Robbie Robertson Dead: The Band Guitarist and Singer Was 80

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Guitarist-songwriter-singer Robbie Robertson, who led the Canadian-American group the Band to rock prominence in the 1970s and worked extensively with Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese, has died. He was 80.

According to an announcement from his management, Robertson died Wednesday in Los Angeles after a long illness.

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.”

After the Band’s 1976 farewell concert “The Last Waltz” was captured on film by Scorsese, Robertson 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.”

However, he is best known for the classic songs he wrote for the Band, including “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Shape I’m In” and “It Makes No Difference.” His story with The Band was captured in the 2019 documentary “Once Were Brothers.

Robertson did what turned out to be his final interview just two weeks ago with Variety, talking about his 55 years of collaborating with Scorsese, on up through “Flower Moon,” which is set to come out later this year. “We’re in awe ourselves that our brotherhood has outlasted everything,” he said of his work with the director. “We’ve been through it; we’ve been there and back. I am so proud of our friendship and our work. It’s been just a gift in life.” (The interview will run in full at a later date.)

The singer-songwriter-guitarist, whose full name was Jamie Royal “Robbie” Robertson, was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1943 and picked up the guitar at the age of 10. He was 16 when he joined the Hawks and the group began apprenticing as American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins’ backup unit. Robertson and his bandmates – drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson – struck out on their own in 1964.

The Hawks served as Bob Dylan’s forceful touring band (minus Helm for most dates) during the singer-songwriter’s tumultuous first electric tour of 1965-66; they reunited with their dissident percussionist during famed, much-bootlegged informal recording sessions with Dylan, known as the “basement tapes,” in 1967.

Signed to Capitol Records in 1968, the rechristened Band shot to fame with its first two albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band,” which drew from a heady stream of American music tributaries and would influence both contemporaries like Eric Clapton and George Harrison and succeeding generations of American roots musicians.

Speaking of the bedrock of the Band’s sound with journalist Paul Zollo, Robertson said, “I always thought, from the very beginning, that this music was born of the blues and country music, Southern stuff. The Mississippi Delta area, and the music came down from the river and from up the river and met, and it made something new. I always looked at that as kind of the source of the whole thing.”

He wrote sensitively for the distinctive, often layered voices of the musically versatile multi-instrumentalists Helm, Danko and Manuel, and by the group’s third album he became its principal songwriter. 

The act rose to superstardom in the early ‘70s, in part thanks to renewed collaborative work with Dylan (including a sold-out 1974 tour and the No. 1 album “Planet Waves”) and appearances at the storied Woodstock, Isle of Wight and Watkins Glen festivals.

However, the Band began to flag creatively in the mid-‘70s due to its members’ escalating substance abuse problems, and Robertson effectively disbanded the group with an extravagant, all-star Thanksgiving 1976 concert at San Francisco’s Winterland, “The Last Waltz”; Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary about the event effectively became the group’s epitaph, though they reunited without Robertson during the ‘90s.

Robertson went on to a sporadic solo career; dabbled in acting and screenwriting (on the 1980 feature “Carny”); took a record company A&R job; and enjoyed a long creative relationship with Scorsese on many of the director’s subsequent dramatic features.

He was inducted with his band mates into the Canadian Juno Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters in 1997.

He was born Jaime (pronounced “Jamie”) Royal Robertson in Toronto on July 5, 1943. His mother was a member of the Mohawk Indian tribe. His biological father, Jewish gambler Alexander Klegerman, was killed in a highway accident before he was born; Robertson only learned belatedly that James Robertson, whom his mother had married when she was pregnant, was not his real father.

Robertson became interested in playing music as a child on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, and heard American music on U.S. clear-channel stations. As a teenager, he briefly worked in touring carnivals; the experience would serve as the basis for “Carny.”

He began playing guitar in high school bands in his early teens; one of his band mates in the combo the Suedes joined Ronnie Hawkins’ popular American combo the Hawks as a keyboardist, and 15-year-old Robertson was soon drafted as a replacement bassist. In time he would supersede guitarist Fred Carter, Jr., in the lineup, which also included drummer and musical director Helm.

In time, Hawkins’ shifting lineup was filled out with other Canadian musicians – Danko, Manuel and Hudson, the latter of whom was paid to give his colleagues music lessons. The group toured Canada and the U.S. heavily in 1961-63 and recorded for Roulette Records; during that time, they cut a forceful cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” that featured a blow-out guitar solo by Robertson, who had come heavily under the sway of American blues players.

Feeling increasingly constricted by Hawkins, Robertson and the other Hawks defected in early 1964. They waxed independent singles, as Levon and the Hawks and the Canadian Squires, and toured on their own; Robertson, Helm and Hudson also appeared on “So Many Roads,” a 1965 LP by blues artist John Hammond (son of the like-named A&R man, who had signed Bob Dylan to Columbia Records).

