Robbie Robertson, guitarist and songwriting force behind The Band, dead at 80

Robbie Robertson, the string-bending guitarist and principal songwriter of The Band, has died at 80, a representative confirmed to CBC News.

Robertson died on Wednesday morning in Los Angeles after a long illness, according to the representative.

“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,” Jared Levine, Robertson’s longtime manager, said in a statement.

With The Band, Robertson was credited with writing or co-writing the band’s signature songs, including The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Up on Cripple Creek, The Shape I’m In and Chest Fever.

WATCH | Robertson on The Band’s ‘timeless quality’: 

Robbie Robertson on The Band’s ‘timeless quality’

Robbie Robertson reflects on the process of gathering music, sounds and rhythms during The Band’s early touring that contributed to their unique sound in a 2016 CBC interview.

The Band’s first two albums were especially hailed, each ranking in the top 100 of Rolling Stone’s updated compilation of the top 500 albums of all time in 2020. The same magazine rated Robertson at No. 59 on a list of the 100 greatest guitarists.

The Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, five years after receiving a similar honour at Canada’s Juno Awards. Robertson won an additional five Junos in a solo recording career that began in the mid-1980s and included popular radio songs Showdown at Big Sky, Somewhere Down the Crazy River and What About Now?.

Robertson was also feted toward the end of his career with Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2011) and Canada’s Walk of Fame (2014) honours.

Robertson was one of the first Indigenous rock stars, though few in the white-dominated music press took much notice. He received a lifetime achievement award at the Native American Music Awards in 2017.

Scarborough, Cabbagetown beginnings

He was born Jaime Robertson in Toronto on July 5, 1943 to a mother with Mohawk and Cayuga blood, growing up in homes in Scarborough and Cabbagetown neighbourhoods. While visiting relatives on the Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Ont., he became entranced by the music played by his uncles and older cousins and was given advice by elders he kept close to his heart as he progressed early in his career: “Be proud you are an Indian, but be careful who you tell.”

At 16, his first band opened for Ronnie Hawkins, the colourful Arkansan singer who regularly played Eastern Canadian bars with backup group the Hawks, featuring Levon Helm on drums. 

In short order, Hawkins cut two early Robertson songwriting efforts for an album and asked him to join. After Helm and Robertson, the rest of the members of what became The Band were recruited in Ontario between 1961-62: bassist Rick Danko from Simcoe, pianist Richard Manuel from Stratford and the classically-trained organist Garth Hudson from London.

WATCH | Robertson’s emotional reaction to a doc about The Band: 

“I didn’t realize this was going to be so emotional”: Robbie Robertson reacts to a new documentary about his legendary rock group The Band

Canadian musician Robbie Robertson was surprised by his own emotional reaction to reliving his time with The Band in a new documentary called Once Were Brothers.

The music was rustic, incorporating elements of blues, country and rhythm and blues, decades ahead of an Americana subgenre that came into vogue. Danko, Helm and Manuel, each with distinctive and powerful voices, took turns as lead singer.

“They had three of the greatest white singers in rock history. To have any one of those guys would be the foundation for a great band,” said Bruce Springsteen in the documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.

That documentary, directed by Canada’s Daniel Roher, was the opening film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019.

Four men stand in front of a photo wall adorned with the word "TIFF." They are smiling, arm-in-arm, and posing for multiple cameras photographing them.
From left, director Daniel Roher is joined by producers Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard on the red carpet for the film Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, which opened the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sept. 5, 2019. It was the first time in the festival’s 44 year history that a Canadian documentary kicked off TIFF. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Longtime collaborator to Scorsese

They settled on their new name before the July 1, 1968 release of their debut album, Music From Big Pink.

“The music didn’t sound anything like what we did with Ronnie Hawkins … like anything we did with Bob Dylan on the infamous tour, so having a new name felt natural as well,” said Robertson in Once Were Brothers.

George Harrison and Eric Clapton were among the early high-profile fans, and critics hailed September 1969’s The Band album as well. In a rarity of a rock group at the time, The Band made the cover of Time Magazine in January 1970, heralded as the “future of country rock.”

