When Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins put together a backing band in 1958 called the Hawks, probably no one realized it would morph into one of the major groups in rock history. Their eventual name, The Band, might seem generic, but their music was captivating.
Original Hawks drummer Levon Helm (and the only American member) helped Hawkins attract a top-notch lineup over the years, mainly poached from other Toronto-area bands. Robbie Robertson played guitar and sang; Richard Manuel played keyboards and drums; Rick Danko covered bass guitar and fiddle. The last to join the Hawks was organist Garth Hudson, who had a music degree and was determined to use it. The only way he would join the band was if they paid him $10 per week as the resident music theory instructor and bought him an organ.
Hawkins and the Hawks had a lot of success, gigging in Toronto and touring. But in 1963, tensions with Hawkins inspired the Hawks to split off on their own. Variously using the names Canadian Squires and Levon and the Hawks, they recorded some singles and took work as a backing band for Bob Dylan’s 1965 and ’66 tours. Since everyone referred to them simply as “the band,” the name stuck.
They set up shop near Woodstock, New York, to record with Dylan in 1967. Those sessions would eventually become The Basement Tapes, released in 1975, but the music developed during that time was the foundation for The Band’s first album, Music from Big Pink (1968). The title refers to the house that the bandmembers shared in West Saugerties. The album, released on Capitol, was produced by John Simon, also known for his work with Big Brother and the Holding Company and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
By any measure, Music from Big Pink is a powerhouse debut, providing songs that stayed in The Band’s repertoire for as long as they were together. Although the single “The Weight” did not chart well, its popularity and influence grew through sales and radio play of the live album; it’s now considered one of rock’s most influential classics. One song that became a live favorite was “Chest Fever” (always introduced with the instrumental “Genetic Method”). You can hear Hudson’s intense organ style and the group’s unique vocal sound that drapes blues phrasing over a repeating harmonic pattern that is decidedly not a blues progression. The track was written by Robertson, the band’s main composer:
The following year, an album called The Band was released, again produced by Simon. It contained two of their signature songs, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Only the former was a single; the latter gained popularity thanks to The Band’s thrilling live shows.
Although the album’s other single, “Rag Mama Rag,” charted, it did not break the Top 40 in the US. Because Helm played mandolin and Danko fiddled on this track, Manuel sat in on drums and Simon came out from behind the sound desk to handle the bass guitar part.
The hit “The Shape I’m In” was recorded for their third album, Stage Fright (1970). In general, that album has a stronger rock core and less blues and bluegrass flavor than the first two. It also contains some of their most pessimistic lyrics, which many critics at the time noted were oddly mismatched with more upbeat music. To this point, it’s significant to note that this was The Band’s first attempt to self-produce.
Among the record’s fun oddities is “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” composed by Robertson and inspired by stories Helm had told him of the medicine shows that used to tour in rural Arkansas, where he grew up. Hence the twangy, southern-rock sound. Hudson plays tenor saxophone on this track.
When Cahoots came out in 1971, Jon Landau of Rolling Stone spent half his review comparing the new album with The Band, primarily in terms of the records’ respective degrees of melancholic nostalgia. Maybe even the musicians themselves were getting tired of Robertson’s dour outlook, since after this album they recorded only covers for several years.
In retrospect, though, there are some gems on this record. The funky “Life Is a Carnival” is heavy on the brass yet experimental with the guitar pedals, conjuring up Motown with a psychedelic tinge.
A band so beloved for its jamming live shows should have its live albums counted shoulder-to-shoulder with its studio output. Rock of Ages (1972) is decidedly a classic of that genre. Next came the fifth studio album, Moondog Matinee (1973), devoted to blues and R&B covers. Beyond the critics’ discomfort with their original music, The Band just wasn’t getting along, so creation of new songs became impossible.
It can hardly be called a loss for music-lovers, though. These are terrific arrangements of songs like Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” Lieber and Stoller’s “Saved,” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Among the outtakes that were released in a 2001 special edition is Helm singing “Didn’t It Rain,” inspired by the 1947 recording by gospel choir-leader Roberta Martin.
During this period, The Band worked a lot with Dylan. They appear on his albums Before the Flood and Planet Waves; in 1975 The Basement Tapes was finally released as well. But those collaborations didn’t slow their own studio output. 1975 saw the release of Northern Lights, Southern Cross.
The Band was again ready to make an album’s worth of new songs, with Robertson continuing as chief composer. Maybe they were encouraged by the completion of their own studio, Shangri-La, in Malibu. (Superstar producer Rick Rubin owns it now.) The Band had equipped it with a 24-track tape recorder, so the layering on this album gets quite impressive; Hudson particularly enjoyed the ability to use two or three keyboards on a single song.
The sly wit of The Band – in the writing, the arranging, and in Helm’s delivery of lyrics – shines on the upbeat blues “Ophelia.” Robertson’s jaunty guitar solo starting at 1:37 is icing on the cake.
When the Martin Scorsese-directed concert film The Last Waltz was shot in late 1976, the group knew their ride was coming to an end. It was billed as their “farewell concert appearance.” They did release Islands in 1977, but that was just to complete their Capitol contract, and they loaded it with previously recorded songs they’d never had a chance to release.
Robertson wasn’t interested when The Band revived to tour in 1983. A few years later, Manuel committed suicide. The new lineup, used for the album Jericho in 1993, included Helm, Danko, and Hudson, plus drummer Randy Ciarlante, guitarist Jim Weider, and keyboardist Richard Bell.
Even without Robertson and Manuel, this is still The Band, as you can hear in their rousing rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Stuff You Gotta Watch.”
The same personnel released High on the Hog in 1996 and Jubilation in 1998. While the former is mainly covers, for Jubilation the group once again wrote new material, a challenge without the stalwart talents of Robertson. Danko’s “High Cotton” has a simple classic-country sound and a laid-back feel despite the remarkable number of syllables he crowds into each line.
There were rumors in 1998 that another album was in the offing, but it never came to be. Danko died the following year, and Helm in 2012. Of the old Hawks, only Robertson and Hudson are still living. The music they brought to the world as The Band will likely live forever.
Header image of The Band courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/©Elliott Landy 1969.