1960–1964: The Hawks
The members of the Band gradually came together in the Hawks, the backing group for Toronto-based rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins: Helm, an original Hawk who journeyed with Hawkins from Arkansas to Ontario, then Robertson, Danko, Manuel, and finally Hudson. Hawkins's act was popular in and around Toronto and nearby Hamilton, and he had an effective way of eliminating his musical competition: when a promising band appeared, Hawkins would hire their best musicians for his own group; Robertson, Danko, and Manuel came under Hawkins's tutelage this way.
While most of the Hawks were eager to join Hawkins's group, getting Hudson to join was a different story. He had earned a college degree, planned on a career as a music teacher, and was interested in playing rock music only as a hobby. The Hawks admired his wild, full-bore organ style and asked him repeatedly to join. Hudson finally agreed, under condition that the Hawks each pay him $10 per week to be their instructor and purchase a new state-of-the art Lowrey organ; all music theory questions were directed to Hudson.
There is a view that jazz is 'evil' because it comes from evil people, but actually the greatest priests on 52nd Street, and on the streets of New York City were the musicians. They were doing the greatest healing work. And they knew how to punch through music which would cure and make people feel good.
— Garth Hudson, in The Last Waltz
With Hawkins, they recorded a few singles in this period and became well known as the best rock group in the thriving Toronto music scene. Hawkins regularly convened all-night rehearsals following long club shows, with the result that the young musicians quickly developed great technical prowess on their instruments.
In late 1963, the group split from Hawkins over personal differences. They were tiring of playing the same songs so often and wanted to perform original material, and they were weary of Hawkins's heavy-handed leadership. He would fine the Hawks if they brought their girlfriends to the clubs, fearing it might reduce the numbers of "available" girls who came to performances, or if they smoked marijuana. Alcohol and pills were acceptable,
but Canada then had stiff penalties against marijuana possession.
Robertson later said, "Eventually, [Hawkins] built us up to the point where we outgrew his music and had to leave. He shot himself in the foot, really, bless his heart, by sharpening us into such a crackerjack band that we had to go on out into the world, because we knew what his vision was for himself, and we were all younger and more ambitious musically."
Upon leaving Hawkins, the group was briefly known as the Levon Helm Sextet, with sixth member sax player Jerry Penfound, and then as Levon and the Hawks after Penfound's departure. In 1965, they released a single on Ware Records under the name the Canadian Squires, but they returned as Levon and the Hawks for a recording session for Atco later that year. Also in 1965, Helm and the band met blues singer and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson. They wanted to record with him, offering to become his backing band, but Williamson died not long after their meeting.
1965–1967: With Bob Dylan
In late summer 1965, Bob Dylan was looking for a backup band for his first U.S. "electric" tour. Levon and the Hawks were recommended by blues singer John Hammond, Jr., who earlier that year had recorded with Helm, Hudson and Robertson on his Vanguard album So Many Roads. Around the same time, one of their friends from Toronto, Mary Martin, was working as secretary to Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. She told Dylan to visit the group at Le Coq d'Or Tavern, a club on Yonge Street, in Toronto—though Robertson recollects it was the Friar's Tavern, just down the street. Her advice to Dylan: "You gotta see these guys."
After hearing the band play and meeting with Robertson, Dylan invited Helm and Robertson to join his backing band. After two concerts backing Dylan, Helm and Robertson told Dylan of their loyalty to their bandmates, and told him that they would continue with him only if he hired all of the Hawks. Dylan accepted and invited Levon and the Hawks to tour with him. The group was receptive to the offer, knowing it could give them the wider exposure they craved. They thought of themselves as a tightly rehearsed rock and rhythm and blues group and knew Dylan mostly from his early acoustic folk and protest music. Furthermore, they had little inkling of how internationally popular Dylan had become.
