By Damian Fanelli
Besides reliable gear, sensible footwear and a guaranteed ride to gigs, members of good backing bands must have:
• Humility. After all, they’re not the stars. The frontman (or woman) is.
• Natural talent and/or undeniable skill. A frontman doesn’t need to wonder if his guitarist will actually nail the tricky guitar solo this time. That stuff needs to be automatic.
• Personality. No, they’re not the stars, but backing-band members can’t be bland sticks in the mud, either. They need to bring something unique to the table, each part of the band combining to create a superior “whole.”
The best backing bands, of course, have all these qualities — plus lots of success. Some of them of have played on countless hits. Some have played a role in music history. Others just have so much talent that they automatically move to the next level.
This story is about 10 such backing bands.
Note that we kept our choices to backing bands with actual “names.” These are groups we call “ampersand bands,” since their name, in most of these cases, follows an ampersand or an “and” in the act’s full name, such as John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers or Johnny and The Moondogs (neither of whom are included on this list).
So even though Bill Black and Scotty Moore kicked vintage ass as Elvis Presley’s backing duo, the duo never had a name. And the talented gents who backed Roger Waters or Paul McCartney at the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief? No name. You get the idea.
We also tried to focus on bands that kept a core group of members intact over the years. For example, we’d consider Elvis Costello’s Attractions (always the same three guys) over Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention (This Wikipedia page says it all).
On that note, here they are, Guitar Aficionado’s 10 best backing bands of all time, starting with band No. 10: The Band!
10. The Band
Although The Band are best known for their own dark, rustic late-’60s masterpieces Music from Big Pink and The Band, they hit the world stage in the mid-’60s as Bob Dylan’s backing band.
Actually, their backing-band pedigree started in 1958, when they hooked up with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins and called themselves The Hawks. After short-lived stints as Levon & the Hawks and the Canadian Squires, the gang was hired by Dylan in 1965, just as he was ditching his acoustic/folk persona in favor of Strats and heavier rock.
Dylan and the Band (still known as the Hawks for a while) — Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel — toured the US in 1965 and the world in 1966, enduring the heckling and disapproval of folk-music purists every step of the way.
The Band were on stage with Dylan in Manchester, England, on May 17, 1966, when an audience member shouted “Judas!” Dylan replied, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” He then turned to The Band and said, “Play it fucking loud!” before launching into “Like a Rolling Stone.”
The Band followed Dylan to Woodstock, New York, where they recorded The Basement Tapes. It was a relationship that wound up lasting — albeit loosely — for several years, in the form of various touring and recording projects.
In terms of sheer talent, The Band were a dream team. Every member of the group was a multi-instrumentalist. They could provide soaring harmony vocals, oddball lead guitar, mesmerizing keyboards and everything from fiddle to trombone to sax to mandolin.
Maybe The Band were at the right place at the right time, but there’s no denying they occupy a special place in rock history.