Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Easily the most influential rock band of the late '60s-70s: Jaime 'Robbie' Robertson (b 5 July 1943, Toronto), guitar; Garth Hudson (b 2 August 1937, London, Ontario), organ; Richard Manuel (b 3 April 1944, Stratford, Ontario; d 4 March 1986), piano, vocals; Rick Danko (b 9 December 1943, Simcoe, Ontario), bass, vocals; Levon Helm (b Mark Lavon Helm, 26 May 1940, Marvell AR; d 19 April 2012, NYC), drums, vocals. (These dates are mostly from Barney Hoskyns's book Across The Great Divide: The Band and America '93; Helm's obit confirmed that he was born in 1940.)

They came together as a backing group for rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins (like Helm, from Arkansas) who promised them not much money but 'more pussy than Frank Sinatra'; that association lasted on and off until c.1963. Then they called themselves the Hawks, Levon and the Hawks, the Crackers, the Canadian Squires, playing all over North America soaking up the culture of the prairies: one gloomy dance hall turned out to be owned by Jack Ruby. They were spotted in Canada by blues singer John Hammond; Robertson, Helm and Hudson played on Hammond's So Many Roads '65; they met Bob Dylan working in Greenwich Village: he was moving from pure folk to an electric backing group and hired them for his '65-6 world tour. The antagonism meeting Dylan's new sound was captured on the bootleg album Live At The Albert Hall, and had caused Helm to leave the group, replaced by Mickey Jones on the tour.

After Dylan's motorcycle accident '66 they retired with him to the rural house 'Big Pink' near Woodstock NY; their rehearsal of new songs resulted in rock's first important bootleg, the two-disc Great White Wonder (from the plain sleeve), aka The Basement Tapes, the title when issued by Columbia '75. The mellower side of Dylan was possibly influenced by Robertson's growing confidence as a writer (Dylan praised him as 'a mathematical guitar genius'). Producer John Simon on the Band's first three albums was practically a member of the group. Word-of-mouth rumour from the likes of George Harrison and Eric Clapton prepared fans for release of the Band's astonishingly assured debut of their maturity, Music From Big Pink '68, including Dylan's 'I Shall Be Released', Dylan/Manuel collaboration 'Tears Of Rage', Dylan/Danko 'This Wheel's On Fire', folkish C&W 'Long Black Veil'; the instant classic Robertson composition 'The Weight'.

[One fan wrote, 'Everybody was into psychedelia before The Band. After Music from Big Pink, everybody went back to basics. Clapton left Cream. The Beatles went from Sgt. Pepper to The White Album. The Stones went from Satanic Majesties to Jumping Jack Flash. Hendrix went from The Experience to Band of Gypsies. The Doors went from Love Me Two Times to Roadhouse Blues. The Who went from Happy Jack to Magic Bus.']

Their next LP The Band '69 included all Robertson compositions except Manuel's 'Whispering Pines': 'Up On Cripple Creek', 'Rag, Mama, Rag', 'Across The Great Divide' and one of his best, 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down', written for Helm to sing: Robertson said they could have called the album America; they were called the only band that could have warmed up the crowd for Abraham Lincoln. Mat Snow wrote more recently that it was still 'the best rock'n'roll album of the 19th century ... the taproom was never far from the graveyard'.

