Robbie Robertson Dead At 80
Robbie Robertson has died at 80. Per a statement from his management provided to Variety, the guitarist, singer/songwriter, and leader of the legendary roots-rock group the Band passed away in Los Angeles after a long illness. Robertson was 80.
Robbie Robertson was born Jaime Royal Robertson in Toronto, where both of his parents worked in a factory. (Later, Robertson learned that his biological father was a man who died before Robertson got a chance to meet him.) Robertson learned to play guitar on the Six Nations Reserve, where his mother grew up, and he fell in love with early rock ‘n’ roll.
In 1959, after working in circuses and carnivals, Robbie Robertson joined the local band Little Caesar And The Consuls. He also played in a few different groups before Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas-born rockabilly singer based in Toronto, recruited him to join his backup band the Hawks. In the early ’60s, the Hawks developed a stable lineup of locked-in musicians, and then they split away from Ronnie Hawkins in 1964.
Without Ronnie Hawkins, the group changed its name to Levon And The Hawks, with Arkansas-born singer/drummer Levon Helm positioned as the frontman. Robbie Robertson write the Hawks’ debut single “Uh Uh Uh,” which came out 1965. Later that year, Bob Dylan, who’d recently gone electric, asked the Hawks to serve as his backing band on tour. The group, billed as Bob Dylan And The Band, toured for about a year, developing a ferociously shambolic form of folk-rock. Robbie Robertson played guitar on much of Dylan’s classic 1966 album Blonde On Blonde. A year later, the Band recorded The Basement Tapes with Dylan; the widely bootlegged album went officially unreleased until 1975.
The Band released their own classic debut Music From Big Pink in 1969. Bob Dylan co-wrote some of its songs, but the group’s real breakout moment happened when Dennis Hopper included their song “The Weight” in his movie Easy Rider. Robertson wrote “The Weight,” and he also wrote other hits for the Band, like “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Band played Woodstock, and they continued to back Dylan up at many of his biggest shows. Their music drew on country and blues, and it helped set the template for the Americana style, even if most of the Band’s members were Canadian.
The Band famously toured Canada by train with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Their albums sold reasonably well, and their 1969 self-titled sophomore LP went platinum, but they were more of a live and critical favorite than a commercial juggernaut. The group battled addiction problems and internal tensions before deciding to call it quits in 1976. As a grand finale, they played one final show in San Francisco on Thanksgiving, sharing the stage with guests like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Muddy Waters. Martin Scorsese filmed the concert, and his 1978 documentary The Last Waltz remains one of the all-time great concert movies.
During the Band’s lifetime, Robbie Robertson collaborated widely, playing on records from artists like Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, and Neil Diamond. After the Band’s breakup, he produced and starred in the 1980 movie Carny, and he also co-wrote the movie’s soundtrack. Robertson also worked on the soundtracks for many Martin Scorsese films, starting with 1980’s Raging Bull.
In 1987, Robbie Robertson released his self-titled solo debut, which included the minor hit “Somewhere Down The Crazy River.” (Scorsese directed the video.) Rod Stewart had a 1991 hit with a cover of Robertson’s song “Broken Arrow.” Robertson recorded a few more solo albums in the years that followed, and he also periodically reunited with the Band, playing at events like Bob Dylan’s 30th-anniversary concert and Woodstock ’94.
Robbie Robertson produced records for artists like Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, and he briefly worked as an executive at DreamWorks, where he helped sign Nelly Furtado. In 2019, Robertson scored Scorsese’s The Irishman, and he was the subject of the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band.
The full statement from Robertson’s manager Jared Levine reads:
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 the building of their new cultural center.
With Robertson’s passing, Garth Hudson is the only living original member of the Band. Below, check out some of Robbie Robertson’s work.