With Dylan, the Hawks played a series of concerts from September 1965 through May 1966, billed as Bob Dylan and the Band. The tours were marked by Dylan's reportedly copious use of amphetamines. Some, though not all, of the Hawks joined in the excesses. Most of the concerts were met with heckling and disapproval from folk music purists. Helm was so affected by the negative reception that he left the tour after a little more than one month and sat out the rest of that year's concerts, as well as the world tour in 1966. Helm spent much of this period working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
During and between tours, Dylan and the Hawks attempted several recording sessions, but with less than satisfying results. Sessions in October and November yielded just one usable single ("Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window"), and two days of recording in January 1966 for what was intended to be Dylan's next album, Blonde on Blonde, resulted in "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)", which was released as a single a few weeks later and was subsequently selected for the album. On "One of Us Must Know", Dylan was backed by drummer Bobby Gregg, bassist Danko (or Bill Lee),[b] guitarist Robbie Robertson, pianist Paul Griffin, and Al Kooper (who was more a guitarist than an organist) playing organ. Frustrated by the slow progress in the New York studio, Dylan accepted the suggestion of producer Bob Johnston and moved the recording sessions to Nashville. In Nashville, Robertson's guitar was prominent on the Blonde on Blonde recordings, especially "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat", but the other members of the Hawks did not attend the sessions.
During the European leg of their 1966 tour, Mickey Jones replaced Sandy Konikoff on drums. Dylan and the Hawks played at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on May 17, 1966. The gig became legendary when, near the end of Dylan's electric set, an audience member shouted "Judas!" After a pause, Dylan replied, "I don't believe you. You're a liar!" He then turned to the Hawks and said, "Play it fucking loud!" With that, they launched into an acidic version of "Like a Rolling Stone".
The Manchester performance was widely bootlegged (and mistakenly placed at the Royal Albert Hall). The recording of this gig became one of the most famous of Dylan's career. In a 1971 review for Creem magazine, critic Dave Marsh wrote, "My response is that crystallization of everything that is rock'n'roll music, at its finest, was to allow my jaw to drop, my body to move, to leap out of the chair ... It is an experience that one desires simply to share, to play over and over again for those he knows thirst for such pleasure. If I speak in an almost worshipful sense about this music, it is not because I have lost perspective, it is precisely because I have found it, within music, yes, that was made five years ago. But it is there and unignorable." When it finally saw official release in 1998, critic Richie Unterberger declared the record "an important document of rock history."
On July 29, 1966, while on a break from touring, Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident that precipitated his retreat into semi-seclusion in Woodstock, New York. For a while, the Hawks returned to the bar and roadhouse touring circuit, sometimes backing other singers, including a brief stint with Tiny Tim. Dylan invited the Hawks to join him in Woodstock in February 1967,, and Danko, Manuel and Hudson rented a large pink house, which they named "Big Pink", in nearby West Saugerties, New York. The next month (initially without Helm) they commenced recording a much-bootlegged and influential series of demos, initially at Dylan's house in Woodstock and later at Big Pink, which were released partially on LP as The Basement Tapes in 1975 and in full in 2014. A track-by-track review of the bootleg was detailed by Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone, in which the band members were explicitly named and given the collective name "the Crackers".
1968–1972: Initial success
L to R: Danko, Helm and Manuel on tour in Hamburg, Germany, in 1971
The sessions with Dylan ended in October 1967, with Helm having rejoined the group by that time, and the Hawks began writing their own songs at Big Pink. When they went into the recording studio, they still did not have a name for themselves. Stories vary as to the manner in which they ultimately adopted the name "the Band." In The Last Waltz, Manuel claimed that they wanted to call themselves either "the Honkies" or "the Crackers" (which they used when backing Dylan for a January 1968 concert tribute to Woody Guthrie), but these names were vetoed by their record label; Robertson suggests that during their time with Dylan everyone just referred to them as "the band" and the name stuck. Initially they disliked the moniker, but eventually they grew to like it, thinking it both humble and presumptuous. In 1969, Rolling Stone referred to them as "the band from Big Pink."
Their first album, Music from Big Pink (1968) was widely acclaimed. The album included three songs written or co-written by Dylan ("This Wheel's on Fire", "Tears of Rage", and "I Shall Be Released") as well as "The Weight", the use of which in the film Easy Rider would make it probably their best-known song. While a continuity ran through the music, the style varied by song.
