Singer, songwriter, composer, guitarist, producer
Robbie Robertson has been a professional musician since 1959, when he began playing guitar with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in juke joints and dives all across North America. Six years later, before thousands of fans, he was backing Bob Dylan as the folkie was making his transition to electric. By then the Hawks were known simply as the Band and were soon creating their own powerful originals. After another tour with Dylan, the Band decided to call it quits in 1976 and Robertson began working in movies, both acting and scoring soundtracks, while remaining relatively behind the scenes for nearly a decade. In 1987 he released his first solo LP, proving that his songwriting and guitar abilities were stronger than ever.
Robertson began playing guitar at age ten after his cousins introduced him to country music. After a brief period of Hawaiian lap steel lessons, the fifteen-year-old knew his life was in music and started writing songs. He developed a trademark guitar sound that can be traced back to blues masters like Muddy Waters. “I didn’t realize that they were using slides, so for years I worked on developing a vibrato technique equivalent to a slide,” he told Steve Caraway in Guitar Player. “It all made me develop a certain style.” At sixteen Robertson quit school to join Hawkins as a bass player until the guitarist, Fred Carter, quit a few months later. For the next two years he practiced endlessly as the band toured Canada and the rural sections of the States. As the teenager was viewing the richness of Americana, he also became one of the most unique players around. “Robbie was the first guy to get into white funk, in Canada or anywhere,” Hawkins told Ben Fong-Torres in Rolling Stone. “They were always two years ahead of their time.”
Robertson fingerpicked as a youth to alleviate boredom and to accompany himself, but now he was beginning to explore the ringing tone offered by harmonics (picking a string and then grazing it with a finger to bring out a bell-like overtone). “Within a year (of joining the Hawks) I was actually onto something,” he said in Guitar Player. “I was the only one playing a certain way in a big area; up north it just wasn’t happening for that kind of guitar playing.” In fact, besides Roy Buchannan on the east coast, it wasn’t happening anywhere else. Robertson’s guitar exploded on Hawkins’s biggest hit, “Who Do You Love,” in 1963, which would be their last year backing up the wild singer.
For the next two years drummer Levon Helm fronted the group as Levon and the Hawks toured Canada. After hearing them in Toronto, John Hammond, Jr., brought the members to New York, where Robertson played on some of the bluesman’s recordings. While working in
For the Record…
Full name, Jaime Robbie Robertson; born 1943 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; father’s name, Claygerman (a professional gambler). Education: Quit school at age 16.
Began playing guitar at age 10; played with Ronnie Hawkins’s band, the Hawks, 1959-63, remained with band after Levon Helm replaced Hawkins, 1963-65, group name changed to the Band, 1965, backed Bob Dylan, 1965-68, first group LP released 1968, band dissolved, 1976; solo performer, 1976—. Composer of musical scores for films, including Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Raging Bull, adn Carny; actor in films, including Carni;.
Addresses: Record company —Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
New Jersey the Hawks received a call from Dylan asking them to play with him at a Hollywood Bowl gig. They accepted and in the summer of 1965 they hit the road as Dylan’s support band, playing America and Europe sans Helms—the only U.S. citizen in the group—who had headed back home to Arkansas, as Mickey Jones replaced him until the tour was over.
Helm rejoined Robertson and the rest of the Band (Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko) in West Saugerties, New York, where they retreated to write and record songs for their 1968 debut LP, music From Big Pink. The album reflected Dylan’s lyrical influence as they worked closely with the singer while he recovered from a motorcycle accident. The Band’s mountain-music sound also rubbed off on Dylan, as evidenced on his songs from the same period later released as The Basement Tapes. In Robertson, Dylan found not only an exceptional writer but also an excellent guitarist. He was, according to Dylan in Rolling Stone, “the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rear guard sound.”
