The Beatles are not the best band of all time. Neither is U2 or Led Zeppelin. You see, a teenage John Lennon once snapped, “We’re not a band, we’re a group.” He understood. Lennon’s Quarrymen and then the Beatles were groups. So was the Clash and so are the Rolling Stones and the Eagles. In musical parlance, a group is a self-contained unit providing music and vocals while a band is a collection of musicians creating music either without or to accompany vocals. Forget boy bands. Their name is only part of what’s wrong with them.
So let’s leave groups aside and consider, in rough chronological order, the five most important bands.
- Tommy Dorsey Band
The 1930s brought the Depression and the 1940s the Second World War. Year after year people lost homes, loved ones, and faith in the rules they had believed would secure their families and futures. As always happens in eras of tragedy and transition, music filled the emotional void with fun. Swing music was nothing but fun.
Dance halls were everywhere and everywhere were big bands playing jumped up tunes with driving beats, mournful ballads, and goofy novelty numbers. The most influential of the big bands was led by Tommy Dorsey.
Dorsey played trombone, of all things. He reinvented the instrument so that it carried the melody. He promoted band members who stood and, in a nod to jazz, leaned into solos that were different every night. It was art as lightening, existing for the moment. Dorsey also sought the best singers around and handed careers to many including his best find of all, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra toured and recorded 80 songs with the Dorsey band. He learned his vocal styling and discipline from Dorsey’s trombone breathing techniques.
When other bands faded with changing musical tastes, Dorsey continued to evolve his sound and bring more jazz and popular music into his repertoire. His innovative ideas influenced another generation. His band placed an incredible 286 songs on the Billboard charts and he enjoyed 17 number ones. His biggest hit was I’ll Never Smile Again, which, in 1940, was number one for twelve weeks.
In the 1950s he and his brother Jimmy co-hosted a popular show on the new medium of television. He demonstrated courage when he ignored critics and insisted that a new young singer be invited to perform. It was through Dorsey, therefore, that America first saw Elvis Presley.
Tommy Dorsey died in 1956 when only 51 years of age. In 1982, his I’m Getting Sentimental Over You was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and Marie was inducted in 1998. In 1996, the United States Postal Service issued a Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey stamp. His music lives on in singers and bands who believe they are inventing new ideas that Dorsey actually brought to audiences before their grandparents were born.
- Wrecking Crew
Los Angeles session musicians used to arrive wearing suits and obediently read from charts to provide music for whatever commercial, movie, or singer rented their services. It was a nine to five job. That ended in the early 1960s when others began strolling in as the professionals were leaving. They dressed more casually. They played more casually. They could read charts but more often played what they felt. They made suggestions. They took chances. The grumpy old pros said the young bucks would wreck the music industry and so, according to drummer Hal Blaine, their name was coined.
You’ve heard their work if you’ve heard the Monkees, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Jan and Dean, the Partridge Family, Mamas & Papas, Association, 5th Dimension, Grass Roots, the Carpenters, the Byrds, the Turtles, Bread, Simon and Garfunkel, and on and on. Did you think the Monkees were the only group that didn’t play on their own records? You heard the Wrecking Crew if you’ve heard Dean Martin sing Everybody Loves Somebody or Frank Sinatra croon Strangers in the Night.
Sonny Bono once had a rather ordinary sounding song until the bass player, Carol Kaye, suggested a line that was simple in its complexity but riveting as a hook, and The Beat Goes On was born. She later suggested the descending bass notes in the Nancy Sinatra’s Boots. Brian Wilson employed the Wrecking Crew to create the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds.
When Wrecking Crew guitarist Glen Campbell struck out on his own, it continued as his studio band. Other members that enjoyed solo success were Leon Russell and Mac Rebennack, who called himself Dr. John. Wrecking crew drummer Jim Keltner played on nearly all the Beatles solo albums, the Concert for Bangladesh, and, under the pseudonym Buster Sidebury, with the Travelling Wilburys. In 2007, the Wrecking Crew was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame.
Turn on an oldies radio station and be guaranteed that within minutes, whether you know it or not, you will hear the Wrecking Crew.
- The Band
Born in Arkansas and making a name for himself as a rockabilly wild man, Ronnie Hawkins toured Canada in 1958 and never went home. His music and show was like nothing seen or heard before. It was all made possible by the driving beat and incomparable sound of his band. They were kids. Arkansas native Levon Helm joined Canadians Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko. They practiced all day and played all night. Their playing became as tight as their friendships.
Hawkins called them the Hawks. They quickly grew to be the premier band on Toronto’s Yonge Street strip that became the heart of the burgeoning Canadian music scene. Hawkins was crazy on stage. He yelled. He did back flips. He invented the moonwalk that Michael Jackson would later steal. Nearly any band can back someone who sticks to the songs but it took something all together special to hang on through the hurricane that was Rompin’ Ronnie. Through the antics, alcohol, and smoky haze was the band that never missed a beat, dropped a note, or missed a cue. Hudson’s keyboard work was majestic and rose beyond the limits of three-chord rock ‘n’ roll. Helms played masterful fills while Robertson took guitar leads to the edge of out of control.
In 1964, the band left Hawkins. They toured a little and recorded an unsuccessful album but a year later their ability to back quirky front men was recognized and rewarded when they received a call from Bob Dylan. At that point, Dylan was a tremendously successful folk singer. In July 1965, he had endured angry boos when he had plugged in a telecaster and, backed by Mike Butterfield’s band, sang an electric set at the New Port Folk Festival. Ready for more, and he hired Hawkins’ old band.
