Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist and songwriter for The Band, who helped reshape American music in classics like “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” has died at the age of 80.
In a statement from his manager, it was stated that Robertson died with his family.
From their years as Bob Dylan’s master backing band to their stardom as the embodiment of old-fashioned ensemble and virtuosity, The Band profoundly influenced popular music in the 1960s and ’70s; then absorbing the works of Dylan and Dylan’s influences while creating a new sound immersed in the American past.
Canadian-born Robertson was a high school dropout and a one-person melting pot—half Jewish, half Mohawk, and Cayuga—who fell in love with the seemingly endless voices and side roads of his adopted country, and wrote with a feeling. and exploration at a time when the Vietnam War alienated millions of young Americans. His life was of a “Candide”-like quality as he found himself among the many giants of the rock era – getting guitar cues from Buddy Holly, early performances by Aretha Franklin and the Velvet Underground, smoking pot with the Beatles, material from Leiber and Stoller’s songwriting team. watching him develop, chatting with Jimi Hendrix when he was a tough musician calling himself Jimmy James.
The band began in the early 1960s as co-stars for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, and over the years they spent together in bars and juke venues, they built a depth and versatility that opened them up to almost any genre of music in any setting. Alongside Robertson, the band included Arkansan drummer-singer Levon Helm and three other Canadians: bassist-singer-songwriter Rick Danko, keyboardist singer-songwriter Richard Manuel, and versatile music magician Garth Hudson. They were originally called the Hawks, but eventually became The Band – a arrogance that fans would say they deserve – because when they were with Dylan, people would point to them and refer to them as “the band”.
They continue to be defined by their first two albums, “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band”, both released in the late 1960s. The rock scene was moving away from the psychedelic extravagances of the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and a wave of sound effects, long melodies, and lyrical lyrics. Named after the old house near Woodstock, New York, where the Band members lived and reunited, “Music from Big Pink” was the sound of homecoming for many. The mood was sincere, the lyrics taken from blues, gospel, folk and country music alternately playful, cryptic, and longing. The group itself seemed to represent dedication and a shared and vital history; All five members made prominent contributions and appeared in simple, dark clothing in promotional photos.
Through their 1967 “Basement Tapes” with Dylan and their own album, The Band is widely credited as a founding source of Americana or root music. Fans and colleagues would talk about how their lives had changed. Eric Clapton left British supergroup Cream and went to Woodstock in hopes of joining The Band, which has influenced albums ranging from The Grateful Dead’s “Workingman’s Dead” to Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection.” The band’s songs were performed by Franklin, Joan Baez, the Staple Singers and others. During a television performance of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, Paul McCartney shouted the lyrics to “The Weight”.
Like Dylan, Robertson was a self-taught musicologist and storyteller who absorbed everything American, from William Faulkner’s novels to the scorching blues of Howlin’ Wolf to the gospel harmonies of the Swan Silvertones. Sometimes it was as if their songs were not only created, but also revealed. In “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” he imagined the Civil War through the eyes of a defeated Confederacy. In “The Weight,” whose lead vocals circulate like a shared wine glass among the band members, it evokes the arrival of a pilgrim in a town where nothing seems impossible:
“I entered Nazareth, feeling dead / I just need a place to lay my head / Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man can find a bed? / He just grinned and shook my hand, all he said was ‘No’.”
The band played at the Woodstock festival not far from their hometown in 1969 and was newsworthy enough to make the cover of Time magazine. But the spirit behind their best work had already dissipated. Albums like “Stage Fright” and “Cahoots” were disappointing even for Robertson, who admitted he had a hard time coming up with new ideas. Manuel and Danko were frequent contributors to songs during the “Basement Tapes” days, while when “Cahoots” was released in 1971, Robertson was the dominant writer.
They toured frequently, recorded their acclaimed live album “Rock of Ages” at Madison Square Garden, and joined Dylan for their 1974 show, which led to another highly acclaimed concert broadcast, “Before the Flood.” But in 1976, after Manuel broke his neck in a boating accident, Robertson decided he needed a break from the road and organized rock’s ultimate farewell; Waters and others. The concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and formed the basis for his famous 1978 documentary “The Last Waltz.”
Robertson had intended The Band to continue recording together, but “The Last Waltz” helped permanently sever his friendship with Helm, whom he once regarded as his older brother. In interviews and in his 1993 memoir “Wheel on Fire,” Helm accused Robertson of greed and big ego, that Robertson eventually owned the music catalogs and called “The Last Waltz” a flamboyant project designed to glorify Robertson. stated. In response, Robertson claimed that he had taken control of the group because the others – with the exception of Hudson – were too burdened with drug and alcohol problems to make decisions on their own.