As solid as their first LP was, their second release, The Band, would be remembered as the album that helped listeners bring life after the 1960s into focus. The Band moved to Los Angeles to record the LP as Roberstson took over as chief songwriter. As a Canadian giving his view of America, Robertson created “one of the greatest and most profound rock and roll albums ever made,” stated Dave Marsh in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, “as close to a perfect statement of purpose as any rock group has ever come.” Songs like “Across the Great Divide” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” established Robertson as a premier tale-teller. “In my mind there’s this mythical place in America where the storyteller lives. And he tells stories based on this place and people who’ve come through, and his experiences,” he later told Musician.
In 1970, Robertson, at age twenty-six, appeared alongside his Bandmates on the cover of Time magazine with the release of Stage Fright, their third LP. With such an incredible album to follow, Stage Fright was a fine effort but not nearly as overwhelming. Their follow-up, Cahoots, was even weaker yet as Robertson’s lyrics lacked his visionary punch. A live album, Rock of Ages, was recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1971, at New York’s Academy of music with the addition of Allen Toussaint’s beefed-up New Orleans-style horn section. Robert Christgau, in his Record Guide, called it “the testament of artists who are looking backwards because the future presents itself as a vacuum—a problem that has afflicted even their best work.” Although the record helped bring the Band back into the mainstream, it was followed by Moondog Matinee, a disappointing oldies album from a group known for their marvelous originals (“Life is a Carnival,” “Chest Fever,” “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “The Shape I’m In”).
After playing to 600,000 fans at the Watkins Glen, New York, festival, the Band hooked up with Dylan again for his 1974 tour. The live show, released as Before the Flood, was a huge success netting nearly $2.5 million. “No way do we feel we deserve it,” Robertson told Rolling Stone. “But I don’t think a gallon of gas is worth a dollar, either.” After the tour and live album, Dylan went back into the studios with the Band to record his Planet Waves LP.
The Band took a few years off before hitting the road for an American tour in 1976. But, after just two months, they decided the group had run its course and announced their farewell concert for Thanksgiving Eve in San Francisco. “I’ve been playing in the band for sixteen years and I’m thirty-two,” Robertson said to Patrick Snyder in Rolling Stone. “It’s been eight years in the back streets and eight years uptown. We’re going to conclude this chapter of our life…. We have to bring it to a head.” They did it with style, too, putting on a star-studded finale that included some of music’s most famous names: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Emmylou Harris, and, of course, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. The $25-per-seat concert at Bill Graham’s Winterland, site of their debut some seven years earlier, featured the Band playing their hits and backing up their friends with the fire and passion that made them one of rock and roll’s classiest acts. Director Martin Scorcese filmed the show, entitled The Last Waltz (“so far no one has even tried to match it,” wrote Greil Marcus in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll) and a subsequent triple live album of the same name was released in 1978.
With such a natural screen presence in the movie, the next step for Robertson was acting. He appeared as Patch, a carnival hustler, in the movie Carny and also worked on the soundtrack for the film. “It’s not a matter of me shifting from rock and roll into movies,” he told Chet Flippo in Rolling Stone. “It’s a natural course, a gradual thing. It’s all storytelling, if it’s music or movies or books.” Robertson teamed up with Scorcese to score three more films: Raging Bull, King of Comedy, and The Color of Money. For the latter, Robertson did a last-minute rush job for the lyrics to Eric Clapton’s hit “It’s in the Way That You Use It.”
Robertson had laid low for the most part while members of the Band had reunited without him shortly after their breakup (he did join them onstage once in 1989). In 1986 keyboardist Manuel died from the very reasons that Robertson had decided to quit life on the road. “We’re talking about living a dangerous life. One thing equals another whether it’s drinking or drugs or driving as fast as you can or staying up for as long as you can,” he told Bill Flanagan in Musician. “That way of life seemed very fitting. At a certain age you don’t think, ’this is insane!’”
