The Band booked a residency at the Academy of Music for the last week of 1971, culminating in a New Year's Eve performance. Robbie Robertson had commissioned New Orleans songwriter and arranger Allen Toussaint to compose horn charts for their recent single "Life Is a Carnival" from the album Cahoots, and decided to have Toussaint write special charts for a five-man horn section to augment the group on their upcoming concerts. Charts written by Toussaint in New Orleans were in luggage lost at the airport, and a new set was composed in a cabin near Robertson's house in Woodstock. Robertson selected eleven songs to receive horn charts, and all are included on the released album. The horns do not play on "Get Up Jake", "Stage Fright", "This Wheel's on Fire", "The Weight", "The Shape I'm In", and "The Genetic Method." Selections on the bonus disc also do not feature horn arrangements, although the horn section added spontaneous flourishes to "Down in the Flood" and "Rolling Stone."
The repertoire consisted of material from all four of The Band's studio albums up to that point, and one new original song, "Get Up Jake", which were framed on the album by covers of the 1964 Motown hit single "Baby Don't You Do It" by Marvin Gaye, and "(I Don't Want to Hang Up) My Rock and Roll Shoes", the b-side of Chuck Willis' final single. Four nights from December 28 through 31 were recorded, and the balance of the recordings on the released album were derived from the final two nights. Their previous employer Bob Dylan made a surprise visit on the New Year's Eve show, playing four songs with the group in the early morning hours of January 1, 1972.
Originally released in 1972 as a double album, it was reissued in 1980 as two separate LPs, titled Rock of Ages, Vol. 1 and Rock of Ages, Vol. 2. The first edition for compact disc in 1987 was released as an "abridged version"; "The Genetic Method" (Garth Hudson's instrumental solo/introduction to "Chest Fever") was omitted, but later re-instated on the unedited two-disc version released in 1990. On May 8, 2001, an expanded and remastered two-disc edition appeared, with the original album on one disc, and an additional ten tracks on a bonus disc. Included on the bonus disc were the four songs featuring Dylan and another Motown cover, the 1966 hit single "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" by The Four Tops.
The 2005 retrospective Band box set A Musical History contains several Rock of Ages tracks newly remixed from the multitrack tapes, as well as a previously-unissued performance of the song "Smoke Signal" from the December 28 show. A hybrid SACD reissue of the original album was released on the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab label in 2010. The song "Chest Fever" from this album is available as downloadable content for the video game Rock Band.
In 2013, Capitol released Live at the Academy of Music 1971: The Rock of Ages Concerts, a box set consisting of four CDs and one DVD (mostly only audio), and containing all previously released material from the concerts as well as numerous unissued performances (including the December 31 show in its entirety) presented in new stereo and 5.1 surround mixes.