‘The Last Waltz’: The Band’s Levon Helm Thought Neil Diamond Had No Reason to Be Involved

If you love the music of the ’60s and ’70s, The Last Waltz (1978) is a genuine treasure. The Martin Scorsese documentary, which centered on the ’76 farewell performance of The Band, trotted out one legendary performer after another (including Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, and Dr. John).

In addition to the guest appearances, The Band performs its best-known songs, from “Up on Cripple Creek” to “The Weight.” At the close of the film, the group performs behind Bob Dylan, with whom the group toured and recorded for much of the late ’60s.

In brief, The Last Waltz goes heavy on the roots, folk, and blues music the band favored and/or played. But the list doesn’t end there. Following appearances by Dr. John and Neil Young, The Band welcomed pop singer-songwriter Neil Diamond onto the stage.

Drummer-vocalist Levon Helm (1940-2012), who never liked the concept of The Last Waltz, liked the idea of Diamond performing with The Band even less. Helm couldn’t understand what, if anything, Diamond had to do with the group.

The Band’s Levon Helm immediately objected to Neil Diamond’s appearance in ‘The Last Waltz’

Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell and others filming 'The Last Waltz'
Neil Diamond crowds Joni Mitchell during filming of ‘The Last Waltz’ on November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom. | Lester Cohen

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In his 1993 book This Wheel’s on Fire (written with journalist Stephen Davis), Helm recalls the run-up to the filming of The Last Waltz. Robertson had asked Helm to be the musical director for the show, and Helm could see he’d have his hands full with so many guest artists joining The Band.

“We already had to learn more than 20 new songs that we’d never played before in our lives,” Helm said. “And new artists were being added to the show all the time.” But while Helm could see the logic of Dr. John and Mitchell, the inclusion of Diamond baffled him.

“I asked, ‘What the hell does Neil Diamond have to do with us?'” Helm recalled in This Wheel’s on Fire. When someone told him Robertson had just produced Diamond’s album, Helm still didn’t see the connection. “‘But what does he represent to The Band?’ I asked.”

Robertson told Helm that Diamond was a songwriter in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, comparing him to Doc Pomus, who wrote standards such as “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Helm still wasn’t sold. “Why don’t we get Doc Pomus?” he asked Robertson.

Helm was proud he’d brought Muddy Waters aboard to balance out Diamond’s appearance

Bob Dylan performing with The Band
Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and Bob Dylan. | Corbis

If you dig into the story of The Band at this period, you’ll learn there was resentment about Robertson (the group’s primary songwriter) pushing to effectively dissolve the band to move on to other opportunities. And you get a glimpse of those opportunities in the collaboration with Diamond.

Robertson had written songs with Diamond, and he wanted them to perform one on stage for The Last Waltz. But when it came time for rehearsals, organizers realized that the lineup had indeed become too big, and Helm was asked about acts they could drop. He didn’t hesitate.

“Tell Robertson to tell Neil Diamond we don’t even know who the f*ck he is!” Helm recalled saying in This Wheel’s on Fire. To his horror, someone suggested dropping blues legend Muddy Waters. Helm refused, and threatened the man who’d come up with the idea.

In fact, Helm said he’d take Waters and go straight to New York to perform if he wasn’t going to be in The Last Waltz. He’d made his point. “I was glad I insisted on Muddy Waters,” Helm recalled in his book. For him, a real highlight of the night was Waters’ performance of “Mannish Boy.”