In August 1965, Robertson was approached by manager Albert Grossman, who, on the advice of his Canada-born employee Mary Martin, sought to employ the guitarist on Bob Dylan’s first tour following the folk star’s controversial and riotous electric bow at the Newport Folk Festival that summer.

After Robertson and Helm joined the electric band for initial dates in Forest Hills, N.Y., and Hollywood, the Hawks – who backed Dylan on his flop 1965 single “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” — were engaged to support Dylan on his 1965-66 world tour. (After other abortive sessions with the Hawks, Robertson had traveled with Dylan to Nashville, where he took part in studio dates for his next album, the two-LP 1966 set “Blonde On Blonde.”)

Following stormily received early shows, Helm quit the band, and was ultimately replaced by Mickey Jones, formerly of Johnny Rivers’ and Trini Lopez’s groups. The Hawks weathered a string of confrontational concerts behind Dylan in the U.S., Australia and Europe; the trek found Robertson taking a deepening role as Dylan’s musical sounding board.

The legendary clashes between the Dylan band and hostile audiences on the tour were subsequently heard on bootleg recordings; Columbia released an official 36-CD collection of the shows in 2016.

Following the tour, Dylan suffered serious neck injuries in a motorcycle crash and went into seclusion with his family in Woodstock, a rustic community in upstate New York where Grossman also made his home. In early 1967, the members of the Hawks, still minus Helm, rented a pink ranch house in Woodstock where they worked on music for the counterculture feature “You Are What You Eat” and began informal recording sessions with Dylan in a jerry-built basement studio at “Big Pink” and at Dylan’s nearby home.

Covers of American folk, blues and country tunes gave way to recordings of new Dylan originals (and some penned with Danko and Manuel) intended as publishing demos. The latter numbers later took on legendary status after a handful appeared on the illicit 1969 set “The Great White Wonder.” (Columbia issued an official two-LP collection of some of the material, with new overdubs overseen by Robertson, and unissued Band studio sides as “The Basement Tapes” in 1975; the label issued the original sessions complete in 2014.)

Helm relocated from Arkansas before the end of the Woodstock sessions, and joined Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson behind Dylan at a January 1968 tribute to Woody Guthrie at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Now under Grossman’s managerial wing, the reconstituted Hawks secured a contract of their own with Capitol Records in ’68. Assuming the deliberately affectless name the Band, they issued their debut album “Music From Big Pink” that August.

Swathed in an atmosphere of mystery and sporting off-kilter, surrealistic lyrics that tore a page from Dylan’s book, the Band’s bow, distinctly at odds with the commercial currents of the day, created massive ripples in the U.S. musical underground. Though he initially shared writing space with Dylan, Manuel and Danko, Robertson established himself as an important songwriting voice with compositions like “The Weight” (soon covered by Aretha Franklin, with Duane Allman on guitar), “Chest Fever” and “Caledonia Mission”; the album also included his lone lead vocal with the group, on his original “To Kingdom Come.” The collection peaked at No. 30.

A sophomore album, simply titled “The Band,” was recorded in 1969 in the pool house of Sammy Davis Jr.’s Hollywood Hills home. Robertson authored eight of the album’s 12 songs, most of them steeped in Americana. The rollicking Helm vehicle “Up On Cripple Creek” became a No. 25 hit, while the Civil War narrative “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was taken to No. 3 on the U.S. charts by Joan Baez in 1971. “The Band” climbed to No. 9 and solidified the group’s reputation. In January 1970, the group became the first American rock act to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Beginning with “Stage Fright” (1970), Robertson took an ever-deepening role in writing for the Band. In his 2016 book “Testimony,” while admitting his own dabbling with cocaine, he claimed that snowballing problems with alcohol and drug abuse by Helm, Danko and Manuel led to their decreasing song input.

The highly anticipated “Stage Fright” became the group’s highest-charting collection on its own, topping out at No. 5, but its 1971 successor “Cahoots” rose to a relatively disappointing No. 21. Even Robertson later admitted that his own weak writing led to the latter album’s failure. The blazing live set “Rock of Ages,” (1972), captured at New York’s Academy of Music and featuring a Dylan guest shot, was a commercial hit (No. 6) and critical success.

Two months after the release of a fall-back album of rock covers, “Moondog Matinee” (No. 19, 1973), the Band received a commercial rebirth with “Planet Waves,” a collaborative set with Dylan, whom they had last backed at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival. The album’s release coincided with a sold-out 1974 U.S. tour, commemorated on the two-LP set “Before the Flood” (No. 3 that year).

By 1975, Robertson had decamped to L.A.’s Malibu Colony, and was followed to Southern California by the rest of the Band. The group convened at Shangri-La, a onetime oceanside bordello converted into a studio, to record what essentially became their swan song, “Northern Lights – Southern Cross.” Comprising eight Robertson compositions, the elegiac album peaked at No. 27.

