Robbie Robertson was born in 1943 in Toronto. His mother was of Mohawk descent and, as such, Robertson spent portions of his childhood on the Six Nations Indigenous Territory near present day Brantford. Immersed in Indigenous culture as he was as a child, Robertson was exposed to music and storytelling and came to view both as natural forms of personal and communal self-expression. Therefore it came as no surprise to anyone who knew him as a child that he was drawn to music and, in particular, to playing the guitar. Robbie Robertson spent almost the entirety of his life playing, producing, recording, singing songs about his life, his Indigenous roots and/or the history of the places in which he found himself. While Canadian by birth, music drew him southward. For reasons that we shall get to shortly, Robbie Robertson spent most of his adult life in the United States playing and creating some of the most memorable music of his generation. In the process of doing so, Robertson worked with legendary musicians and film directors and even starred in a big budget movie that he helped to write called Carny. Robertson died at age 80 from pancreatic cancer, but what a rich legacy of excellence he left behind.
Like many teenage boys with a passion for music, Robertson became involved in local bands all throughout his highschool years. It was while playing in one such band that he happened upon the opportunity to play in front of the legendary Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins was impressed with Robertson’s maturity and passion for music. He was equally impressed with his guitar playing skills which, while still rudimentary at this stage, stood out as possessing great potential. Hawkins hired Robertson to join his touring band, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, as a roadie. This eventually led to Robertson becoming a backup singer, then a fill-in guitar player during rehearsals, to eventually a permanent place in his band The Hawks. As Robertson toured with The Hawks, other members of the backup band came and went, their places filled by other young men who would go on to become lifelong members of Robertson’s life…Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. Together, the five members of The Hawks developed a chemistry and a camaraderie amongst themselves that grew to the point where they felt ready to leave the nest, as it were, and form their own band. Initially, they called themselves Levon Helm and the Hawks. But, eventually, they simply became known as The Band.
While touring as their own band, they were seen by the manager of one of music’s hottest and most influential performers, Bob Dylan. The timing of this sighting was most fortuitous for all parties because, unbeknownst to Robertson and the rest of The Band, Dylan was tinkering with the idea of turning the Folk music world upside down by “going electric”. To do so, Dylan realized that he would need a backing band with the chops necessary to keep up with him. He saw that in The Band. An invitation to join him as his permanent backing band was proffered and accepted. Just like that, Robbie Robertson and his mates found themselves at the centre of a musical storm as Bob Dylan introduced electrically created sounds to the modern world of folk music. As Dylan and The Band toured, each concert would involve two separate parts. In the first half, Dylan would appear on stage by himself. He would only have his acoustic guitar and harmonica. He would perform his folk hits in the traditional folk style. Then there would be a short intermission. When he returned for Part #2 of the show, he would do so with The Band behind him and an electric guitar in hand. For the whole of this first world tour, Dylan and The Band were subject to much abuse and condemnation. Cries of “Traitor!” and “Judas!” filled the air. But Bob Dylan knew that the times were, quite literally, a-changing. He stuck to his vision and changed music as we knew it in the process.
Robbie Robertson was changed by the experience as well. Coming from a childhood heritage steeped in the traditions of storytelling prepared Robertson well to soak up the lessons available to him by having such consistent and intimate contact with a poet such as Dylan. Dylan’s ability to paint pictures with his words and create songs with vivid characters, settings and emotions made a dramatic impression on Robertson. Being able to apprentice at the feet of the Master, so to speak, prepared Robertson well a few years later when he wrote his own music for The Band to perform. Songs such as “The Weight”, “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The NIght They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down”, etc…, ended up becoming some of rock music’s most beloved and influential songs in their own right. Robertson respectfully credits his time with Dylan, along with his time spent on the Six Nations reserve, as helping prepare him for his star turn as a songwriter of note.
As was often the case throughout Robertson’s career, one project often led directly to another. Hawkins led to The Band which, in turn, led to meeting and touring with Bob Dylan which, in turn, led to a huge career on their own as The Band. So when creative tensions began to pull at the fabric of their lineup, The Band didn’t simply break up. Instead, they ended in style with a performance for the ages called The Last Waltz. This final concert was held in San Francisco and happened on American Thanksgiving Day. The Winterland Ballroom filled with invited guests who were served a full Thanksgiving Day turkey dinner. Once dinner was served, the tables were cleared and a concert performance was held. The Band played their hits, of course, but they also shared the stage with many special guests including the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, The Staples Singers, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan and many more. In addition to the live concert, what made The Last Waltz memorable was that it was filmed by Robertson’s friend, film director Martin Scorsese. The film was released in theatres a year or so later and became one of the very first “rockumentaries” ever created. ***You can watch The Last Waltz in its entirety for free on Tubi Tv right now by clicking here. The link takes you to the main Tube TV site. From there, use the search box to find The Last Waltz.
Robertson’s connection with Scorsese led him directly from The Band into a career in the movies as a film scorer. Through this connection, Robertson helped score a majority of Martin Scorsese’s most famous films such as Raging Bull, Casino, Gangs of New York, The King of Comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street and many more. It was while working with Scorsese in the early 1980s that Robertson was approached about his interest in film production and even in acting. This resulted in his involvement in the movie Carny, which starred Robertson alongside Jodie Foster and Gary Busey. Even though Robertson was often told that he possessed “movie star looks”, he was always most comfortable behind the scenes and enjoyed his greatest success as a film scorer over the years.
In 1987, Robertson decided to release an album of solo material. That album was created in collaboration with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno and featured performances by Peter Gabriel and the band, U2. The album was called Showdown At Big Sky. I actually owned this album and absolutely loved it. It was filled with great songs such as the title track, “Somewhere Down The Crazy River”, “Broken Arrow” and many more. Showdown At Big Sky ended up winning Grammy and Juno Awards for Robertson for Album of the Year.
Robbie Robertson remained actively involved in music right up until the time of his death a few weeks ago. He also spent portions of his later years promoting Indigenous music and culture which, in a way, helped to bring his life full circle. Overall, Robbie Robertson lived a full, rich life. He was a witness to the birth of Rock n’ Roll and had a ringside seat as Dylan took it all one step further by “going electric”. Many of Robertson’s songs as a solo artist or as a member of The Band stand as being among the most memorable and evocative of their generation. As if that wasn’t enough, in a ranking of the best guitarists of all time, Robertson came in at #59 out of 100. It is not without reason that Robbie Robertson is a member of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Band and as a solo artist, a member of Canada’s Music Hall of Fame, that he has a place on Canada’s Walk of Fame or that he is a Member of the Order of Canada. What a career! What a musical and personal legacy! What a life well lived. You have more than earned your rest, Mr. Robertson. May peace be with you now and forever more.
The link to the official website for Robbie Robertson can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for The Last Waltz can be found here.
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