The Band was originally active from 1964 to 1977, although their original members technically met years before then. Each of them had played for the Hawks, the backing band affiliated with rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins. They all joined his band separately, from 1958 to 1963, and they eventually decided to form their own group.
This group would contain a number of members over the years, but in the beginning it was Robbie Robertson on guitar, Garth Hudson on keyboard, saxophone and trumpet, Levon Helm on drums, guitar and mandolin, Richard Manuel on piano, baritone sax and drums, and Rick Danko on bass, double bass, trombone and fiddle. Each of the Band’s members provided vocals. Each of the member’s abilities to play multiple instruments made it easy for them to develop their own style of country and roots rock, often associated with folk music and Americana.
When the band’s first album came out in 1968, entitled Music from Big Pink, it established them as a band with a style that was hard to imitate. Aside from the genres named above, they also took a few notes from the percussive style associated with early 1960s Motown records. Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm were the primary vocalists, and they tended to blend their voices in harmony (although Richard Manuel was often considered by the other two to be the lead singer).
Their recording style was very different from their style of live performance, as they only tended to switch instruments when in the studio. Garth Hudson was especially notable for his studio recordings, especially those on which he used a Lowrey organ. One of the most notable examples of this is the mellotron-like sound he provided for the song “Tears of Rage.”
As the Band grew in popularity, they established a relationship with Bob Dylan. They had already toured with him in 1966 when they were playing for the Hawks. Years after they had formed the Band, they recorded two albums with him in the mid-1970s, Planet Waves in 1974 and The Basement Tapes in 1975. The latter album was especially notable, including songs that Dylan and the Band had written together in 1967, such as “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
The Band’s songs range in tone, from the incredibly emotional and melodic “It Makes No Difference” to the rhythmic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song based on the end of the American Civil War. Other original classics include “The Shape I’m In,” “Life is a Carnival,” and “Stage Fright.” They also did covers such as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” and Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” All of these songs, with the exception of “Blind Willie McTell,” were performed during the Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz. During this concert, they were joined by performers such as Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, and the man who gave them their start, Ronnie Hawkins.
The Band was highly influential during their time. They reformed a few times after The Last Waltz, and three of their members have played with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. However, Richard Manuel’s death in 1986 made it impossible for the Band to ever truly reunite in their original form. Danko and Helm also passed in 1999 and 2012, respectively. Even so, their influence on recording artists such as Bob Dylan is especially profound, and can be felt even by those who are not familiar with the work of the Band themselves.
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