The Band held a farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976. It was a bittersweet time for many who felt the group’s demise was too soon. They called it The Last Waltz which included Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and an all-star guest list of peers and friends that read like the "Who’s Who" of rock and roll. The event eventually sold as a triple album and was also filmed, becoming the first historical “rockumentary.
Woodstock residents called them “the band,” so they kept the moniker. The name “The Band” fit. The sound was no frills rock and roll but far from simplistic. They fused every musical influence they were exposed to over the years as individuals and as a unit. The result was brilliant. Their development as musicians was perfected by years of playing.
After scoring a 1963 hit with a cover of "Bo Diddley," they left Hawkins to tour on their own, performing on the American club circuit under names including Levon & the Hawks, the Crackers and the Canadian Squires while honing a loud, gritty repertoire heavily influenced by R&B, soul and gospel.
The Band comprised guitarist J.R. "Robbie" Robertson, pianist Richard Manuel, organist Garth Hudson, bassist Rick Danko and drummer Levon Helm; Robertson was the unit's chief songwriter, and Manuel, Danko and Helm shared vocal duties. The group slowly came together under the tutelage of American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who first hired the Arkansas-born Helm before relocating to Toronto at the close of the 1950s, where he gradually recruited the other four musicians to round out his backing unit, dubbed the Hawks.
Once active in Greenwich Village, the group attracted Bob Dylan's attention. Helm and Robbie Robertson were in the electrified backup band at Dylan's controversial Forest Hills, New York, concert of August 28, 1965. Despite a falling-out between Dylan and Helm, Dylan hired the Hawks — with drummer Mickey Jones in lieu of Helm — for his 1965–66 world tour, inaugurating a longtime collaboration.
Even if they were only remembered as the group that backed Bob Dylan on some of his best work (including The Basement Tapes), the Band would be widely revered. But the four Canadians and one Southerner did classic work on their own, turning in earthy and mystical albums built on rock-ribbed, austerely precise arrangements and songs that linked American folklore to primal myths.
In an era of divisive politics, the Band produced music that crossed generational and historical borders. They did so with an ensemble brilliance borne of many years spent playing on the road. They began as the Hawks, back up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, a boisterous journeyman who found steady work in Canada. Four of the five Hawks - guitarist Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson and pianist Richard Manuel - were Canadian. Drummer Levon Helm hailed from Arkansas. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks toured the states and provinces until late 1963, at which point the backing musicians split from Hawkins to continue on their own as Levon and the Hawks.
The Band, more than any other group, put rock and roll back in touch with its roots. With their ageless songs and solid grasp of musical idioms, the Band reached across the decades, making connections for a generation that was, as an era of violent cultural schisms wound down, in desperate search of them.
The group's history dates back to 1958, just about the time that the formative Beatles gave up skiffle for rock & roll. Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas-born rock & roller who aspired to a real career, assembled a backing band that included his fellow Arkansan Levon Helm, who played drums (as well as credible guitar) and had led his own band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. The new outfit, Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, began recording during the spring of 1958 and gigged throughout the American south; they also played shows in Ontario, Canada, where the money was better than in their native south. When pianist Willard Jones left the lineup one year later, Hawkins began looking at some of the local music talent in Toronto in late 1959. He approached a musician named Scott Cushnie about joining the Hawks on keyboards. Cushnie was already playing in a band with Robbie Robertson, however, and would only join Hawkins if the latter musician could come along.
For about six years, from 1968 through 1975, the Band was one of the most popular and influential rock groups in the world, their music embraced by critics (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the public) as seriously as the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Their albums were analyzed and reviewed as intensely as any records by their one-time employer and sometime mentor Bob Dylan. And for a long time, their personalities were as recognizable individually to the casual music public as the members of the Beatles.