Robbie Robertson, The Band’s Elegiac Songwriter and Bob Dylan Collaborator, Dies at 80

Robbie Robertson, the Canadian guitarist who led the roots rock group The Band as it electrified and shaped the American music scene of the 1970s, and frequently collaborated with artists like Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese, died in Los Angeles on Wednesday. He was 80.

His manager of more than three decades, Jared Levine, confirmed in a statement that Robertson had died “surrounded by his family” after a long unspecified illness. With him had been “his wife, Janet, his ex-wife, Dominique, her partner Nicholas, and his children Alexandra, Sebastian, Delphine, and Delphine’s partner Kenny,” Levine said.

The statement also noted that Robertson had recently finished composing the soundtrack to Scorsese’s forthcoming Western epic Killers of the Flower Moon.

Scorsese told NBC News in a statement that Robertson had been one of his closest friends, as well as a confidante, collaborator, and advisor.

“Long before we ever met, his music played a central role in my life—me and millions and millions of other people all over this world,” the filmmaker said. “The Band’s music, and Robbie’s own later solo music, seemed to come from the deepest place at the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys.”

“It goes without saying that he was a giant,” Scorsese added, “that his effect on the art form was profound and lasting. There’s never enough time with anyone you love. And I loved Robbie.”

Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of The Band.

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns via Getty Images

Born Jamie Royal Robertson in Toronto in 1943, he began playing guitar at the age of 10, encouraged by his mother’s relatives, whom he’d visit on the nearby Six Nations Reserve. (Robertson’s mother, Rosemarie Dolly Chrysler, was an indigenous Canadian who claimed Mohawk identity.)

At 16, so young that bar and club owners on the local circuit hemmed and hawed over letting him into their joints, Robertson was recruited to join the Hawks, the backing band to Arkansas-native-turned-Toronto-legend Ronnie Hawkins. “Well, son,” Hawkins allegedly told the teenager in 1960, according to Robertson’s own account, “you won’t make much money, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”

But it was the music that Robertson, an aspiring songwriter, really fell in love with. “It was probably the most exciting and almost violent rock ‘n’ roll,” he told NPR in 2016. “It was fast and swift, and [Hawkins] was growling and romping around the stage like this uncaged animal.”

He befriended Hawkins’ drummer, Levon Helm, with whom he would break away from Hawkins and, along with organist and saxophonist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel, and bassist Rick Danko, go on to record under their own name—The Band. The group was nearly all Canadian (Helm being the lone American holdout), but that didn’t stop them from being inspired by—and later, inspiring—the music of their neighbors to the south.

In his 2016 memoir, Testimony, Robertson wrote about a trip he took with Helm to the latter’s hometown in Arkansas. On the way down south, Helm fiddled with their car’s radio dial, introducing his younger bandmate to the blues musicians featured on the local stations.

“To my ears, this was poetry coming to life,” Robertson wrote of the drive. “The names of the towns and rivers, the names of all these characters, everything had its own rhythm down here. Images and sounds started getting stuck in my head.”

He put it more succinctly in a 1995 interview for the series Shakespeare in the Alley: “It took somebody coming in from the outside to really see these things.”

An image of  Bob Dylan (L) and Robbie Robertson (R) playing electric guitars during Dylan's 2nd set at the Academy of Music on February 24, 1966.

Bob Dylan (L) and Robbie Robertson (R) playing electric guitars during Dylan’s 2nd set at the Academy of Music on February 24, 1966.

Charles Steiner/Highway 67/Getty Images

The Band linked up with Bob Dylan, who was in the process of going electric, much to the fury of his fanbase. From city to city on his 1965 and 1966 tour, they were booed relentlessly. Battling a particularly ferocious crowd at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England on May 17, 1966—the infamous “Judas!” show—Robertson recalled in Testimony how Dylan whipped around to The Band and growled at them to “Play fucking loud!”

The experience fueled his own creative endeavors. But still, he said to NPR, “you [couldn’t] help but think to yourself, ‘What a strange way to make a buck.’”

At this point, Robertson had become the primary songwriter and acknowledged leader of The Band. They put out their first two records, Music from Big Pink and The Band, in 1968 and 1969 respectively. On both, he had been the five piece-unit’s creative force, a songwriter who seemed to be able to reach deep into the soul of the genre that was not yet called Americana, producing elegiac modern myths set to transcendent music. He penned many of The Band’s best-known songs, including ‘The Weight’ (which he wrote in one sitting), ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’ and ‘Up on Cripple Creek.’

Robertson was also the man who held The Band together as it was increasingly buffeted by the trappings of fame; he would later recall that Manuel, Danko, and Helm, skipping rehearsal, spent time abusing heroin, drinking to excess, and wrecking cars. Eventually, Robertson decided, it was all too much for him to handle, and he decided to pack it in.

“This is a progressive disease,” he told NPR. “And I thought, ‘We’ve gotta deal with this, and we’ve gotta get out of the way to deal with it.’ So we came up with the idea of The Last Waltz.”

The Band reached out to Martin Scorsese to see if the director, hot off the release of Taxi Driver, would be interested in shooting their farewell concert. The result was The Last Waltz, a 1978 rockumentary capturing the mayhem and magic of a star-studded show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom that included Dylan, Hawkins, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, and Van Morrison.

Starting in 1980 with Raging Bull, Robertson would become one of Scorsese’s closest collaborators, going on to work on The King of Comedy, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Color of Money, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence, and The Irishman.

Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson during Miramax 2003 Golden Globes Party.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic via Getty Images

“Well, he’s a frustrated musician, and I guess I was a frustrated filmmaker,” Robertson said once of his relationship with Scorsese. “So it was a perfect connect… He knew that I was a film buff long before we crossed paths, and I knew that he was a music fanatic long before we crossed paths. So we had something to work with there.”

Meanwhile, he continued recording as a solo artist, releasing his final album, Sinematic, in 2019. Robertson also worked as a composer or music producer on a number of other projects for film and television, including for director Oliver Stone, and spent a period working as an executive at DreamWorks Records. In addition to Testimony, he related his side of The Band’s story in the 2019 documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.

Sans Robertson, the other members of The Band got back together and began touring again in 1983. In 1994, when the group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Robertson played with The Band onstage at the ceremony—but missing were Manuel, who had committed suicide in 1986, and Helm, who boycotted over a songwriting-credit dispute with Robertson.

Danko died of heart failure in 1999; Helm of throat cancer in 2012. Robertson’s death leaves Garth Hudson the sole surviving member of The Band.

In lieu of flowers, Robertson’s family requested that donations be made to the Six Nations of the Grand River to support “a new Woodland Cultural Center,” Levine said.

What's your reaction?

Related Posts

1 of 676