The American tour began a month later. It was like nothing anyone had heard before. Woody Guthrie had bedded the Beatles. The marriage of folk, pop, and rock is commonplace now but was then revolutionary. They toured the world and endured more negative reaction. There is film of a Manchester, England concert where someone yells that Dylan is Judas. Dylan snaps back, and then turns to the band, and shouts, “Play it fucking loud!” And they do. They play it loud and they play it well to those who were booing, those who understood, and for posterity.
The band accompanied Dylan back to Saugerties, New York, where, exhausted but exhilarated, they lived and made new music together. From Helms came southern country and from Hudson came classical. From Robertson came pop and his respect for southern history and native culture. From Manuel, and Danko came blues, gospel and traditional bluegrass. Their informal recordings became the Basement Tapes and a decades-long iconic, unheard mystery.
The eclectic talents and interests melded with their years with Hawkins and Dylan to inform their 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. They had been Hawkins band then Dylan’s band and now they needed a name. Helms suggested they be known as they were to many already, simply, The Band.
The group enjoyed hit songs and great success and well deserved places in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it is as a band that they were midwives at the birth of rock n roll in Canada and country-rock around the world. Michael Nesmith, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others who followed their lead owe a debt to the band called the Band.
- The Swampers
Speaking of Lyrnyrd Skynyrd, consider the fourth verse from their most popular song, Sweet Home Alabama:
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two/Lord they get me off so much/They pick me up when I’m feeling blue/Now how bout you?
The Swampers? You may have never heard of them but, like the Wrecking Crew, you’ve heard them. Entrepreneur Rick Hall built FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. His very first song he recorded was by a shy, hospital orderly named Percy Sledge – the gospel-tinged power ballad When a Man Loves a Woman. The band is brilliant in its restraint. The organ creates a drone and the beat is pulled just slightly before each chorus, allowing tension to build to a climatic release. The notes are smooth, erotic, and let the singer and song do the work.
The record’s success brought attention to Muscle Shoals and more hit records to the world. People dancing to Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally were dancing to the Swampers. People swooning to Aretha Franklin’s Respect were loving the Swampers. Those moved by Etta James’ raucous Tell Mama were moved by the Swampers. Few knew the band. Fewer still knew that those motoring the new wave of Black R & B were all white.
None had musical training. But David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Pete Carr, Will McFarlane, Spooner Oldham, Clayton Ivey, Randy McCormick, and Albert S. Lowe all had soul, imagination, and a willingness to risk.
In 1969, Beckett, Hawkins, Hood, and Johnson formed their own studio called Pro Sound. The Swampers sound and feel, though, remained true to its roots. More singers came to capture its magic. They backed recordings by Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, John Prine, Duane Allman, Boz Scaggs, and the Oak Ridge Boys. They helped the Rolling Stones record Wild Horses and Brown Sugar. Bob Dylan came to record Desire. It’s the Swampers you are enjoying when singing along with the Staple Singers I’ll Take You There, Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, and Bob Seger’s Night Moves.
God was having a particularly good day when he decided to place the intersection of Black and White music in the heart of segregated Alabama and allow its sweet sounds to offer lessons to us all.
- E Street Band
New Jersey is tough and the Jersey shore is tougher. It’s Sinatra tough. It’s Sopranos tough. It was tough in the late 1960s when in and around the hardscrabble Ashbury Park a new, hard driving, working class music developed in seedy bars and seedier clubs. Like Liverpool in the early ‘60s, Ashbury Park in the early ‘70s saw bands form and fall apart. The journeymen went to factories and the best to other bands. Among the dwindling elite were Danny Federici, Vini Lopez, Garry Tellent, David Sancious and Clarence Clemons. They came to know each other and became friends with a skinny young Jersey singer named Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen signed a recording contract in 1972 and offered a job to the best musicians on the Jersey Shore. They rehearsed at Sancious’ mother’s house on the corner of 10th Avenue and E Street. The name was born – The E Street Band. Their first album was entitled Greetings From Ashbury Park. A life of touring began. Some members left and were replaced but the sound grew tighter and even more powerful, and even tougher. The band was strengthened when ace guitarist Steven Van Zandt joined in 1975.
Springsteen became known for his working class anthems and he and the band for their working class dedication to fair play for fair pay. Concerts lasted three hours or more. There were few breaks between songs as the band kept the music or rhythm pulsating with the crowd engaged, enthralled, and enraptured. Songs people knew from the records were reinvented, made longer, more complex, and given more energy and different textures every night. Like the stadium band they became, they played to the back row. Like the bar band they had been, they played requests.
For 15 years, Springsteen recorded and performed without the band but they were reunited in 1995 and have been together ever since. Springsteen was not the same without them. He is better with them at his side and watching his back. Springsteen always affectionately introduces each member and then yells over the cheers: “It’s the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary E Street Band!”
Try to imagine Born to Run without Clarence’s sax solo. Try to imagine Glory Days without Little Stephens’ guitar and crazy harmonies. They take good songs and made them better. That’s the job of any band but not a job just any band can do. Now try to imagine Bruce Springsteen without the E Street band. I’m guessing he’d be a retired steel worker living in Ashbury Park, strumming his acoustic guitar and wondering about glory days that might have been.
Please share this column with others if you liked it and leave a comment on my choices. Suggestions for most important groups would be welcomed. If you have not seen it – johnboyko.com – has my thoughts on six most important singers.