The Band’s Robbie Robertson dies at 80

Robbie Roberston of the band
(Image credit: Bob Berg/Getty Images)

Robbie Robertson, former guitarist, chief songwriter and occasional lead vocalist with The Band, has died at the age of 80.

The Canadian-born musician died on Wednesday, August 9 following a long illness, according to his manager, Jared Levine.

In a statement, Levine said: “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.”

The guitarist and singer, who was born Jaime Royal Roberston in Toronto on July 5, 1943, co-founded The Band in 1967 with drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and keyboard player Garth Hudson. All five musicians had previously been members of The Hawks, the backing band of Canadian musician Ronnie Hawkins. 

“My mother was raised in a Six Nations Indian Reserve, then went to live with an aunt in Toronto at the age of six,” he told Classic Rock in 2019. “So as a child, when we went back to visit, the instruments would come out and I would be exposed to all this music on the reserve. My parents bought me a small guitar and I would practice constantly. Then rock’n’roll suddenly hit me when I was thirteen years old. That was it for me. Within weeks I was in my first band.

Robertson played guitar on Bob Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde On Blonde, which led to The Hawks become Dylan’s backing band, playing with him on his first full electric tour, and taking part in the 1967 sessions in Woodstock, New York that would eventually be released as The Basement Tapes.

The Band’s debut album, Music From Big Pink – named after the building where The Basement Tapes sessions took place – was released in 1968. Its rootsy, backwards-looking was at odds with the psychedelic movement of the times, and has been cited as an influence by the likes of Elton John, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Wilco. 

Robertson wrote most of The Band most famous songs, including The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek and The Shape I’m In. The Band released seven studio albums between 1968 and 1977’s posthumous Islands

After The Band split following 1976’s celebrated farewell concert The Last Waltz, filmed by Martin Scorsese and later released as a landmark concert movie, Robertson launched his solo career with 1987’s Robbie Robertson album. He released five more solo albums, the last of which was 2019’s Sinematic, and forged a prolific artistic relationship with Scorsese, scoring 14 of the director’s movies, including Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy, Gangs Of New York, The Wolf Of Wall Street and the upcoming Killers Of The Flower Moon. He sat out The Band’s 1983 reunion, choosing not to appear on the three albums they released in the 1980s and 1990s. 

“I was a kid going: ‘My God, one of these days I want to write music and go out into the world. I want to do this and change that,’” he told Classic Rock in 2019. “I had all of these big dreams, and I think some people felt challenged by that. People would say to me: ‘You’re just a dreamer. Everyone talks about this stuff, but those kinds of things don’t happen for people like us. You’re gonna end up working down the street, just like me. You’re gonna get your heart broken. Most of the people round here just end up in prison, so you might as well get used to the idea.’

“So part of that is crushing, and the other part of it is: ‘Oh yeah? I’ll show you a thing or two.‘ I think I was able to hold my chin up and say: “I’m on a mission. I’m moving on. And if you look for me, there’s only going to be dust.’”

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