After the success of Music from Big Pink, the Band went on tour. Their first live appearance was at Stony Brook University in spring 1969. That summer they performed at the Woodstock Festival (their performance was not included in the famed Woodstock film because of legal complications), and later that year they performed with Dylan at the UK Isle of Wight Festival (several songs from which were subsequently included on Dylan's Self Portrait album). That same year, they left for Los Angeles to record their follow-up, The Band (1969). From their rustic appearance on the cover to the songs and arrangements within, the album stood in contrast to other popular music of the day. (Several other artists made similar stylistic moves about the same time, notably Dylan, on John Wesley Harding, which was written during the Basement Tapes sessions, and the Byrds, on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which featured two Basement Tapes covers.) The Band featured songs that evoked old-time rural America, from the Civil War in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" to the unionization of farm workers in "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)".
These first two records were produced by John Simon, who was practically a group member: he aided in arrangements in addition to playing occasional piano and tuba. Simon reported that he was often asked about the distinctive horn sections featured so effectively on the first two albums: people wanted to know how they had achieved such memorable sounds. Simon stated that, besides Hudson (an accomplished saxophonist), the others had only rudimentary horn skills, and achieved their sound simply by creatively utilizing their limited technique.
Rolling Stone lavished praise on the Band in this era, giving them more attention than perhaps any other group in the magazine's history; Greil Marcus's articles contributed to the Band's mystique. The Band was also featured on the cover of Time magazine (January 12, 1970).
A critical and commercial triumph, The Band, along with works by the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, established a musical template (sometimes dubbed country rock) that paved the way to the Eagles. Both Big Pink and The Band also influenced their musical contemporaries. Eric Clapton and George Harrison cited the Band as a major influence on their musical direction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Clapton later revealed that he wanted to join the group.
Following their second album, the Band embarked on their first tour as a lead act. The anxiety of fame was clear, as the group's songs turned to darker themes of fear and alienation: the influence on their next work is self-explanatory. Stage Fright (1970) was engineered by musician-engineer-producer Todd Rundgren and recorded on a theatre stage in Woodstock, but the fraying of the group's once-fabled unity was beginning to show. As on their previous, self-titled record, Robertson was credited with most of the songwriting, and the trademark vocal style of the Band's three lead singers was much less prominent than before.
After recording Stage Fright, the Band was among the acts participating in the Festival Express, an all-star rock concert tour of Canada by train that also included Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and future Band member Richard Bell (at the time he was a member of Joplin's band). In the concert documentary film, released in 2003, Danko can be seen participating in a drunken jam session with Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Joplin while singing "Ain't No More Cane".
At about this time, Robertson began exerting greater control over the Band, a point of contention between Helm and Robertson. Helm charges Robertson with authoritarianism and greed, while Robertson suggests his increased efforts in guiding the group were largely because Helm, Danko and Manuel were becoming more unreliable, due to their heroin usage. Robertson insists he did his best to coax Manuel into writing more songs, only to see Manuel descend into addiction.
Despite mounting problems among the group members, the Band forged ahead with their next album, Cahoots (1971). Cahoots featured Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," "4% Pantomime" (with Van Morrison), and "Life Is a Carnival," the last featuring a horn arrangement by Allen Toussaint. Toussaint's contribution was a critical addition to the Band's next project, and the group would later record two songs written by Toussaint: "Holy Cow" (on Moondog Matinee) and "You See Me" (on Jubilation).
In late December 1971, the Band recorded the live album Rock of Ages, which was released in the summer of 1972. On Rock of Ages, they were bolstered by the addition of a horn section, with arrangements written by Toussaint. Bob Dylan appeared on stage on New Year's Eve and performed four songs with the group, including a version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece".
1973–1975: Move to Shangri-La
Bob Dylan and the Band in Chicago, 1974: (left to right) Danko, Robertson, Dylan and Helm
In 1973, the Band released Moondog Matinee, an album of old songs written by non-Band members. There was no tour in support of the album, which garnered mixed reviews. However on July 28, 1973, they played at the legendary Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, a massive concert which took place at the Grand Prix Raceway outside Watkins Glen, New York. The event, which was attended by over 600,000 music fans, also featured the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. It was during this event that discussions began about a possible tour with Bob Dylan, who had —along with Robertson—moved to Malibu, California. By late 1973, Danko, Helm, Hudson and Manuel had joined them, and the first order of business was backing Dylan on the album Planet Waves. The album was released concurrently with their joint 1974 tour, in which they played 40 shows in North America during January and February 1974. Later that year, the live album Before the Flood was released, which documents the tour.
