”, “Rag Mama Rag”, and “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down”. The latter was later covered by Joan Baez, making it to #3 on the Billboard pop charts in 1971. And the former got them onto the Ed Sullivan show and their popularity exploded. Their album peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts and they embarked on their first tour as a headlining act. In 1969, The Band performed at some of the biggest rock festivals, including the legendary Woodstock Festival and the Toronto Pop Festival at Varsity Stadium.
Their third album Stage Fright was released the following year and made it to #5 on the Billboard Album charts. The Band’s anxiety from the touring and sudden fame and fortune may have resulted in the darker themes of the album. Robertson began dominating their work and taking up the spotlight which led to resentment from the other members. But Robertson felt that he had to compensate for other members whose talents were becoming overtaken by addiction and substance abuse. Despite their mounting disunity, they were still able to train it to Canada to participate in the all-star rock concert tour, Festival Express, with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.
The Band’s fourth album, Cahoots, was released in 1971, its best-known tracks being “Life Is a Carnival” and “Don’t Do It”. The former includes horn arrangements by Allen Toussaint who was asked to do subsequent work for The Band. Both Stage Fright and Cahoots were not well received by critics and The Band was worn out; they took a lengthy break from both performing and recording new material. Their next recording, Rock of Ages (1972), was a live album from their New Year’s Eve concert. In 1973, they released Moondog Matinee, a collection of studio versions of the older songs that the group used to perform on-stage and numbers from their days as The Hawks. In the summer of that year, they performed at a huge rock concert, along with The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, on a race track in New York, attended by some 600,000 people, a world attendance record at the time. Two albums came out the following year: Before the Flood (Bob Dylan/Band tour album from shows earlier in the year) and Planet Waves (a Bob Dylan album that featured The Band).
The fact that The Band was not recording any new material should be interpreted as not all being well within the group. But in 1975, they mustered somewhat of a comeback with the new album Northern Lights — Southern Cross, presenting their first original material in four years. The album was hailed their best since their self-titled sophomore effort and included the use of synthesizers. All tracks on the album were written by Robertson.
The Band decided they were unhappy with Capitol Records and were offered a multi-million dollar deal from Warner Brothers who were still kicking themselves for not having signed the group back in ’67. But The Band had a contractual obligation to record one more album for Capitol. The result was Islands which was pretty much thrown together to complete their 10-album deal with Capitol. Nevertheless the album had its moments according to the critics. It was released in 1977.
By 1976, it was too late to save the Band as a working ensemble. The individual members had grown too far apart. They gave a final concert—“The Last Waltz”—in November at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, the home of their first gigs in 1969. Musical guests included Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Diamond, and Canadians Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. A triple album of the gig was eventually released by Warner Brothers in 1978 and a film was made, directed by Martin Scorsese, who developed a working relationship with Robbie Robertson. The two would work together on many film projects over the years to come.
All individual members released solo albums afterwards, none of which did well. Because Robertson had dibs on royalties of The Band’s songs (being their principal composer), he, unlike the others, was financially secure. In order to earn money, the others, without Robertson, assembled for various concert tours.
Helm, who has always disputed Robertson’s claim to the royalties, received applause for his acting debut in Coal Miner’s Daughter. In 2007 he released a solo album, Dirt Farmer, which was awarded a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
In 1986, while on tour, Richard Manuel committed suicide by hanging himself in his Florida motel room. Robertson joined the others for a memorial concert in New York. And he released his first solo album the following year which included a tribute to Manuel called “Fallen Angel”. This self-titled album, which was produced by Canada’s Daniel Lanois (co-producer for U2), won Album of the Year at the Junos. Robertson himself was awarded a second Juno award for Male Artist of the Year. He received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2003.
In 1989, The Band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. At the awards ceremony, Robertson, Danko, and Hudson performed with Blue Rodeo. The Band was part of the international stellar cast in Roger Waters’ 1990 production The Wall in Berlin, viewed by an estimated one billion people. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
In 1993, The Band (without Robertson who was enjoying a successful solo career) released their first original studio album in 16 years, Jericho. This was followed by High On the Hog (1996), and Jubilation (1998). In late 1999, Rick Danko died in his sleep at age 56. Following his death, The Band disbanded for good. In 2008, they received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.