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.
The Band, 1968.Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson in the Catskills posing for Music From Big Pink. Photo © Elliott Landy.
The group's history went back nearly as far as the Beatles, 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, put together a backing band that year that included his fellow Arkansan Levon Helm (born May 26, 1940), 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, was recording by the spring of 1958 and gigged throughout the south and also up in Ontario, Canada, where the money was better than in their native American south. It was the fact of being based in Canada late in 1959, coupled with pianist Willard Jones leaving the lineup, that got Hawkins to start looking at some of the local music talent in Toronto; Hawkins approached a musician named Scott Cushnie about joining the Hawks on keyboards. Cushnie was already playing in a band with Robbie Robertson (born in 1944), however, and would only join Hawkins if he came along.