During this time, the Band brought in Planet Waves producer Rob Fraboni to help design a music studio for the group. By 1975, the studio—known as Shangri-La—was completed. That year, the Band recorded and released Northern Lights – Southern Cross, their first album of all-new material since 1971's Cahoots. All eight songs were written exclusively by Robertson. Despite poor record sales, the album is favored by critics and fans alike. Levon Helm regards this album highly in his book, This Wheel's on Fire: "It was the best album we had done since The Band." The album also produced more experimentation from Hudson, switching to synthesizers, showcased on "Jupiter Hollow".
1976–1978: The Last Waltz
The Band with guests at the Last Waltz concert. Photo: David Gans
By 1976, Robbie Robertson was weary of touring. After having to cancel tour dates due to Richard Manuel suffering a severe neck injury in a boating accident in Texas, Robertson urged the Band to retire from touring, and conceived of a massive "farewell concert" known as The Last Waltz. Following an October 30th appearance on Saturday Night Live, the event, including turkey dinner for the audience of 5,000, was held on November 25 (Thanksgiving Day) of 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, California, and featured a horn section with arrangements by Allen Toussaint and a stellar list of guests, including Canadian artists Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Two of the guests were fundamental to the Band's existence and growth: Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. Other guests they admired (and in most cases had worked with before) included Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, Bobby Charles, Neil Diamond, and Paul Butterfield. The concert was recorded by Robertson's friend, filmmaker Martin Scorsese.
In 1977, the Band released their seventh studio album Islands, which fulfilled their record contract with Capitol so that a planned Last Waltz film and album could be released on the Warner Bros. label. Islands contained a mix of originals and covers, and was the last with the Band's original lineup. That same year, the group recorded soundstage performances with country singer Emmylou Harris ("Evangeline") and gospel-soul group the Staple Singers ("The Weight"); Scorsese combined these new performances—as well as interviews he had conducted with the group—with the 1976 concert footage. The resulting concert film–documentary was released in 1978, along with a three-LP soundtrack.
Helm later wrote about The Last Waltz in his autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, in which he made the case that it had been primarily Robbie Robertson's project and that Robertson had forced the Band's breakup on the rest of the group. Robertson offered a different take in a 1986 interview: "I made my big statement. I did the movie, I made a three-record album about it—and if this is only my statement, not theirs, I'll accept that. They're saying, 'Well, that was really his trip, not our trip.' Well, fine. I'll take the best music film that's ever been made, and make it my statement. I don't have any problems with that. None at all."
1983–1989: Reformation and the loss of Richard Manuel
In 1983, the Band resumed touring, though without Robertson. Several musicians, mostly from the group's Ronnie Hawkins days, were recruited as touring personnel to replace Robertson. The reunited Band was generally well-received, but found themselves playing in smaller venues than during the peak of their popularity.
After a performance in Winter Park, Florida, on March 4, 1986, Manuel committed suicide, aged 42, in his motel room. He had suffered for many years from alcoholism and drug addiction, and had been clean and sober for several years beginning in 1978, but had begun drinking and using drugs again by 1984. Manuel's position as pianist was filled by old friend Stan Szelest (who died not long after), and then by Richard Bell. Bell had played with Ronnie Hawkins after the departure of the original Hawks, and was best known from his days as a member of Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band.
The Band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the 1989 Juno Awards, where Robertson was reunited with original members Danko and Hudson. With Canadian country rock superstars Blue Rodeo as a back-up band, Music Express called the 1989 Juno appearance a symbolic "passing of the torch" from the Band to Blue Rodeo.
1990–1999: Return to recording
The Band appeared at Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary concert in New York City in October 1992, where they performed their version of Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece". In 1993, the group released their eighth studio album, Jericho. Without Robbie Robertson as primary lyricist, much of the songwriting for the album came from outside of the group. Also that year, the Band, along with Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, and other performers, appeared at U.S. President Bill Clinton's 1993 "Blue Jean Bash" inauguration party.
In 1994, the Band performed at Woodstock '94. Later that year Robertson appeared with Danko and Hudson as the Band for the second time since the original group broke up. The occasion was the induction of the Band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Helm, who had been at odds with Robertson for years over accusations of stolen songwriting credits, did not attend. In February 1996, the Band with the Crickets recorded "Not Fade Away", released on the tribute album Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly). The Band released two more albums after Jericho: High on the Hog (1996) and Jubilation (1998), the latter of which included guest appearances by Eric Clapton and John Hiatt.
The final song the group recorded together was their 1999 version of Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings", which they contributed to the Dylan tribute album Tangled Up in Blues. On December 10, 1999, Rick Danko died in his sleep at the age of 56. Following his death, the Band broke up for good. In 2002, Robertson bought all other former members' financial interests in the group, with the exception of Helm, giving him major control of the presentation of the group's material, including latter-day compilations. Richard Bell died of multiple myeloma in June 2007. The Band received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award on February 9, 2008,
 but there was no reunion of all three living members. In honor of the event, Helm held a Midnight Ramble in Woodstock. On April 17, 2012, it was announced via Helm's official website that he was in the "final stages of cancer"; he died two days later.
Members' other endeavors
In 1977, Rick Danko released his eponymous debut solo album, which featured the other four members of the Band on various tracks. In 1984, Danko joined members of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and others in the huge touring company that made up "The Byrds Twenty-Year Celebration". Several members of the tour performed solo songs to start the show, including Danko, who performed "Mystery Train". Danko also released three solo albums in the 1990s, "In Concert", "Live on Breeze Hill" and "Times Like These" all three of these records were produced by Aaron L. Hurwitz and are on the Breeze Hill/Woodstock Records Label.
In the late 70s and 80s, Helm released several solo albums and toured with a band called Levon Helm and the RCO Allstars. He also began an acting career with his role as Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter. Helm received praise for his narration and supporting role opposite Sam Shepard in 1983's The Right Stuff. In 1997 a CD by Levon Helm and the Crowmatix, Souvenir, was released. Beginning sometime in the 1990s, Helm regularly performed Midnight Ramble concerts at his home and studio in Woodstock, New York, and toured. In 2007 Helm released a new album, an homage to his southern roots called Dirt Farmer, which was awarded a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album on February 9, 2008. Electric Dirt followed in 2009 and won the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Americana Album. His 2011 live album Ramble at the Ryman was nominated in the same category and won.
After he left the Band, Robbie Robertson became a music producer and wrote film soundtracks (including acting as music supervisor for several of Scorsese's films) before beginning a solo career with his Daniel Lanois-produced eponymous album in 1987.
Hudson has released two acclaimed solo CDs, The Sea to the North in 2001, produced by Aaron (Professor Louie) Hurwitz, and Live at the Wolf in 2005, both featuring his wife, Maud, on vocals. He has also kept busy as an in-demand studio musician. He is featured extensively on recordings of the Call and country-indie star Neko Case. Hudson contributed an original electronic score to an off-Broadway production of Dragon Slayers, written by Stanley Keyes and directed by Brad Mays in 1986 at the Union Square Theatre in New York, which was restaged with a new cast in Los Angeles in 1990. In 2010, Hudson released Garth Hudson Presents: A Canadian Celebration of the Band, featuring Canadian artists covering songs that were recorded by the Band.
In 2012, Jim Weider launched the Weight Band, performing covers of the Band's music, alongside former members of the Levon Helm Band and Rick Danko Group. Recently, the Weight Band performed in a nationally broadcast PBS special, Infinity Hall Live, featuring new music. Following the show, the band announced a self-titled album of new music. The Weight Band also hosts
Camp Cripple Creek, which celebrates the legacy of the Woodstock Sound. Past guests have included Jackie Greene, Music from Big Pink producer John Simon and John Sebastian.
Manuel had few projects outside the Band; he and the rest of the Band contributed to Eric Clapton's 1976 album No Reason to Cry. It included an original composition by Manuel and featured his vocals and drumming on several tracks. Manuel later worked on several film scores with Hudson and Robertson, including Raging Bull and The Color of Money.