Robbie Robertson (the Band) was born in Toronto, Canada on 5 July, 1943. His mother, Rosemary Dolly Chrysler, was a Cayuga/Mohawk Indian who had been raised on the Six Nations Reserve near Toronto. The man whom he believed to be his father and who raised him until he was in his early teens, James Robertson, was a factory worker.
When he was a child, his mother often took him to the Six Nations Reserve, where it seemed that everyone played a musical instrument or sang or danced. He thought “I’ve got to get into this club. I think the guitar looks pretty cool.” His mother bought him one, his older cousin Herb Myke taught him how to play.
“Rock ’n’ roll suddenly hit me when I was 13 years old,” Robertson told Classic Rock magazine in 2019. “That was it for me. Within weeks I was in my first band, Little Caesar and the Consuls,” with whom he performed covers of the then current rock and roll and r&b hits. In 1957 he formed Robbie and the Rhythm Chords with his friend Pete “Thumper” Traynor (who later founded Traynor Amplifiers). They changed the name to Robbie and the Robots after they watched the film Forbidden Planet and took a liking to the film’s character Robby the Robot. Traynor customized Robertson’s guitar for the Robots, fitting it with antennae and wires to give it a space age look. Traynor and Robertson joined with pianist Scott Cushnie and became The Suedes.
His parents separated around that time, and his mother told him that his biological father was a Jewish professional gambler named Alexander David Klegerman, who had been killed in a hit-and-run accident before she met James Robertson. Years later In his memoir, “Testimony”, he wryly commented on his Indian and Jewish heritage: “You could say I’m an expert when it comes to persecution.”
In 1959, the Suedes, got a crucial break when they were seen by the Arkansas-based rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins.
Hawkins saw enough in Mr. Robertson to write two songs with him, ‘Hey Baba Lou’ and ‘Someone Like You’, which he recorded, and he later invited that teenage guitarist to join his band, the Hawks, initially on bass. Roy Buchanan, a few years older than Robertson, was briefly a member of the Hawks and became an important influence on Robertson’s guitar style: “Standing next to Buchanan on stage for several months, Robertson was able to absorb Buchanan’s deft manipulations with his volume speed dial, his tendency to bend multiple strings for steel guitar-like effect, his rapid sweep picking, and his passion for bending past the root and fifth notes during solo flights.” Robertson soon developed into a veritable guitar virtuoso.
The Hawks also included Levon Helm on drums; by 1961, the other future members of the Band were also in the fold. They toured with Hawkins for two more years and recorded for Roulette Records. By 1964, they had gone off on their own as Levon and the Hawks.
The Hawks recorded a few singles for Atco, all written by Robertson, and in 1965 he was contacted by Bob Dylan’s management and invited to be part of his backing group. While he initially refused, he did perform with Dylan in New York and Los Angeles, bringing along Levon Helm for those gigs. At Robertson’s insistence, Dylan wound up hiring all the other future members of the Band (Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko) for the full tour. Three of his fellow members — the drummer Levon Helm, the pianist Richard Manuel and the bassist Rick Danko — expressed those characters in distinctly aching vocals. Robertson rarely sang lead, instead finding his voice in the guitar.
Dylan also invited Robertson to perform in 1966 on a session for his album “Blonde on Blonde.” The next year, he asked the Hawks to move to his new base in the Woodstock area, and they rented a house in nearby Saugerties that was later known as Big Pink. It was there that they recorded the music released as “The Basement Tapes” and worked on the songs that would be included on “Music From Big Pink.”
“It was like a clubhouse where we could shut out the outside world,” Robertson wrote in his memoir. “It was my belief something magical would happen. And some true magic did happen.”
When “Music From Big Pink” was released in the summer of 1968, it boasted seminal songs written by Robertson like “The Weight” and “Chest Fever,”along with strong pieces composed by other members of the Band as well as by Dylan. “This album was recorded in approximately two weeks,” according to another close Dylan associate, Al Kooper. “There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.”
For the Band’s follow-up album, “The Band,” released in 1969, Robertson either wrote or co-wrote every song, including some of his most enduring creations, among them “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which became a Top Five Billboard hit in a version recorded by Joan Baez. The album reached No. 9 on the magazine’s chart.
The Band’s next effort, “Stage Fright,” released in 1970, shot even higher, peaking at No. 5, buoyed by Robertson compositions like the title track and “The Shape I’m In.” Those songs, like many on the album, expressed deep anxiety and doubt, a theme that carried over to “Cahoots,” released in 1971. And while that album broke Billboard’s Top 20, it wasn’t as rapturously received as its predecessors. Possibly because time were changing fast in those year. Three of his fellow members — drummer Levon Helm, pianist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko — expressed his anxiety and doubt in distinctly aching vocals. Mr. Robertson rarely sang lead, instead finding his voice in the guitar.
