Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist for The Band, passes away at 80 after a long illness.

Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist for The Band, passes away at 80 after a long illness.

Remembering Robbie Robertson: The Heart and Soul of The Band

Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson, the renowned musician and songwriter best known as the lead guitarist for the influential band, The Band, has passed away at the age of 79. Robertson, a Canadian-born music icon, died in Los Angeles after a long illness, surrounded by his loving family. His passing marks the end of an era, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy that has profoundly shaped the landscape of popular music.

Robertson’s musical journey began as part of Bob Dylan’s backing group, where he and The Band played a pivotal role in Dylan’s transition from a folk artist to a rock star. From there, they forged a unique sound deeply rooted in American traditions, blending elements of blues, gospel, folk, and country music. The Band’s music resonated with people around the world, capturing the essence of their shared experiences, joys, and tragedies.

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese, a close friend and frequent collaborator of Robertson’s, expressed his deep admiration for the musician’s work, stating, “The Band’s music, and Robbie’s own later solo music, seemed to come from the deepest place at the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys.”

But Robertson’s journey towards becoming a musical legend wasn’t without its twists and turns. As a high school dropout and a fusion of Jewish, Mohawk, and Cayuga heritage, he found solace and inspiration in the diverse sounds and stories of his adopted country, particularly during a time when the Vietnam War had divided and alienated young Americans.

In the early 1960s, The Band started as supporting players for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins. Through their years together, they honed their craft in bars and juke joints, developing a depth and versatility that allowed them to explore various genres and settings. The Band, consisting of Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, soon became synonymous with their unique musical style and profound sense of community.

Their first two albums, “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band,” released in the late 1960s, cemented their reputation and influence. In an era marked by psychedelic extravagance, The Band’s intimate and soulful sound struck a chord with listeners. Their songs, often characterized by playful, cryptic, and yearning lyrics, drew from a rich tapestry of influences. The Band’s music stood as a testament to selflessness, featuring distinctive contributions from all five members.

It was through their collaboration with Bob Dylan in the fabled “Basement Tapes” that The Band established themselves as a founding source of Americana or roots music. Their impact extended far beyond their own recordings, inspiring artists such as Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead, and Elton John. The Band’s songs were covered by esteemed artists like Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, and the Staple Singers. Their influence even reached the Beatles, with Paul McCartney shouting out lyrics from “The Weight” during a television performance of “Hey Jude.”

Robertson’s songwriting prowess was legendary, with many of his compositions feeling both timeless and unearthed. Through vivid storytelling, he transported listeners to different worlds, like in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” where he imagined the Civil War through the eyes of a defeated Confederate. In the iconic song, “The Weight,” with its communal vocals passed between band members, he painted a picture of a pilgrim seeking a place to rest, only to be met with enigmatic responses.

After reaching great heights together, the spirit behind The Band’s best work began to dissolve. Disappointing albums like “Stage Fright” and “Cahoots” showcased Robertson’s struggle to find fresh ideas. While Manuel and Danko had been prolific contributors during their “Basement Tapes” days, Robertson emerged as the dominant force by the time “Cahoots” was released in 1971.

The Band continued to tour and collaborate with Dylan, resulting in the acclaimed live album “Rock of Ages” and the concert release “Before the Flood.” However, in 1976, a boating accident left Manuel seriously injured, prompting Robertson to organize “The Last Waltz,” an all-star concert also immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the same name. This event marked the end of an era for The Band, but it also led to a bitter divide between Robertson and Helm.

In the aftermath of “The Last Waltz,” Helm accused Robertson of greed and an inflated ego, asserting that Robertson had taken control of The Band’s musical catalog. Conversely, Robertson cited the others’ struggles with drugs and alcohol, claiming that he needed to make decisions on their behalf. This friction ultimately severed their friendship.

While The Band regrouped without Robertson in the early 1980s, the guitarist pursued a successful solo career and became a sought-after soundtrack composer. Collaborating closely with Martin Scorsese, Robertson played a key role in crafting music for films such as “The Color of Money,” “The King of Comedy,” “The Departed,” and “The Irishman.” He also produced albums for artists like Neil Diamond and explored his heritage through projects like “Music for the Native Americans” and “Contact from the Underworld of Redboy.”

In 1994, The Band was rightfully inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although tensions between Robertson and Helm persisted, resulting in Helm’s absence at the ceremony. Reflecting on their shared journey, Robertson mourned the loss of his bandmates in the documentary “Once Were Brothers,” capturing the bittersweet essence of their bond in the title ballad.

Robertson’s personal life was marked by both triumphs and challenges. He married journalist Dominique Bourgeois in 1967, and they had three children before divorcing. He later married Janet Zuccarini and had five grandchildren. Born in Toronto, Robertson spent summers on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, where his mother had grown up. His upbringing was tumultuous, marked by violence and abuse, but music provided a transformative escape.

Robertson’s journey began when he impressed Ronnie Hawkins with his songwriting skills at the age of 15. Touring with Hawkins led him to cross paths with Bob Dylan, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Band’s collaboration with Dylan and their subsequent rise to fame solidified Robertson’s place as a musical icon.

Robbie Robertson’s undeniable talent, boundless creativity, and dedication to his craft leave an indelible mark on the world of music. His body of work, both as part of The Band and as a solo artist, continues to resonate with audiences, inspiring new generations of musicians to explore the rich tapestry of American music. As we remember Robertson, we celebrate his extraordinary contributions and the timeless music that will forever carry his spirit.