Long experts at playing old hits that dancers wanted to hear in taverns, they were a band, not a collection of egos, able to switch instruments and vocals; thanks perhaps to a spark provided by Dylan they had learned what to do with their technique. The lyrics told mysterious stories and were sometimes opaque; it may be 'the instinct of the American artist ... to tell his tale from the shadows, probably because that is where he finds it' (Greil Marcus). Big Pink had not been a massive hit (no tour to promote it); the second LP was not yet released when they played a gig in San Francisco '69 and discovered how much was expected: the crowd had come from all over the West and the first night was a disaster; they recovered the next, but called their third LP Stage Fright '70 (another story, that the title track was about Dylan's reclusiveness, does not ring true). More Robertson comps included 'Shape I'm In'. Cahoots '71 would have been an excellent LP from anyone else, but began a slow decline for this group, who had been on the road for a long time; still it included '4% Pantomine' (co-written by Manuel with Van Morrison), Dylan's 'When I Paint My Masterpiece', Robertson's 'River Hymn', 'Life Is A Carnival'. The two-disc set Rock Of Ages '72 was a definitive souvenir of their live work, Moondog Matinee '73 a tribute to Alan Freed's radio show, covers of favourite rock'n'roll songs. Steeped in traditional values, with none of prevalent psychedelia, effortlessly reproducing their studio sound after years on the road, they made history at the Watkins Glen Festival '73 (with the Grateful Dead), at 600,000 the largest ever rock gathering. Both the Band and Dylan now received new impetus: their first official LP together Planet Waves '73 is usually denigrated in the Dylan canon, but a good group of new songs and the Band's backing made it his best set since '68. They accompanied him on his first tour in eight years; the two-disc live tour set Before The Flood '74 was a rich collection of treatments of classics: the fire still burned. But Northern Lights, Southern Cross '75, the first new Band collection in four years, and their last official album Islands '77 had many qualities yet were disappointing.

With intimations of mortality after 16 years on the road, they called it quits Thanksgiving Day '76 with a massive gig at Winterland, San Francisco, where they had 'stage fright' in '69. Hawkins, Clapton, Dylan, Morrison, Ron Wood, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Mac Rebennack were all present, most had guest spots; dinner was served to an invited audience and the whole was filmed by Martin Scorsese, with specially made segments (e.g. 'The Weight' with the Staple Singers, Robertson's 'Evangeline' sung by Emmylou Harris); The Last Waltz was easily the best rock concert film ever made, the film and three-disc album released '78. The Band had two top 40 singles in USA, two different ones in the UK; they became living legend with their albums. A three-CD compilation Across The Great Divide was on Capitol;

Robertson has done film work: starred in Carny '80, scored Scorsese's King Of Comedy '83, contributed to The Color Of Money '87; he produced Diamond LPs '76-7, others by Jesse Winchester, Hirth Martinez. Robbie Robertson '87 on Geffen was his first solo LP, with nine of his own new songs, horns on one track arranged by Gil Evans, guests including Peter Gabriel, U2, the BoDeans (quartet from Waukesha with acclaimed LPs Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams '86 and Outside Looking In '87 on Slash, followed by Home '89, Black And White '91, Go Slow Down '93, two-CD live anthology Joe Dirt Car '95). Robertson's second Geffen album Storyville '91 got better reviews, Contact From The Underworld Of Red Boy '98 on Capitol better still, celebrating Native American culture and the story of Leonard Peltier, probably framed by the government and in prison for two decades. Danko made an eponymous LP '79; Helm made solo Levon Helm And The RCO All-Stars '77 and Levon Helm '78 on ABC, American Son '80 on MCA, Levon Helm '82 on Capitol; he appeared on concept album The Legend Of Jesse James '80 with Johnny Cash and others, acted in film Coal Miner's Daughter '80 with Sissy Spacek, with Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff '83. Helm and Danko gigged as a duo; Danko and Simon co-produced Bobby Charles's album on Bearsville '72; Danko, Manuel and Robertson played on Clapton's No Reason To Cry '76. Critics wrote that the Band without Robertson was like Hamlet without the Prince; the others played reunions late '83 with the Cate Brothers, late '85 with Jimmie Wieder on guitar; sold out gigs at restaurant lounge in Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando FL early '86; Manuel apparently hanged himself the next day: Clapton dedicated 'Holy Mother' on August '86 to him. Reunion albums were Jericho '93, High On The Hog '96 on Pyramid/Rhino and Jubilation '98 on River North.

Griel Marcus's book Invisible Republic '97 was revealing about the musical universe from which the Band came (retitled The Old, Weird America when the paperback came out). Helm's albums continued with The Ties That Bind '99, Souvenir Vol. 1 2000, Midnight Ramble Sessions Vols. 1 & 2 2005 and '06, Dirt Farmer '07 (featuring his daughter Amy) and Electric Dirt '09. He had been diagnosed with cancer '98 which left his voice more raspy, perhaps suiting the material; the cancer eventually took him. Robertson released How To Become A Clairvoyant 2011, his first solo album in a dozen years. He released a memoir, Testimony, in 2016, taking his life up to The Last Waltz.