Robbie Robertson, the lead guitarist, singer and songwriter of the seminal group The Band, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 80.
Robertson’s long-time manager Sam Levine said he died “surrounded by family” and requested that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Six Nations of the Grand River to support a new cultural center.
Born in Toronto in 1943, Robertson began playing guitar at 10 and joined the band the Hawks at 16. The Hawks become rockabilly giant Ronnie Hawkins back-up band. The group — drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson, in addition to Robertson — left Hawkins in 1964 and began supporting Bob Dylan soon thereafter (occasionally with Helm but usually not) when he went electric the next year.
The band became The Band, in a sort of cheeky knowingness to their place in the hierarchy of the conceit. There was Dylan and there was “the band” and with him they recorded the famed Basement Tapes in 1967.
Signed to Capitol in their own right in 1968, their first two albums — Music from the Big Pink and The Band — that formed the basis of what we now call, for better or worse, Americana music. There is, yes, more than a little irony given that The Band was largely Canadian.
Songs penned by Robertson — “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — are a formidable legacy, all feeling as if they have been with us since the beginning, passed down at hoedowns and picking parties. Virgil Caine is not a real soldier but his story is authentic as any in a history book. You cannot find a place called Nazareth where Carmen and the Devil walk hand in hand, but you know exactly what it looks like. Maybe there really is a girl named Bessie in Lake Charles who will bet on the ponies with you and listen to Spike Jones, but probably not.
Intraband tensions — fueled not just a little bit by more than a little of cocaine — hamstrung The Band in the 70s and they finally fell apart in 1976, their last concert recorded, famously, by Martin Scorsese and released as “The Last Waltz” in 1978, truly an artifact of its time with Bill Graham doing his damndest to hold the whole thing together, as Beatles and Staples and Dylan and Stones and, yes, even Neil Diamond took turns on the stage.
It is, perhaps, the greatest concert film of all-time and launched a long-running partnership between Robertson and Scorsese. The former scored numerous movies by the latter, including his latest epic “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which premiered to acclaim at Cannes in May and is set for a wide release in October.
There were rump reunions of The Band but none were fully formed, largely due to decades long recriminations from Helm about Robertson and vice-versa. Helm did not attend when The Band was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Much of Robertson’s late life was spent indulging his love of film with those Scorsese scores and for seven years as creative executive for DreamWorks Records. He continued to produce, to write (books and music), to reissue and reminisce.
Robertson and his son Sebastian and Blackbird Productions created The Last Waltz as a touring franchise in 2016, after two sellouts at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans.