On Thanksgiving Day 40 years ago, some rock 'n' roll fans in California were treated to a musical feast. They were at an old ice-skating rink and music hall in San Francisco called the Winterland Ballroom, and a beloved band was saying goodbye. The name of this band? As simple as it gets: The Band. They called their 1976 farewell concert "The Last Waltz," and the star cast who wanted to share this moment with them included Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Martin Scorsese captured the whole thing and later released it as a movie.
Today, many look back on that night as a transitional moment in American music, a final moment before the classic-rock era began to fade. The Band's guitarist, Robbie Robertson, describes the concert as a musical feat. "We had to play 21 songs with other artists, going from Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell," he says. "We played this five-hour concert and we didn't make a mistake."
The journey that brought Robertson to that Thanksgiving night began in the early '60s. Robertson, a teenager from Canada, was recruited to play with a down-and-dirty American rockabilly band, Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks. "It was probably the most exciting and almost violent rock 'n' roll," Robertson says. "It was fast and swift, and he was growling and romping around the stage like this uncaged animal."
Amid all this, Robertson met someone he would build a career with — The Hawks' drummer, a slightly older guy named Levon Helm. "The way that he could play, the way he could sing, his personality — we formed a real brotherhood," Robertson says. "And then it was Levon and I that were choosing the other guys. All the people from the South ended up leaving, and we were gathering more and more Canadians."
This odd collection of mostly Canadian rockabilly players would end up leaving Ronnie Hawkins behind. They found temporary work with a new frontman, a guy named Bob Dylan. But it wasn't, perhaps, the perfect moment to join Dylan — he was trying out a new, electric rock sound and his folk fans were not pleased.
According to Robertson, they were booed by fans from city to city. "You put your equipment away, you go on to the next town, people boo you," he says. "And you just keep doing this. It isn't getting better — it's getting worse. And you can't help but think to yourself, 'What a strange way to make a buck.'"
Robertson and his crew were known as the band playing with Bob Dylan. So when it came time to choose their own name, they went with The Band. They holed up in an unassuming pink house in upstate New York to play and record. "I had this yearning to find a clubhouse, a workshop place where we could make music and never disturb anybody, very isolated," Robertson says.
It was during this time that Robertson says the band started running into some trouble — drugs, alcohol and even a series of car accidents. "We were all very young and ... it became habitual, just crashing these cars," Robertson says. "Between Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, we were putting away those rent-a-cars pretty regularly."
Drugs also affected Robertson's relationship with Helm. "It was the only time, really, that I had a bad feeling with Levon," he says. "Heroin will make you lie. And he did, and it really bothered me."
Eventually, Robertson and The Band decided to call it quits. "This is a progressive disease," Robertson says. "And I thought, 'We've gotta deal with this, and we've gotta get out of the way to deal with it.' So we came up with the idea of 'The Last Waltz.'"
Robertson says The Band initially planned to invite just Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, because of their pivotal roles in The Band's formation. But the roster of guests kept expanding — Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and a whole crew of stars signed on to the project, including Scorsese. "It just kept going and going," Robertson says. "And with Martin Scorsese becoming involved, it turned into something special, and it felt beautiful at the time."
And, since the audience spent their Thanksgiving holiday at the concert, it was only fitting that turkey was served. Robertson says Bill Graham, the promoter for the Winterland Ballroom, had the idea to serve the crowd a big dinner. "He said, 'We're going to serve Thanksgiving dinner to 5,000 people, and we're going to have a waltz orchestra playing while they dine,'" Robertson says.
That Thanksgiving gathering in 1976 became more of a farewell than people thought. Robertson had planned for the concert to be the end of touring, but not necessarily the end of The Band. He was disappointed when he tried to get The Band together a few days later. He booked some time at the studio, and after he waited for his bandmates for a while, he realized they weren't coming. "It really made me feel bad," he says. "And I thought, 'I've got to read the writing on the wall here.'"
Robertson and The Band would never get back together as a group after that Thanksgiving 40 years ago. And all those rock stars on stage, without saying it, were, in a way, saying goodbye as well, as the music of the '60s and '70s began to give way to newer sounds.
Robbie Robertson's new memoir, Testimony, is out now. Hear more from Robertson, who joined NPR's David Greene in conversation, at the audio link.