Robertson signed a recording contract with EMI, which was later bought by Geffen Records, and in June of 1986 he began working on his first solo LP while finishing up The Color of Money with Gil Evans. Robbie Robertson was produced by Daniel Lanois with a bevy of friends lending their support: Peter Gabriel, Maria McKee, Tony Levin, the BoDeans, Garth Hudson, and Bill Dillon. Among the songs, “Broken Arrow,” “Hell’s Half Acre,” “Showdown at Big Sky,” and “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” once again display Robertson’s talent for writing musical mini-novels. “Sweet Fire of Love” was a special treat with U2’s The Edge trading blistering guitar licks with Robertson. The big question was why did he wait so long? “I never said I’m not going to write songs for a while; I just didn’t have the lure to get in there, sit down and suffer. I wasn’t so sure I had something to say,” he told Musician. “I just didn’t want to make mediocre moves.”
Robbie Robertson, Geffen, 1987.
With the Band
Music From Big Pink, Capitol, 1968.
The Band, Capitol, 1969.
Stage Fright, Capitol, 1970.
Cahoots, Capitol, 1971.
Rock of Ages, Capitol, 1972.
Moondog Matinee, Capitol, 1973.
Northern Lights - Southern Cross, Captol, 1975.
Islands, Capitol, 1977.
The Last Waltz, Warner Brothers, 1978.
The Best of The Band, Capitol, 1976.
Anthology, Capitol, 1978.
With Bob Dylan
Planet Waves, Asylum, 1974.
Before the Flood, Asylum, 1974.
The Basement Tapes, Columbia, 1975.
With Eric Clapton
So Many Roads, Vanguard.
I Can Tell, Atlantic.
The Best of John Hammond, Jr., Vanguard.
Composer of soundtracks for motion pictures, including Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Carny, and The Color of Money. Producer of records, including (for Jesse Winchester) Jesse Winchester, Ampex, 1970; (for Neil Diamond) Beautiful Noise, Columbia/CBS, 1976, and Love at the Greek, Columbia/CBS, 1977; and (for Hirth Marinez) Hirth from Earth.
Christgau, Robert, Christgau’s Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
Dalton, David, and Lenny Kaye, Rock 100, Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, Harmony, 1977.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
What’s That Sound?, edited by Ben Fong-Torres, Anchor Books, 1976.
Guitar Player, December, 1976; January, 1988.
Musician, September, 1987.
Rolling Stone, January 29, 1976; December 16, 1976; December 30, 1976; May 19, 1977; June 26, 1980.
—Calen D. Stone
Arrived as Things Got Electric
Friends Just Called Them “the Band”
Piano and Organ Created Unique Sound
Dylan Remained Catalyst to Greatness
The five musicians who would become known collectively as the Band—Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm—first joined forces as a backup band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s. In 1965 and 1966 they toured with Bob Dylan for a memorable series of concerts, Dylan literally electrifying the world with his new sound. After the tour, the Band settled near Woodstock, New York, and began recording their influential first album, Music From Big Pink. They also continued to record songs with Dylan. Throughout their career together—which ended on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, with a concert filmed by director Martin Scorsese—the Band released a variety of important original material, much of which is today considered classic rock and roll.
The Band’s roots originated in the early form of rock and roll known as rockabilly. As the craze for this rhythm and blues/country hybrid began to decline in the U.S. in the late 1950s, Arkansas-based Ronnie Hawkins decided to take his band of musicians, which
For the Record…
Group included Rick Danko (born December 9, 1943, in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada), bass and vocals; Levon Helm (born May 26, 1942, in Marvell, Arkansas), drums, mandolin, and vocals; Garth Hudson (born August 2, c. 1943, in London, Ontario), organ and saxophone; Richard Manuel (born April 3, 1945, in Stratford, Ontario; died of apparent suicide by hanging, March 6, 1986, in Winter Park, FL), piano and vocals; and Jaime (some sources say James) Robbie Robertson (born July 5, 1944, in Toronto, Ontario) guitar and vocals.