The following year, Robertson convinced his enervated band mates that a hiatus was in order. The Band’s elaborate farewell gig at Winterland, captured in a multi-camera 35mm shoot by Scorsese, featured such guests former employers Dylan and Hawkins, Canadian countrymen Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Woodstock cronies Van Morrison and Bobby Charles, bluesmen Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield and Eric Clapton, New Orleans professor Dr. John, and outlier Neil Diamond (whose 1976 LP “Beautiful Noise” had been produced by Robertson). The guitarist composed two new songs for the feature; Emmylou Harris and the Staples Singers performed in footage shot on a soundstage.

By the time Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” opened in 1978 (with an accompanying No. 16 soundtrack album), the Band had been history for more than a year; the group’s posthumously released, exhausted 1977 farewell studio set “Islands” peaked at a tepid No. 64.

Helm rancorously attacked Robertson for the ’76 dissolution of the band in his 1993 autobiography “This Wheel’s On Fire,” and refused to appear at the group’s 1994 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

The Band reunited for three albums without Robertson during the ‘90s. Manuel committed suicide during a 1986 tour; Danko died in 1999, and Helm died in 2012.

Though he had already established himself as a producer with projects for Diamond, Jesse Winchester and Hirth Martinez, Robertson, a longtime movie aficionado, took his exit from the band as an opportunity to entertain his film ambitions. He co-produced and wrote the original story for “Carny,” took a leading role in the picture opposite Gary Busey and Jodie Foster and played on the picture’s soundtrack. He also took a supporting role in Sean Penn’s directorial debut “The Crossing Guard” (1995).

He made a belated return to recording with his 1987 self-titled debut for Geffen Records (No. 38). He also issued the New Orleans-themed concept album “Storyville” (No. 69, 1991) and a nod to his Native American roots, “Contact From the Underworld of Redboy” (No. 119, 1998). The star-studded 2011 set “How to Become Clairvoyant” was his highest-charting release, rising to No. 13. He scored the TV film “The Native Americans” in 1994.

In 1998, Robertson joined DreamWorks Records – the label arm of DreamWorks SKG – as creative executive. Among his projects at the imprint was the double-platinum 2001 soundtrack to the studio’s animated hit “Shrek.” The record company folded in 2005.

However, the latter years of his career were largely dedicated to memoirs, lavish reissues of the Band’s catalog, painting and, primarily, film work, often with Scorsese, particularly on “Casino,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Irishman” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

“I love the sense of starting from a place where I have no idea what to do, and then some light shines through and it turns into something magical,” Robertson told Variety in 2019. “For [the 2010 film] ‘Shutter Island,’ I read the script and looked at some footage and said, ‘I think we should use all modern classical music.’ For ‘The Color of Money,’ it was about hustlers and pool halls, so let’s do something sleazy, in the best sense of the word: Let’s collaborate with Willie Dixon, one of the greatest blues songwriters who’s ever lived, and ask [master arranger] Gil Evans to orchestrate it. And in ‘Casino,’ there was one section where nothing was working, so I used the theme from Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Contempt’ as an homage. There are all these different ways of going at it, and Marty has an incredible instinct for things that are not obvious.”

The Native-themed “Killers of the Flower Moon” represented a kind of homecoming for Robertson, in that he grew up visiting reservations in Canada with his mother, who was Native American. When he recorded his first solo album, a self-titled release in 1987, he spent time at a reservation in New Mexico to reconnect with his heritage and develop Native themes that are heard on the record.

When Robertson did what turned out to be his last interview in late July with Variety’s Chris Willman, he spoke enthusiastically about his work on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” even though he acknowledged he was in weak health at the time of the conversation.

“When the ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ idea was stirring around and it looked like it could happen,” Robertson said in the interview, “for Marty and me, every once in a while we would be like, ‘Isn’t this amazing, that it’s come to this, that we actually have a story and we have this thing that we’re both in our own way attached to somehow.’ Marty and I are both 80 years old, and we’re getting to do a Western, we’re getting to do a movie about Indians, in our own way.” (Robertson used the terms “Indian” and “Native” interchangeably, as he said his friends in the community did.) “There’s a particular enjoyment in that: ‘Let’s tackle this baby and try to do something magnificent.’ Whenever you’re going into a project, you want to shoot high and, and you want to do some really good work. But on something like this, where its soul is in Indian country — for me, you couldn’t have made something like this up.”

Robertson said during his final interview that he was in the formative stages of looking at doing archival projects centered around his songs or his film scoring work with Scorsese. He added that he was still at work writing a second memoir, one that would serve as a sequel to 2016’s “Testimony,” the narrative of which ended mid-career with his account of the “Last Waltz” concert.

The most recent tweet from his account was posted just a day before his death — a humorous photo of himself circa 1970 with Garth Hudson, now the last surviving member of the Band.

Additional reporting by Jem Aswad and Chris Willman.

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