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Robbie Robertson, who was the guitarist and dominant songwriter in The Band, has died. He was 80. His management said he passed today (Wednesday) after a long illness.
Robertson’s manager of 34 years, Jared Levine, said “Robbie was surrounded by his family at the time of his death, including his wife, Janet, his ex-wife, Dominique, her partner Nicholas, and his children Alexandra, Sebastian, Delphine, and Delphine’s partner Kenny. He is also survived by his grandchildren Angelica, Donovan, Dominic, Gabriel and Seraphina.”
He added that “In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Six Nations of the Grand River to support a new Woodland Cultural Center.”
Robbie Robertson was born Jaime Royal Robertson on July 5th, 1943. His mother Rosemarie Dolly Chrysler was Cayuga and Mohawk and raised on the Six Nations Reserve outside Toronto. He thought her husband James Patrick Robertson was his father until his mother revealed that his biological father was Alexander David Klegerman, a Jewish man whom she had met working at a factory who was later killed in a hit-and-run accident.
Robertson learned guitar from one of his cousins. He scored his big break as a teenager when his band The Suedes opened for the Arkansas-based rockabilly group Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, and Hawkins was impressed enough to hire him as a roadie. He then became a member of the group and good friends with their drummer, Levon Helm.
In 1961, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson joined The Hawks lineup. Those five musicians left Hawkins in 1964 and started playing as Levon and The Hawks.
In 1965 Bob Dylan approached Robertson about playing in his band. He joined Dylan for two electric shows and then convinced Dylan to hire The Hawks as his backing band. Dylan and The Hawks toured together throughout 1965 and 1966, with Helm leaving after one leg because he couldn’t deal with the hostile reactions from the audience that didn’t want to hear Dylan go electric. Robertson also joined the group of musicians that Dylan used in Nashville to record Blonde on Blonde in 1966.
Dylan’s motorcycle accident in July 1966 forced The Hawks off the road. In February 1967 he invited the members to join him in the Woodstock, New York area where they set up shop in a house that became known as “Big Pink” and started working on Dylan’s new material. Helm rejoined them in the summer of 1967 as the group started working on their own songs.
In 1968 they changed their name to The Band and released Music From Big Pink with four songs by written Robertson, including “The Weight.” The following year they went to Los Angeles and recorded their self-titled album in Sammy Davis Junior‘s pool house. The Band saw Robertson take over as the main songwriter, with eight songs solely written by him, including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” (Later on Levon Helm claimed that Robertson shouldn’t have had sole writing credit on much of The Band material because of the work the musicians did on the songs.)
The Band started touring in 1969 and became so popular that in 1970 they became the first North American band to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. They released three more studio albums from 1970 to 1973 and then in 1974 reunited with Dylan for the number-one album Planet Waves, followed by the massively successful tour and live album, Before the Flood. The following year The Basement Tapes, featuring a number of widely bootlegged songs Dylan and The Band worked up at “Big Pink,” was released.
After one more studio album, Northern Lights-Southern Cross, Robertson wanted The Band to retire from the road. They played one final concert, The Last Waltz, on Thanksgiving Day 1976 that featured an all-star lineup of guests like Eric Clapton and Neil Young, plus their former bosses Hawkins and Dylan. The group’s final studio album with the original lineup, Islands, was released in 1977 with the soundtrack to The Last Waltz in 1978.
Martin Scorsese filmed The Last Waltz, and the close collaboration between he and Robertson led to them collaborating on the music featured in four of the director’s films in the 1980s — Carny, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and The Color of Money. Robertson ended up being one of the lead actors in Carny.
In 1986 Robertson started recording his first solo album and got help from an all-star cast of musicians — U2, Peter Gabriel, The BoDeans and two of his former bandmates — Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. His self-titled debut was released in 1987 and was the most popular of the six solo albums he released between 1987 and 2019.
Robertson went on to do either the score or music supervision for seven more Scorsese films from 1995 to 2019. He also oversaw a major reissue campaigns of The Band’s entire catalog in 2000 and then a series of 50th anniversary reissues starting in 2018.
Robertson and The Band received a host of honors starting in 1989, when they were inducted into the Canadian Juno Hall of Fame. In 1994 they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2003, Robertson was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. In 2008, Robertson and the Band received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, Robertson was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2014, The Band was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.
Robertson’s memoir about his youth and The Band’s career up to The Last Waltz, called Testimony, was published in 2019.
Robertson spent his 80th birthday on July 5th with his family, and despite being well past retirement age, he was showing no signs of slowing down.
He just scored director Martin Scorsese’s new film, Killers of the Flower Moon, which will be out in October. The soundtrack will include a new song inspired by the film, “Still Standing.”
His second memoir is close to the final draft. It details the “wild year-and-a-half that he and Scorsese lived together after both their wives left them.” His first book, 2016’s Testimony, ended with The Band’s 1976 farewell concert, The Last Waltz, and this new one picks up while Robbie and Scorsese were working on the concert film.
He also just finished overseeing the Dolby Atmos mixes of The Band’s first album, 1968’s Music From Big Pink.
And finally, Robertson was scheduled to be part of his longtime friend Eric Clapton‘s Crossroads Guitar Festival on September 23rd and 24th at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.
Robertson is the fourth member of The Band to pass following Richard Manuel in 1986, Rick Danko in 1999 and Levon Helm in 2012.
This leaves their oldest member, Garth Hudson, as the lone surviving member. He turned 86 on August 2nd, which Robertson acknowledged online, and lives in a nursing facility in New York State.