“In a group like ours, if we’re not working on all cylinders, I was struck by the fact that it took the whole machine off course,” Robertson wrote in his memoir, “The Testimony,” published in 2016.
The band reunited without Robertson in the early 1980s, and Robertson went on to pursue a long career as a solo artist and soundtrack composer. The self-titled 1987 album was certified gold and included the hit single “Show Down at Big Sky” and the ballad “Fallen Angel”, a tribute to Manuel who was found dead in what was considered a suicide in 1986 (Danko died) 1999′ also heart failure and Helm of Cancer in 2012).
Moving to Los Angeles in the 1970s while the others remained at Woodstock, Robertson remained close to Scorsese and helped direct the soundtracks for “The Color of Money”, “The King of Comedy”, “The Departed” and “The Irishman”. among others. He also produced Neil Diamond’s “Beautiful Noise” and explored his legacy with albums such as “Music for the Native Americans” and “Contact from the Underworld of Redboy”.
The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994; Robertson attended, Helm did not. In 2020, Robertson looked back and mourned in the documentary “We Were Brothers Once” and the title ballad where Robertson sang “When the light goes out and you can’t go on / You miss your brothers but now they are”. gone.”
Robertson married Canadian journalist Dominique Bourgeois in 1967. They had three children before their divorce.
Jaime Royal Robertson was born in Toronto and spent the summers on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve where his mother, Rosemarie Dolly Chrysler, grew up. He never met his father, Alexander David Klegerman, who died before he was born and only learned of Robertson’s existence years later. His mother had since married James Robertson, a factory worker whom she believed was Robbie Robertson’s biological parent.
The music was an escape from what he remembered as a violent and abusive home; her parents separated when she was in her early teens. He used to watch his relatives play guitar and sing on the Six Nations reserve and was “fascinated” by how immersed they were in their own performance. Robertson soon began playing guitar on his own, playing in bands and writing songs during his teenage years.
He had a talent for impressing elders. When he was 15, his band opened for Hawkins at a club in Toronto. After overhearing Hawkins say he needed new material, Robertson hurried home, worked on a few songs, and brought them to his hotel. Hawkins recorded both, “Someone Like You” and “Hey Boba Lu,” and Robertson would soon find himself on a train to Hawkins’ home base in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Over the next few years, he toured with Hawkins in the US and Canada as the members split up and included artists who eventually became The Band. By 1963, Robertson and others had grown apart from Hawkins and were ready to work on their own. The Canadian Squires recorded a handful of singles and stepped into rock history when mutual acquaintances suggested they should tour behind Dylan, then rebelled against his minstrel image and infuriated fans who thought he was sold out.
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In 1965-66, they were Dylan’s co-adventurers on some of rock’s most important shows; Dylan plays an acoustic opening set, then joins the Hawks for an electric set that gets booed so fiercely, Helm leaves and takes his place. Road by Mickey Jones. The soundtrack of Dylan songs like “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” as seen in the sound recordings and filmmaker DA Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary “No Direction Home” decades later. A fan shouted “Judas!” at a demonstration in Manchester, England, in May 1966.
“I don’t believe you,” snarled Dylan in response. “You are a liar!” He led the Hawks through an all-out finale called “Like a Rolling Stone,” inviting the Hawks to “play it out loud.”
“A kind of madness was oozing out,” Robertson wrote in his memoirs. “The whole atmosphere rose. I adjusted the strap of my Telecaster so I could release it with a quick thumb movement and use the guitar as a weapon. Concerts are starting to feel so unpredictable.”
Later in 1966, Dylan was badly injured in a motorcycle accident and recovered in the Woodstock area, where The Band also settled soon after. With no contractual obligations or any deadlines, Dylan and his fellow musicians have all stepped out of time. They played old country and Appalachian songs and worked on originals such as “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released”, which were originally intended to be demo recordings for other artists. Eventually dubbed “The Basement Tapes”, they were among rock’s first leaks before their official release – partly in 1975 and as a full set of six CDs in 2014.
Working and writing with Dylan encouraged The Band to try their own album. “Music from Big Pink”, Dylan-Danko collaboration “This Wheel’s On Fire” and original Band songs like Dylan-Manuel’s “Tears of Rage” and Manuel’s “In a Station” and Robertson’s “Caledonia Mission” contained.
In his memoirs, Robertson recalled the first time his former bosses heard “Music from Big Pink.”
“After each song, Bob looked at ‘his’ band with proud eyes. When ‘The Weight’ came out, he said, ‘This is great. Who wrote that song?’” “I am,” I replied. He shook his head, slapped my arm and said, ‘Damn! Did you write that song?’”