Group formed as backing ensemble for singer Ronnie Hawkins; by 1963, had left Hawkins and become known as Levon and the Hawks, performing variously as the Crackers and the Canadian Squires; recorded with folk/blues singer John Hammond, Jr., New York City, 1964; supported Bob Dylan on tour, 1965-66, 1974; signed with Capitol Records, and released first album, Music From Big Pink, 1968; ended career with five-hour performance at the Winterland, San Francisco, Thanksgiving Day, 1976, excerpts of which, titled The Last Waltz, were later released as an album and film; regrouped to perform with Dylan at Absolutely Unofficial Bluejeans Bash honoring the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, 1993.
included drummer Levon Helm, to Canada. Touring the Great White North, he picked up Canadian musicians along the way. Guitarist Robbie Robertson was only 15 when he joined the Hawkins aggregation in Toronto, and the other members of what would later become the Band signed up one by one.
Eventually, Hawkins fell out of style with Canadian audiences, too, so his backup group continued without him as Levon and the Hawks. When asked by Melody Maker in 1971 to explain how a primarily Canadian band had absorbed so much of the American South, Robertson replied, “When we first got rolling, we spent five years together playing almost totally in the South … with Ronnie [Hawkins] and without Ronnie.”
Arrived as Things Got Electric
After half a decade as a road band, the Hawks moved to New York City at the invitation of folk and blues singer John Hammond, son and namesake of the renowned talent recruiter and record producer. They arrived just as Hammond, Bob Dylan, and other New York-based folk singers were experimenting with electric amplification. Dylan and Robertson occasionally jammed together, and both Robertson and Helm were part of the band that backed Dylan for the electrified second half of his August 28, 1965, Forest Hills, New York, concert. Helm told Rolling Stone in 1968, “We had never heard of Bob Dylan, but he had heard of us. He said, ‘You wanna play Hollywood Bowl?’ So we asked him who else was gonna be on the show. ‘Just us, ’ he said.”
Dylan played the Hollywood Bowl on September 3, 1965, beginning a world tour that would take him through the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. The tour showcased Dylan’s newly electrified sound, which was also featured on his just-released Highway 61 Revisited. Winding up at London’s Royal Albert Hall in May of 1966, the tour concluded with two legendry concerts. Dylan’s backup band—Robertson on guitar, Richard Manuel on piano, Garth Hudson on organ, Rick Danko on bass, and Levon Helm on drums—remained unnamed. Although Helm played a few concert dates in September and October of 1965, he was replaced—after a falling out with Dylan—for the rest of the tour by Sandy Konikoff and then by Mickey Jones. Of the Band’s stature as a result of their road time with Dylan, the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll related, “People came to see Dylan and went away marveling at his band; by the end of the tour, their place in rock and roll history was secure.”
After the tour the Band decided to get off the road for a while and settled down in West Saugerties, New York. Not coincidentally, Dylan lived nearby, in Woodstock. Together, they jammed in a home recording studio in the basement of a house they dubbed “Big Pink.” As Rolling Stone described it, “Big Pink is one of those middle-class ranch houses of the type you would expect to find in development row in the heart of suburbia rather than on an isolated mountaintop high above the barn architecture of New York State’s rustic Woodstock.”
Friends Just Called Them “the Band”
“The band began to grow mustaches and beards and wear hats. It was in Woodstock that people started referring to them as The Band,” Rolling Stone reported. Robertson explained their nameless status to the magazine, stating, “You know, for one thing, there aren’t many bands around Woodstock and our friends and neighbors just call us the band and that’s the way we think of ourselves. And then, we just don’t think a name means anything.”
The Band’s first album was appropriately titled Music From Big Pink. It included cover versions of three previously unreleased Dylan compositions, “I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” co-written with Danko, and “Tears of Rage” co-written with Manuel. Most of the other songs on the album were penned by Robertson or Manuel. According to the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll,“[Music From Big Pink] was a revolutionary album in many ways: The emphasis was on ensemble work rather than on the soloing that had previously dominated rock; the melodies, few of them blues based, were delivered by an ensemble that was almost orchestral in scope, yet comprised of only five musicians; the lyrics were elusive, like Dylan’s, but with a distinctive and compelling cast. Enigmatic? You bet.” In addition to recording songs for their first album, the Band had also backed Dylan in the studio on some of his compositions, which were released in 1975 on the two-album set The Basement Tapes.
The Band’s second album, simply titled The Band, was their breakthrough LP; though the group had by then relocated to Hollywood, this tribute to rural living and times gone by earned them sizeable financial reward and enabled them to tour as a headlining act. Soon other artists, including Joan Baez, began recording their songs. Billboard described the group’s sound in a 1969 concert review, explaining, “The Band is essentially a folk group with a souped-up sound, and yet, though highly amplified, their tones do not jar. They are, instead, listenable, even soothing.” By this time Robertson had emerged as a gifted songwriter and producer.
Piano and Organ Created Unique Sound
One of the unique aspects of the Band’s sound was their use of both piano and organ. When asked by Melody Maker how they happened upon this innovative combination, Robertson said, “We were into gospel music … not particularly spiritual gospel music, black gospel music, but white gospel music. It was easier to play, and it came more natural to us. We were trying to get a bigger sound going on—we had like piano, guitar, bass and drums for a long time, and we tried horns and all kinds of things but there were too many people. So we realized that the only instrument that could make that fullness, and take the place of horns or anything like that, was an organ. We met Garth [Hudson] at that time, who was a hundred times superior to any of us.… I mean he was, to us, just a phenomenon. He could play rings around all of us put together.” Robertson concluded by saying he liked the sound because “it’s full, it feels much more secure.”
The Band’s next releases, Stage Fright and Cahoots, disappointed many of their fans and received mixed reviews. At the end of 1971 they mounted a New Year’s Eve concert at New York’s Academy of Music; recordings from the show were released as the two-record Rock of Ages. It was a strong effort, but it contained little new material. The group’s next album—the title of which, Moondog Matinee, was a reference to pioneering rock disc jockey Alan Freed’s radio show—contained rock and roll oldies.
Toward the end of 1973 members of the Band appeared as backing musicians on Dylan’s Planet Waves LP. Shortly after the recording sessions, Dylan and the Band announced a joint tour. It was Dylan’s first scheduled tour in eight years; fittingly, it had been the Band who had accompanied him on his last tour, the landmark mid-1960s world expedition. The 1974 crosscountry tour began in Chicago and ended in Los Angeles. Most of the tour dates were at large venues, including stadiums and coliseums like New York City’s Madison Square Garden and Los Angeles’s Forum.
Dylan Remained Catalyst to Greatness
The tour was a major event. The concerts featured alternating sets—the Band backing Dylan, Dylan accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, and the Band doing its own songs. On a good night, some 30 songs might be performed. But, as noted by Billboard’s Sam Sutherland in his generally enthusiastic review of a concert in Philadelphia, “One of the few disappointments of the afternoon was the lack of new material from The Band. Robbie Robertson’s own writing has revealed a richness of style, and a unique sense for distinctly American problems and experiences.... But their sets here … focused on their older material.”
Sutherland went on, however, to compliment the Band on its role as backup for Dylan. “As it stood, their contributions to Dylan’s tunes were extraordinary. Had they simply recaptured the drive of those tunes performed during their tours in the mid ’60s, the music would have been strong enough. But their evolution since, while subtle, became palpable in the new force behind those tunes, a force equally generated by Dylan.” The superb two-album set Before the Flood captures the excitement of that 1974 tour and includes many of Robertson’s most popular and highly regarded compositions. Among these are the best-selling “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which gained much recognition as a Joan Baez cover.
In 1975 the Band released Northern Lights-Southern Cross, their first album of original material since 1971. The following year they played live for the first time since 1974, at Stanford University, where they were received with great enthusiasm. Later in 1976 they announced that they would no longer appear live. Their final national performance was on NBC-TV’s Saturday Night Live.
Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham staged a farewell concert for the Band on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, at San Francisco’s Winterland—where, according to the The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, they had first performed as the Band in 1969. The Band was onstage throughout the concert, which featured guest appearances by luminaries including Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Stephen Stills, Ringo Starr, and the man who had given them their break and whom by then they had eclipsed, Ronnie Hawkins. The five-hour concert was recorded and released as an album; an acclaimed film of the extravaganza, by director Martin Scorsese, was released in 1978. Both the album and film were titled The Last Waltz.
Early in 1977 the Band released Islands, the last fruit of their contract with Capitol Records. Although the group had curtailed concert performances, there were expectations that they would continue to record together. But this was not to be. Individual members went on to solo projects or became involved in record production; Helm, for one, dabbled in acting—his role as country singer Loretta Lynn’s father in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter was widely praised. Robertson, who also did some acting, has perhaps been the most visible and successful in his solo career. In the end, though, the group that Sam Sutherland had called “our most mature and authentic rock ’n’ rollers” simply disappeared after reigning at the forefront of popular music for more than a decade.
On Capitol Records, except where noted Singles
“The Weight,” 1968.
“Up on Cripple Creek,” 1969.
“Rag Mama Rag,” 1970.
“Time to Kill,” 1970.
“Life Is a Carnival,” 1971.
“Don’t Do It,” 1972.
“Ain’t Got No Home,” 1973.
Music From Big Pink, 1968.
The Band (includes “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”),1969.
Stage Fright, 1970.
Rock of Ages, 1972.
Moondog Matinee, 1973.
(With Bob Dylan) Before the Flood, Asylum, 1974.
(With Dylan) The Basement Tapes, Columbia, 1975.
Northern Lights-Southern Cross, 1975.
The Best of the Band, 1976.
The Last Waltz, Warner Bros., 1978.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Rolling Stone/Random House, 1980.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Billboard, October 25, 1969; November 24, 1973; January 19, 1974; July 10, 1976; November 20, 1976; December 11, 1976.
Guitar Player, December 1976; January 1988.
Look, August 25, 1970.
Melody Maker, May 29, 1971.
Musician, September 1987.
Rolling Stone, August 24, 1968; January 29, 1976; December 16, 1976; December 30, 1976; May 19, 1977; June 26, 1980; November 4, 1991.
Time, January 12, 1970; March 17, 1986.
"They brought us in touch with the place where we all had to live," Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train. Thirty years after The Band's first appearance on the international music-scene toward the end of the 1960s, Marcus' words still ring true. More than that of any other group, The Band's work represents America at its sincerest, the diversity of its musical heritage, the vividness of its culture, and the lasting attraction of its history. Marcus noted that "against the instant America of the sixties they looked for the traditions that made new things not only possible, but valuable; against a flight from roots they set a sense of place. Against the pop scene, all flux and novelty, they set themselves: a band with years behind it, and meant to last." Last they certainly did.
Having started off as backing musicians (The Hawks) to rockabilly veteran Ronnie Hawkins, Rick Danko (1943—), Garth Hudson (1937—), Levon Helm (1942—), Richard Manuel (1944-1986), and Jaime 'Robbie' Robertson (1944—) played their first gigs in 1964 as an independent group called Levon and the Hawks. As this group they recorded a couple of singles that went largely unnoticed. Chance came their way though, when they met with Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan's manager at the time. Grossman felt that Levon and the Hawks might well be the backing group Dylan was on the look-out for after his legendary first electric appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. After having met and played with him, the group joined Dylan in 1966 for a tour that took them through the United States, and later to Australia and England.
Back in the States in the summer of 1966, they moved to the area around Woodstock—without Levon Helm, though, who had left the tour after two months. There, in Saugerties, New York, they rented a big pink house (appropriately named 'Big Pink'), in the basement of which they recorded well over a hundred songs with Dylan, who at the time was recovering from a serious motorcycle accident. Some twenty of these songs were later released on The Basement Tapes (1975). The sessions in the basement of 'Big Pink' must have made clear to Robertson, Danko, Hudson and Manuel that their musical talents and the originality of their sound were considerable enough to enable them to make it without Dylan. After Albert Grossman cut them a record deal with Capitol, Levon Helm returned to the group and together they recorded Music from Big Pink, still one of the all-time great debuts in the history of popular music. Upon the album's release in August 1968, both the critics and the public realized that something unique had come their way. Music from Big Pink con-firmed the uniqueness of the group's sound—a highly individual blend of the most varied brands of American popular music: gospel, country, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, New Orleans jazz, etc. But it also set the themes which The Band (for this was what they had finally decided on as a name) would explore in albums to come.
