Even if they were only remembered as the group that backed Bob Dylan on some of his best work (including The Basement Tapes), the Band would be widely revered. But the four Canadians and one Southerner did classic work on their own, turning in earthy and mystical albums built on rock-ribbed, austerely precise arrangements and songs that linked American folklore to primal myths.
With its rock-ribbed, austerely precise arrangements and a catalogue of songs that linked American folklore to primal myths, the Band — four Canadians and a Southerner — made music that was both earthy and mystical.
The group had been playing together for most of a decade before it recorded its first album in 1968. Beginning with Levon Helm, the five members joined rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins' Hawks one by one, and by 1960 the future Band members had all been with Hawkins on and off, an association that continued until 1963. They then began working on their own, variously as Levon and the Hawks, or the Crackers, or the Canadian Squires. Singer John Hammond heard them in a Canadian club in 1964 and asked them to perform and record with him in New York, Chicago, and Texas.
Once active in Greenwich Village, the group attracted Bob Dylan's attention. Helm and Robbie Robertson were in the electrified backup band at Dylan's controversial Forest Hills, New York, concert of August 28, 1965. Despite a falling-out between Dylan and Helm, Dylan hired the Hawks — with drummer Mickey Jones in lieu of Helm — for his 1965–66 world tour, inaugurating a longtime collaboration.
After Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident, the group settled near the suddenly reclusive star in the Woodstock, New York, area. Helm rejoined, and while recording extensively with Dylan (the much-bootlegged sessions were released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes), they began working on their own material, most of it written by Robertson and Richard Manuel. Recorded in a basement studio in the group's house (Big Pink) in West Saugerties, the material made up the Band's debut album.
Music From Big Pink is a classic record, bursting with resonant songs, a brotherly vibe, and a remarkably direct sound. From Robertson's stinging Stratocaster leads to Helm's raunchy drumming, Rick Danko's down-home bass lines, Manuel's gospel/R&B piano playing, and Garth Hudson's majestic, churchlike organ textures, it seemed at times as if the Band was trying to work up a soundtrack for Democracy itself. The group moved to Hollywood, but its second LP, The Band, was a celebration of rural life and the past. It was the group's masterpiece and commercial breakthrough, and the quintet undertook its first headlining tour to support it. Robertson was emerging as chief songwriter as well as producer, and his impressions of the road inspired the Band's third album, Stage Fright. After 1971's Cahoots (with an appearance by Van Morrison), the Band recorded a double live LP, Rock of Ages, followed in 1973 by a tribute to early rock & roll (Moondog Matinee, named after Alan Freed's radio show).
With the exception of a joint appearance in 1969 at the Isle of Wight Festival in Britain, the Band rarely worked with Dylan in the early Seventies. But shortly after the Band played before a crowd of nearly 600,000 at the 1973 Watkins Glen rock festival with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band (documented on a 1995 live album), the group joined Dylan in the studio for his Planet Waves. The next year, they toured together and produced the live album Before the Flood. The Band's output continued to slow through the Seventies. In November 1975 the group released its first new material in four years, Northern Lights — Southern Cross, followed two years later by Islands. Robertson produced an album for Neil Diamond, Beautiful Noise, in 1976. After 16 years together, the Band called it quits with a gala concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976. The Band and guests (including Dylan, Morrison, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Diamond) performed at San Francisco's Winterland (the site of the group's first concert as the Band in 1969) for The Last Waltz, filmed by Martin Scorsese.
After the breakup, Helm continued to record and tour with the RCO All-Stars, an aggregation that included Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Booker T. Jones; the Cate Brothers; and Danko. He made his acting debut in 1980 in Coal Miner's Daughter and has since appeared in several other films. Robertson starred in and composed part of the score for 1980's Carny and wrote music for Scorsese's The King of Comedy before releasing his first solo album in 1987. Robbie Robertson, produced by Daniel Lanois, received tremendous media attention and went gold; 1991's Storyville, however, fared poorly. In 1994 Robertson, whose mother was of Mohawk Indian descent, composed the soundtrack to a six-hour television documentary, The Native Americans, which featured American Indian musicians collectively dubbed the Red Road Ensemble. He continued to explore Native American music — with a trip-hop twist — on the adventurous Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy. Danko, too, recorded on his own, releasing his solo debut in 1977 and a pair of albums with singer/songwriter Eric Andersen and Norwegian folksinger Jonas Fjeld in the Nineties.
The Band regrouped in 1983 with guitarist Jimmy Weider replacing Robertson, who'd declined an invitation to join. On March 4, 1986, following an appearance at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in Winter Park, Florida, Manuel returned to his room and hanged himself with a belt. His body contained traces of cocaine and alcohol. The three remaining originals carried on with a variety of backing musicians. In 1993 they released the Band's first album of new material in 16 years, Jericho, which included interpretations of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" and Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell," as well as their own compositions.
In 1994 the Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Robertson turned out for the ceremony, but Helm stayed home. As he made abundantly clear in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, the drummer bitterly resented Robertson for allegedly having claimed sole writing credit for collaborative efforts. Across the Great Divide, a three-disc box set, was released the same year.
With the same lineup as for Jericho — Helm, Danko, Hudson, Weider, Randy Ciarlante on vocals and drums, and Richard Bell on keyboards — the Band released High on the Hog in 1996, followed by Jubilation (featuring guests Eric Clapton and John Hiatt) two years later. In 1996 Danko was found guilty of colluding to smuggle heroin into Japan (after legal wrangling, he was eventually released from custody and left Japan). Hudson and Weider both sat in with Danko for his 1999 outing, Live on Breeze Hill, but on December 10 of that year, three weeks shy of his 57th birthday, Danko died in his sleep at his home in Woodstock, New York. He had returned home from a tour earlier that week and had been recording songs for what would have been his first new solo studio album in 22 years.
Soon after Danko died, Helm developed throat cancer. The radiation therapy reduced his mighty voice to a faint whisper and nobody imagined he'd ever sing again. To pay off his mounting debts, Helm began playing a regular series of gigs at his Woodstock home with his daughter Amy on lead vocals. In early 2004 his voice began to miraculously return, and by the end of the year he was belting out Band classics at his show. Tourists from around the world now travel to Woodstock to see Helm (with Garth Hudson occasionally sitting in) sing "Ophelia" and "The Weight" a few miles away from Big Pink.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Andy Greene contributed to this article.