In its day, the Band’s music stood out as well by inverting the increasing volume and mania of psychedelic rock and by sidestepping its accent on youthful rebellion. “We just went completely left when everyone else went right,” Robertson said. The ripple effect of that sound and image went wide on impact, landing the group on the cover of Time magazine in 1970 and inspiring a host of major artists to create their own homespun amalgams, from the Grateful Dead’s album “American Beauty” (1970) to Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection,” released the same year. The Band’s music so affected fellow guitarist Eric Clapton that he actually lobbied for entry into their ranks. (The offer was politely declined.)
Robertson produced an album for Jesse Winchester in 1970 and played on Ringo’s ‘Ringo’ (1973) and ‘Goodnight Vienna’ (1974). He is heard on Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court and Spark’ and played guitar on ‘Mockingbird’ for James Taylor and Carly Simon. He was now one of the most sought after session musicians, working with Eric Clapton on ‘No Reason To Cry’ and producing Neil Diamond’s ‘Beautiful Noise’.
A collection of blues and R&B covers, “Moondog Matinee,” was released in 1973, and Robertson’s muse fully returned in 1975 on the album “Northern Lights — Southern Cross,” which included “Acadian Driftwood,” his first composition with a Canadian theme. The original group’s final release, “Islands” (1977), consisted of leftover pieces and was issued mainly to fulfill the group’s contract with its label, Capitol Records.
The same year as “The Last Waltz,” Robertson produced a Top Five platinum album for Neil Diamond, “Beautiful Noise,” and a double live album by Mr. Diamond, “Love at the Greek,” which made Billboard’s Top 10 and sold more than two million copies.
Robertson told Musician magazine that he broke up the Band because “we had done it for 16 years and there was really nothing else to learn from it.” Another strong factor was Mr. Robertson’s frustration over hard drug use by most of the other members.
Without Robbie Robertson, the other members of the Band released three albums in the 1990s; the last, “Jubilation,” in 1998, was without Richard Manuel, who had died by suicide 12 years earlier at 42. Rick Danko died of heart failure in 1999 at 56, Levon Helm of throat cancer in 2012 at 71.
Over the years, other members of the Band accused Robertson of taking more songwriting credits than he deserved. To them, it was a cooperative effort, with the other members adding important arrangements and contributing elements that helped define the essential character of the recordings. Levon Helm was particularly vociferous in his condemnation, amplified by his furious 1993 memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
In his own memoir, Robbie Robertson wrote of Levon Helm, “it was like some demon had crawled into my friend’s soul and pushed a crazy, angry button.”
The collaborations with Scorsese continued. Robbie scored Martin’s 1980 movies ‘Carney’ and ‘Raging Bull’ then later ‘The King of Comedy’ and ‘The Color of Money’. For ‘The Color of Money’, Robbie co-wrote the hit song for Eric Clapton ‘Its In The Way That You Use It’. Robertson also collaborated on film and TV soundtracks such as Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Silence (2016), The Irishman (2019), and Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).
With his history it was remarkable that Robbie Robertson didn’t release a solo album until 1986. ‘Robbie Robertson’ was produced by Daniel Lanois and featured appearances from all members of U2, Peter Gabriel and his former Band mates Rick Danko and Garth Hudson.
Robbie Robertson’s fifth and final solo album appeared in 2019 with a title, “Sinematic,” that underscored his devotion to film work in his last four decades. He recently completed the score for his 14th film project, Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2023.
Robbie Robertson took his marvelous talents elsewhere when he departed this world on August 9, 2023 after a lengthy battle with prostrate cancer.
Marveling over where life had taken him, Mr. Robertson once told Classic Rock magazine: “People used to say to me, ‘You’re just a dreamer. You’re gonna end up working down the street, just like me.’ Part of that was crushing, and the other part is, ‘Oh yeah? I’m on a mission. I’m moving on. And if you look for me, there’s only going to be dust.’”
Robbie Robertson was inducted into the Canadian Juno Hall of Hall in 1989. In 1994, The Band were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Robbie was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2003. In 2005, he received a doctorate from York University and in 2006 the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. In 2008 Robbie was given a Lifetime Grammy Achievement Award. In 2011, he was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and in 2011 made Officer of the Order of Canada.
Robbie is also on Canada’s Walk of Fame, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Native American Music Awards in 2017 and was given the keys to the city of Toronto in 2019.