Most of the songs on the album, three of which were written by Dylan, are set in the rural South. They belong to a tradition long gone, yet the revival of which the members of The Band considered to be beneficial to a country that yearned for a change but did not really know where to look for it. The songs of The Band should not be taken as nostalgic pleas for the past, for the simpler things in life or for values long lost and gone. The characters in the songs of Music from Big Pink and later albums are in no way successful romantic heroes who have truly found themselves. They are flesh-and-blood people, loners, burdened with guilt, and torn up by love and heartache.
Compared to most albums to come out of the wave of psychedelic rock at the end of the 1960s, the music of The Band was anything but typical of its era. It is a pleasant irony, therefore, that The Band's records have aged so easily, while those of contemporaries like Jefferson Airplane or Country Joe and the Fish already sounded dated a couple of years after their release. From the beginning, the music of The Band—an idiosyncratic combination of several voices (Manuel, Danko, Helm), Robbie Robertson's guitar, the drums of Levon Helm, and the organ of musical wizard Garth Hudson—is full of seeming contradictions that somehow blend into a harmonious whole. The music is playful yet serious, soulful yet deliberate, traditional yet rebellious, harmonic yet syncopated.
The group's second album, The Band (1969), is generally rated as better than its predecessor, representing The Band at its best. The record shows that the group found their idiom, both lyrically and musically. From this album Robertson emerged as the most prominent member of the group; not only did he write most of the songs, but also he also looked after The Band's financial interests. There can be little doubt that at the time The Band was both at its artistic and commercial zenith. In 1970 they made it to the cover of Time magazine and gave their first public performances. The latter soon made clear, however, that the group was at its best in the recording studio.
The title-track of The Band's third album, Stage Fright (1970), may be taken as a comment on the problems some members of the group had with performing live. The record was a new artistic success, though, very much like its follow-up, Cahoots (1971) which featured both Van Morrison and Allen Toussaint. The latter was also present on Rock of Ages, a double album which contains live versions of the Band's greatest songs. The next two years, 1972 and 1973 were all in all lost years for The Band. Life on the road and world-wide success began to take their toll. They recorded Moondog Matinee, a collection of all-time favorites from the years when they were touring with Ronnie Hawkins. The record has mainly to be seen as an attempt to mask a collective lack of inspiration, partly brought on by an equally collective over-consumption of alcohol and drugs. Then followed a large tour with Dylan (1973-1974), the recording of Northern Lights, Southern Cross (1975)—which contains some of the best Band-songs in years—and their legendary farewell performance in the Winterland Arena, San Francisco, on Thanksgiving 1976. The event is known as The Last Waltz : it features friends and colleagues like Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchel and, of course, Dylan. (The film-version, by Martin Scorsese, remains one of the best rock-movies ever made.)
After The Last Waltz, the members of The Band went their separate ways: some of them made solo-records (Robertson most notably), others starred in movies (Helm). In 1983 The Band reunited, without Robertson however. Since the self-inflicted death of Richard Manuel in 1986, the three remaining members of the original Band have recorded two albums on which they were joined by two new musicians. While it is obvious that the magic of the early years is gone forever, we are lucky that the music of The Band is still with us.
Helm, Levon and Stephen Davis. This Wheel's on Fire. Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. New York, W. Morrow and Company, 1993.
Hoskins, Barney. Across the Great Divide. The Band and America. New York, Hyperion, 1993.
Marcus, Greil. "The Band: Pilgrim's Progress." Mystery Train. Images of America in Rock 'n Roll Music, revised third edition. New York, Dutton, 1990, 39-64.