Before the inception of the Band, its five musicians had previously played together as Ronnie Hawkins' backing band, the Hawks, and served in Bob Dylan's backing band for his 1965-66 tour. After a significant amount of recording in Woodstock, New York with Dylan—songs from which would be released much later as The Basement Tapes—the Band began penning their own original material. The group consisted of Robbie Robertson (vocals, guitar), Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Levon Helm (drums, vocals), Richard Manuel (keys, vocals), and Garth Hudson (keys, saxophone). Their debut, Music From Big Pink, proved to be one of their finest achievements. Though its initial commercial impact was modest, it is widely regarded as one of finest rock albums of all time. The group deftly blended rock 'n' roll, soul, and country to form a sound that was all their own—not psychedelic, but firmly rooted in American music tradition despite most of the individual members hailing from Canada. Bob Dylan lent his Midas touch to three of the album's songs, but it was Robertson's "The Weight" that became their most well-known anthem.
A year later, they released their eponymous second album, which became their best selling effort. This sophomore release saw Robertson taking over on primary songwriting duties, which were focused on the many facets of classic Americana, featuring such classics as "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek," and earning them an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Their third record, Stage Fright, marked the beginning of the band's splintering due to drug habits and interpersonal problems. 1971's Cahoots was followed by a live album, Rock of Ages, in 1972, and the following year's Moondog Matinee was comprised of older cover tunes as well as songs they performed as members of the Hawks. Over the next few years, they'd work with Dylan on his Planet Waves album as well as the tour that produced Before the Flood, and Helm and Hudson would record with the legendary Muddy Waters. The Band would release two more albums of their own, 1975's Northern Lights - Southern Cross and 1976's Islands, before it became evident that their collaboration couldn't continue with the individual members' commitments and projects.
One of the group's greatest accomplishments was 1978's The Last Waltz, which featured film and audio versions of the original group's final concert at Winterland in San Francisco, famously filmed by director Martin Scorsese. It features versions of some of their best-loved songs and guest performances from artists who were either involved with, or influenced by, the group. Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, and, of course, Bob Dylan made unforgettable appearances that solidified The Last Waltz's place in the pantheon of live concert footage.
Though the Band would reunite several times starting in 1983, also releasing three more LP's in the'90s, none would feature Robertson, nor would any of that work live up to the staggering quality of their '60s and '70s work. In 1986, tragedy struck, as Manuel, the beloved keyboardist and composer, took his own life in a Winter Park, FL hotel room. Danko passed away at home in December 1999, likely marking the end of any future projects as the Band. Though they are no longer touring, the influence of the Band is more pervasive than ever today—their legacy continues to grow.
Read more about the Band in Crawdaddy!:
"Rick Danko: Infectious Joy and Non-Showbiz Charisma"
"The Band—Or When the Booing Ended"
"Crossing the Great Divide: From the Band to Palliard"
"Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer"