Although four of the five members of The Band were Canadians from Ontario, they are considered one of the most influential American bands of the 70s. Rising to prominence as the band that backed Bob Dylan's reckless transition from folk to rock, their first album, Music From Big Pink, named after the house they rented in Woodstock and featuring a painting by Dylan on the cover, became an underground hit, and over the next few years The Band achieved extraordinary acceptance and carved a lasting niche for themselves in rock history.
The Band traces their history back to 1959 when, as The Hawks, and consisting of southern musicians, they backed rock singer Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins.
Ronnie was enjoying a successful run in Toronto, Ontario, and drummer and fellow Arkansan Levon Helm persuaded him to add Canadian players, as original members of The Hawks departed. Over a period of about a year, The Hawks became Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and the classically-trained keyboardist Garth Hudson, in addition to original member Levon Helm, now the only American in the band.
The relationship between Ronnie Hawkins and his Canadian band members was always strained, and in 1963 The Hawks went out on their own, with Levon fronting. 1965 found them in New York City, where John Hammond, Jr., Columbia Records A&R whiz, introduced them to Bob Dylan, who was looking to beef up his folk sound. Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm backed Dylan in 1965 and Dylan then hired the entire outfit for touring purposes in 1966, though Levon Helm left the band temporarily at the end of 1965.
Used to playing Southern blues and heavy r'n'b for rowdy club audiences as The Hawks, playing behind Dylan was a real departure. Dylan's freewheeling musical style involved strumming patterns reminiscent of Josh White, Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. He also had a pesky habit of rearranging songs on stage. The Hawks had to be on their musical toes. They were also unaccustomed to Dylan's folk audience, some of whom were still in shock as a result of Dylan's departure from the purist form of the early works, but The Hawks persevered. Dylan renamed The Hawks and they became The Band.
Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, obtained a contract for The Band with Capitol Records in 1967. Helm rejoined the group, and a debut album, derived from a project called the Basement Tapes, now titled Music From Big Pink, was released by Capitol in July 1968. The album, a slow but steady seller, heavily lauded by the press, was followed, in September 1969 by their second album, The Band, which crashed into the public consciousness with two monster singles "Cripple Creek,"and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
The Band was now a separate musical entity, no longer just Dylan's back-up guys. They appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, where they received a big hug from Ed. Joan Baez covered "Dixie."
Their next album, Stage Fright, was followed in 1971 by Cahoots. By this time, internal struggles had begun, fueled by too much money too fast, the attendant bad behavior associated with overindulgence, and a growing resentment towards Robbie Robertson, who was garnering press attention for his songwriting. Though The Band soldiered on through 1973, backing Dylan on Planet Waves, and going on a national tour with him in 1974, (during which the critics praised The Band as being musically superior to Dylan), the end was in sight.
Their live album, Before The Flood, recorded on the Planet Waves tour was released in 1974. More money arrived with its attendant troubles. Barely hanging on as a combo, The Band released Northern Lights, Southern Cross in 1975, but by this time the rot had set in, and in 1976 the Band assembled for their final farewell, filmed by Martin Scorsese as The Last Waltz.
Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm went on to acting careers, as well as continued solo music endeavors. Garth Hudson pursued solo interests. Richard Manuel died in 1986 as a sad result of drug-related emotional problems; his death was commemorated by the song Fallen Angel on Robbie Robertson's solo album of that year.
The Band put out an album in 1993, their first in 16 years, which was followed by two others - the last, Jubilation, celebrating their 30th anniversary, in 1998.
In December 1999, one day after his 56th birthday, Rick Danko died in his sleep.