Robbie Robertson, Songwriter And Founding Member Of The Band, Dies At 80

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Robbie Robertson, best known for his work as a member of Americana pioneers The Band, died today in Los Angeles at the age of 80.

In a statement, 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.

“Robertson recently completed his fourteenth film music project with frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon. 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.”

Jaime Royal Robertson was born on July 5, 1943 in Toronto, where he was raised. He learned music from the maternal side of the family, who were Mohawk and lived on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. As a teenager, he met the larger than life rock’n’roll singer Ronnie Hawkins and his group the Hawks on the bar band circuit around Toronto. Robertson joined the group as a guitarist alongside Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson – his bandmates with whom he would later form The Band.

Shortly after the group split with Hawkins, Bob Dylan recruited the group to be his backing band in 1965 – including at his infamous “gone electric” set at the Newport Folk Festival that year. Some shows were rough, to put it bluntly. As Robertson remembers, “To think now that we played all of these places and everywhere that we played, people booed and sometimes threw stuff at us. I had never heard of anybody that got booed all over the world and got through it in some kind of successful way.”

After the tour concluded, Robertson, Danko (bass, vocals, fiddle), Manuel (keyboards, vocals, drums), and Hudson (keyboards, horns), all decamped to a house in West Saugerties, New York, at Dylan’s suggestion. Helm, disillusioned after the tour, temporarily left the group.

The Band followed Dylan to Woodstock, New York, where they lived in the house that lent the title to what became their universally revered 1968 debut Music from Big Pink. At the time, Dylan had been recuperating at nearby Woodstock from a motorcycling accident and would become a frequent fixture of Big Pink. Robertson envisioned a clubhouse/workshop where the band could write and create freely without distraction. Situated on over 100 acres, the house became a fertile testing ground for trying new ideas without encroachment from the outside world.

As Robertson explained, the songwriting process was collaborative, with typewriters set up upstairs for the band to compose on, and a bare-bones studio downstairs to work out ideas. “Everybody was in this circle of creativity and experimenting was going on,” he said. “Garth Hudson, our amazing keyboard player, was building musical instruments and Richard Manuel was writing ideas, and he wrote ‘Tears Of Rage’ with Bob.”

Meanwhile, Robertson was polishing his own songwriting abilities, penning future classics like “Chest Fever” and the band’s career-defining single, “The Weight.” “I wanted to be a storyteller,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be a writer that says, ‘I got up this morning and I had a cup of coffee and then I went outside.’ Some people could do that quite well. It felt like if I could write fiction that you couldn’t tell if that wasn’t real, that would be interesting to me.”

In 2011, Robertson told uDiscover Music contributor Paul Sexton about the mystique that grew up around the friends, and their easy interaction. “The Band had already been together quite a few years, we played with Ronnie, and then the Hawks went out on their own, then the period of time with Bob Dylan,“ he said. “We did some serious woodshedding before Music From Big Pink.

“We had the potential of calling upon so many musical flavors and experiences we’d had, playing the chitlin circuit, running into so many extraordinary musicalities, we just kept absorbing and absorbing, then when it came time for us to step out, we were at a place where we didn’t have to show off.

“There was something contained and timeless in that music,” he went on. “We’d been around so long, we couldn’t even buy into the name game, and just [became] The Band. Coming up with a cute name was against everything we had learned. We were playing it a different way – that record came out and we didn’t tour, which just built on a certain mystery. ‘Those guys up in those mountains, what are they doing up there, who are they?’”

Producer John Simon became like the sixth member once the self-titled The Band arrived in 1969, adding his barrage of horns to an ever-expanding dynamic which saw every member now proficient on a bewildering array of instruments. Another uncanny mélange of southern and roots rock and roll, this is virtually a conceptual piece illuminated by the classics “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” and “Jawbone.” As this uDiscover Music feature on The Band attests, “Robertson’s songs were now sharper than ever, his guitar playing so fluid and transcendental that everyone from Zeppelin to Pink Floyd stood slack-mouthed. No wonder, it’s another five-star plus masterpiece they painted.”

After 1970’s Stage Fright and a number of subsequent albums, the Band’s all-star 1976 farewell concert, The Last Waltz was captured on film by Scorsese. Robertson repeatedly worked with the director as composer, music supervisor, and music producer starting in 1980 on films including Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Gangs of New York, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence, The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon.

In 1987, Robertson released his self-titled debut solo album, which he co-produced with Daniel Lanois. It included guest appearances by Hudson and Danko, as well as Peter Gabriel and all of U2. It brought him a surprise Top 20 hit in the UK with the supremely atmospheric “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” and US rock radio recognition with “Showdown At Big Sky” and “Sweet Fire of Love.” The album went gold in both the US and UK.

In 2019, a new film on Robertson and his group, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was given a nationwide US theatrical release on February 28, 2020.

“I am not only pleased with the documentary, I am really, really satisfied, because of how much emotion is in it,” said Robertson in an interview with uDiscover Music. “You watch documentaries on music people and I don’t like most of them. They are all the same to me. The fact that this was so moving, and that it really takes you inside the brotherhood that was in this group, is important.

“That part of my autobiography, Testimony, really came to life in the documentary. It was a fascinating process to see. It is so easy to get it wrong. The people we had doing the documentary and what everybody brought to the table is quite extraordinary. I am so happy with just how soulful it turned out to be.”

“Dealing with the difficult parts was just like dealing with life. It’s not all one-dimensional,” said Robertson in that same interview. “One of the hardest things for me and in writing the song ‘We Were Brothers’ for the Sinematic album was that it is really about what a tremendous attachment and connection I had in that brotherhood with the guys in The Band.

“What we were able to do together was an amazing experience. Now Levon, Richard and Rick have all passed away. So the story of The Band is very moving in real life – and it turned out to be very moving in the documentary, too.”

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