WATCH | Robertson, Scorsese talk their rock doc The Last Waltz on CBC in 1978:

Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese and The Last Waltz

The musician and the director explain how they got together to make a film about the final 1976 performance by The Band.

The Band would be a staple at rock’s early major festivals like Woodstock and Isle of Wight, coming home to Canada for the Toronto Pop Festival and the cross-country Festival Express.

Four more albums followed, with popular songs including Ophelia, Life Is A Carnival and Stage Fright. But Danko, Helm and Manuel all struggled with substance use issues, and Robertson began to tire of touring. 

The original lineup bowed out from live performances with an all-star 1976 concert in San Francisco captured on screen two years later in the iconic The Last Waltz, featuring Dylan, Van Morrison and Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

Two people are seen in this black and white photo.
Robertson is shown next to American director Martin Scorsese, left, before they presented the film The Last Waltz, a film about Robertson’s band, at the 31st Cannes International Film Festival in 1978. (The Associated Press)

Robertson said he too succumbed to a “period of decadence” with drugs, while consorting with pal and Last Waltz director Martin Scorsese in the late 1970s.

Robertson produced and appeared in 1980’s Carny with Jodie Foster, but soon realized acting wasn’t a passion, with a small role in Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard 15 years later his only other on-screen film credit of note.

More lasting was the relationship with Scorsese, as he worked as a music supervisor on several of the director’s films. Robertson had recently finished writing the musical score for the director’s upcoming film, Killers of the Flower Moon.

“Robbie Robertson was one of my closest friends, a constant in my life and my work. I could always go to him as a confidant. A collaborator. An adviser. I tried to be the same for him,” Scorsese wrote in a statement that was shared with CBC News.

“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 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, that his effect on the art form was profound and lasting. There’s never enough time with anyone you love. And I loved Robbie,” the director wrote.

WATCH | Robbie Robertson’s 2011 interview with Peter Mansbridge: 

Music icon Robbie Robertson talks about his career as a guitarist and songwriter.

Later music inspired by Indigenous culture

Robertson released his first solo album in 1987, with help from friends old and new such as Danko, Hudson, Peter Gabriel and U2. Robbie Robertson included Fallen Angel, an emotional tribute to Manuel, who had died by suicide the previous year.

The collection would be named the Junos Album of the Year, during a ceremony in which The Band were inducted into the Juno Awards’ hall of fame. Robertson also took home the Juno for top male vocalist and shared top producer honours with his collaborator, Canadian Daniel Lanois.

A man wearing a half-zip sweater gazes upwards.
Robbie Robertson poses following an interview in Toronto on Feb. 26, 2003. Robertson was writing a followup to his 2016 memoir Testimony at the time of his death. (Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press)

By this point Danko, Helm and Hudson had continued on as The Band, releasing the well-received Jericho in 1993. But the following year Helm was a no-show when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the drummer angered in later years by what he saw as a lopsided split of the songwriting and publishing in Robertson’s favour from the group’s classic catalogue.

Robertson countered that all band members were clear-eyed when signing any contracts, while band associates like producer John Simon and road manager Jon Taplin supported his view that Robertson wrote most of the material.

Robertson’s next album Storyville followed in 1992. On his first two releases Robertson had delved into stories and themes inspired by Indigenous culture, but he pursued those threads more earnestly with subsequent albums Music for the Native Americans (1994) and Contact from the Underworld of Redboy (1998).

“It started seeping under the door like water in the most natural way,” he told an interviewer in 1998.

Robertson’s recordings featured Indigenous performers such as the Innu group Kashtin from Quebec, Nunavut throat singers Tudjaat, and the Six Nations Women Singers, while Contact included a spoken word contribution from Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist many believed was wrongly imprisoned for the deaths of a pair of FBI agents in a 1975 shootout at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

After Contact’s significant electronica flourishes, How to Become Clairvoyant (2011) and Sinematic (2019) were more conventional rock/pop outings, with contributions from the likes of Stevie Winwood, Bahamas and Trent Reznor.

Robertson was writing a followup to his 2016 memoir Testimony at the time of his death. He is survived by his three children and five grandchildren.

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