Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes The Last Waltz

The Band

The Band; left-to-right: Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko
The Band; left-to-right: Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko

The group of five musicians that eventually became known as “The Band” began to gather in Toronto, Canada, in 1957.  However, it wasn’t until 1968 – after working as the backup group for the Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan – that the band became “The Band.” 

As “The Band,” the group recorded and released ten studio albums, becoming one of the most popular and influential rock ‘n’ roll ensembles of their time.

Bruce Eder (born 1955), journalist, film writer, and audio/video producer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Newsday, Current Biography, Interview, the Oxford American, AllMusic, and AllMovie describes The Band as:

“one of the most popular and influential rock groups in the world, their music embraced by critics as seriously as the music of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.”

An exaggeration?  No.  The Band were the darlings of Rolling Stone magazine, which lavished more attention on them than any other group in the magazine’s history.  On January 12, 1970, The Band appeared on the cover of Time magazine, only the second rock group – after the Beatles – to be so honored.  Both George Harrison and Eric Clapton claimed that The Band had exerted a major influence on their own music, and Clapton later claimed that he actually wanted to join the band in the early 1970s.  (He never did, though he performs with The Band in the prescribed video!)

Robbie Robertson
Robbie Robertson

Going Out with a Bang

Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson was the lead guitarist and principal songwriter for The Band.  By the 1976, he had been touring for 16 years non-stop and he was through.  It was Robertson who, in the fall of 1976, urged the rest of the group to retire from live performances and become – as The Beatles had done in 1966 – a strictly studio band, making recordings but not touring.  Robertson remembered:

“I had become suspicious of the road. These people who got crazy when they got on the road. This was not a healthy thing. I was telling the guys in The Band, ‘I like the music we make together. But I don’t want to go out there with it anymore. We’re not learning from it. We’re not growing from it.’”

Bill Graham (1931-1991) in front of the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco
Bill Graham (1931-1991) in front of the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco

Robertson wanted to mark The Band’s “road retirement” by staging a final, colossal farewell concert at the same venue in which they had played their first concert in 1969 as “The Band”: at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.  That farewell concert (and the film that documented it) was to be known as The Last Waltz.

The concert took place on November 25, 1976 – Thanksgiving Day – at the Winterland Ballroom. Produced and managed by Bill Graham, it was a lavish occasion.  Attended by some 5000 people, the evening began with a turkey dinner and ballroom dancing, with music supplied by the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra (today simply the Berkeley Orchestra).  The Band took the stage at 9pm and was joined by an all-star/A-list cast of musicians during the long concert that followed…

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