Obituaries: Robbie Robertson, Americana trailblazer who led The Band
Robbie Robertson, who has died aged 80 after a long illness, was an acknowledged Americana trailblazer – despite being Canadian. He was the leader of The Band, their name either a simple shrug or a statement that they were the only group you might need. He was a right-hand man to Bob Dylan for many years, part of the ragtag talented young crew who riffed freely in upstate isolation to create what became the legendary Basement Tapes then emerged in their own right to become the first American rock band to grace the cover of Time magazine in early 1970.
The Band – comprising Robertson on guitar, Levon Helm on drums, Rick Danko on bass, Richard Manuel on piano, Garth Hudson on organ and most of them on vocals – blended rock, blues, folk and soul music to create a new sonic stew. An enormously gifted guitarist, Robertson was also stickler for lyrics, stacking up evocative imagery and drawing on his First Nations heritage to create a dusky mythology. The opening line of his most enduring song, The Weight – “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ’bout half past dead” – is as vivid a scene as there is in rock music.
Robertson was The Band’s chief writer, focused on songcraft while his fellow bandmates were seduced by narcotics. Eventually, they pulled apart but not before sealing their legacy in a smart move – filming their farewell concert. The Last Waltz is still considered the definitive concert film. Arguably the smartest move was getting Martin Scorcese to direct, opening a new post-Band chapter for Robertson working on soundtracks for subsequent Scorcese features from Raging Bull and King of Comedy, right up to his latest, Killer of the Flower Moon.
When news of Robertson’s passing broke, Scorcese hailed him as “a confidante, a collaborator, an advisor”. Bob Dylan, meanwhile, was typically taciturn but said what needed to be said: ‘Robbie was a lifelong friend. His passing leaves a vacancy in the world.”
Robertson was born Jaime Royal Robertson to a Canadian Iroquois mother, Rosemarie Dolly Chrysler, and raised on the Six Nations of Canada reserve outside Toronto. Chrysler was already pregnant with her son when she married James Patrick Robertson in 1942 – it was only when they separated that Robertson learned his biological father was Alexander David Klegerman.
Robertson first learned guitar on the reserve, initially tutored by his cousin Herb Myke. As a teenager, he worked briefly on the Canadian carnival circuit – his experience would later inspire him to write and produce the 1980 film Carny. He played in a succession of rock’n’roll bands through the late Fifties before he was invited to join the road crew of established outfit, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. He was quickly promoted to bass player and then lead guitarist, joining fellow Canadians Danko, Manuel and Hudson in the line-up, but they split from Hawkins in 1964, retaining The Hawks name.
Robertson’s playing caught the ear of Bob Dylan who offered him the role of touring guitarist. Robertson suggested he hire Helm too, and they toured the US and Europe in 1965/6 as his pariah electric band. When Dylan plugged in for the second half of his set in Manchester on 17 May 1966, the cutting heckle “Judas!” rang out. In Edinburgh, it was said that the audience tried to drown out the infernal racket by playing their own harmonicas.
Robertson and other Hawks played on the Blonde on Blonde album and later joined Dylan – then recovering from a motorcycle accident – at a house dubbed Big Pink in Woodstock to work on what would later be released as the Basement Tapes. Robertson likened their fertile output during these legendary sessions to field recordings and the experience proved formative for the group.
Now called The Band, they released their classic debut album Music From Big Pink in 1968 (with a sleeve painting by Dylan). Signature tune The Weight – written by Robertson but sung by Helm – became a standard, covered by Aretha Franklin and The Supremes with the Temptations and featured on the Easy Rider soundtrack.
By the time their self-titled second album was released in 1969, Robertson had emerged as their chief songwriter, though the hit song was Helm’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, popularised by Joan Baez. Five more studio albums followed with Robertson increasingly doing the heavy songwriting lifting while work/play balance resentments festered.
Robertson took the decision to split The Band and their gala farewell concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom was filmed by Scorcese, with guest performers from the worlds of rock, soul, blues and gospel, including Dylan (naturally), Joni Mitchell, the Staple Singers, Muddy Waters and outlier Neil Diamond – Robertson went on to produce the latter’s Beautiful Noise and Love at the Greek albums.
Released as The Last Waltz in 1978, the documentary catapulted Robertson into the film world – he even co-starred in Carny. The same year he worked on the soundtrack for Raging Bull, helping to select the theme music from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, His sporadic solo career begin with a self-titled album released in 1987 – the opening track Fallen Angel was a tribute to Manuel, who died by suicide in 1986. Danko passed away in 1999 and Helm in 2012 but both lived to see The Band inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Robertson published his memoir, Testimony, in 2016 and was reportedly working on a follow-up. His final album, Sinematic, was released in 2019, the same year that Scorcese produced the documentary Once Were Brothers, offfering Robertson’s personal take on The Band.
He is surived by his wife Janet Zuccarini, children Alexandra, Delphine and Sebastian from his first marriage to Domenique Bourgeois, and by five grandchildren.
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