But the group, especially Manuel, struggled with drugs and alcohol. While Danko and Manuel shared songwriting credits in the early years, Robertson was essentially the lone writer for the last few albums. By the middle of the decade, Robertson, especially, was burned out and wanted to get off the road.
They bid farewell to live shows with a bang with the famous "Last Waltz" concert in 1976. Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Dylan were among the stars who played the show in San Francisco, filmed by Martin Scorsese for a movie of the same name, released in 1978.
"The Last Waltz" is regarded by many as the greatest of concert films, but it also helped lead to a bitter split between Robertson and Helm, once the best of friends.
Robertson became close to Scorsese during the production, and Helm believed the movie was structured to make Robertson the leader and advance his own movie career. They rarely spoke after, despite efforts by Hawkins and others to intervene.
While Helm would accuse Robertson of being on a star trip, Helm, ironically, was the more successful actor, with acclaimed roles in "Coal Miner's Daughter," ''The Right Stuff" and other films. And no one who watched "The Last Waltz" could forget Helm's performance of "Dixie Down," shot mostly in closeup, his face squeezed with emotion.
In his memoir, "This Wheel's on Fire," Helm said some hard feelings about Robertson also included his getting songwriting credits on Band songs that other members considered group efforts. Robertson would deny the allegations. On his Facebook page this week, he revealed that he had been devastated to learn of Helm's illness and visited him in the hospital.
"I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together," Robertson wrote.
Without Robertson, The Band reunited in the 1980s but never approached its early success. Manuel hanged himself in a Winter Park, Fla., hotel room in 1986. Danko died in his home near Woodstock in 1999, a day after his 56th birthday.
Highlights from the '90s did include playing at a Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden in 1992 and a collaboration among Helm, Danko and Keith Richards on the rocker "Deuce and a Quarter."
While Helm's illness reduced his voice to something close to a whisper, it did not end his musical career. Beset by debt, in 2004 he began a series of free-wheeling late night shows in his barn in Woodstock that were patterned after medicine shows from his youth. Any night of the bi-weekly Midnight Rambles could feature Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello or his daughter Amy on vocals and violin.
He recorded "Dirt Farmer" in 2007, which was followed by "Electric Dirt" in 2009. Both albums won Grammys. He won another this year for "Ramble at the Ryman."
Original members of The Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Associated Press writer Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this report.
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