Robbie Robertson Dies: The Band’s Founding Guitarist Was 80
Robbie Robertson, the brilliant founding guitarist of The Band who also wrote many of its most famous songs and whose final farewell show with the group was memorialized in Martin Scorsese’s landmark documentary The Last Waltz, died today in Los Angeles. He was 80.
His longtime manager Jared Levine announced the news in a statement. Read it below.
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Born Jaime Royal Robertson on July 5, 1974 in Toronto, he wrote and played on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group’s classics including “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the latter of which was was Top 5 hit for Joan Baez in 1971.
A five-time Grammy nominee, Robertson got his break at 16 years old with Ronnie Hawkins’ The Hawks. He was Bob Dylan’s guitarist on the notorious 1966 “electric” world tour and, as leader of The Band, collaborated on groundbreaking album The Basement Tapes, helping to invent the Americana genre.
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The Band broke out with its hit 1968 debut album Music from Big Pink, which made the U.S. Top 30, went gold and featured such classic tracks as “The Weight” and the Dylan cover “I Shall Be Released.”
In 1969, The Band played at Woodstock and became the first North American rock group to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
Later that year, the group — which also featured Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel — released its sophomore album The Band in 1969, which included its biggest pop single, “Up on Cripple Creek,” along with the Civil War-set folk tale “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The disc was its first Top 10 album, reaching No. 9 on the Billboard 200, and remains its only million-seller without Dylan.
The Band went on to release several other albums through the 1970s. Stage Fright (1970) reached No. 5 and featured the title track and “The Shape I’m In.” Cahoots (1971, No. 21) had “Life Is a Carnival,” and the Top 10 double live set Rock of Ages (1972) followed.
Its other albums include Moondog Matinee (1973), Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975) and Islands (1977). Along with 1975’s The Basement Tapes, The Band also released a pair of Top 10 albums with Dylan the year before: Planet Waves and Before the Flood.
In 1973, The Band performed before the largest rock concert audience in history (an estimated 650,000 people) at the Watkins Glen Festival in New York.
Robertson went on to launch a solo career with his self-titled 1987 album — featuring the Top 10 Mainstream Rock hits “Showdown at Big Sky” and “Sweet Fire of Love,” which featured U2 — and also including the powerful track “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.”
He also contributed to the Bill Murray 1988 holiday film Scrooged, recording a poppy, keyboard-heavy cover of The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” which he wrote originally for the album Islands.
His other solo albums were Storyville (1991), Contact from the Underworld of Redboy (1998), How to Become Clairvoyant (2011) and Sinematic (2019). Several tracks from those discs also made the Mainstream Rock singles chart including “American Roulette,” “What About Now” and “Go Back to Your Woods,” which featured Bruce Hornsby on piano.
Robertson also was known in recent years for his soundtrack work on several Scorsese films including The Wolf of Wall Street and the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, which premiered at Cannes and hits theaters October 6.
Robertson is survived by his wife, Janet; his children, Alexandra, Sebastian, Delphine; grandchildren Angelica, Donovan, Dominic, Gabriel and Seraphina; and his ex-wife Dominique. Hudson is The Band’s lone surviving original member.
Here is Levine’s full statement on Robertson’s passing:
“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 a new Woodland Cultural Centre. Contact: [email protected]”
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