The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Dead at 80

The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Dead at 80

Photo Credit: Don Dixon

Robbie Robertson, perhaps best known as the leader and principal songwriter for the Canadian-American ensemble The Band, passed away today, August 9, at this home in Los Angeles. The artist is known for his extensive work in the 1970s alongside Bob Dylan and later with filmmaker Martin Scorsese. He was 80. 

News of the artist’s passing was confirmed by his longtime manager, Jared Levine, who issued this statement: “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.” 

Levine, who worked with Robertson for 34 years, continued: “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 Center.”

Robertson’s early life was spent in Toronto, though he frequented the Six Nations Reserve, where much of his maternal family resided. There, he learned to play guitar and was introduced to rock-and-roll and R&B by way of the radio. As a teenager, he began shadowing American singer Ronnie Hawkins and then Robertson joined the musician’s group known as the Hawks, which also included drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson. 

With the exception of Helm (on most dates), the aforementioned musicians joined Bob Dylan’s highly regarded touring band during his first electric run, which took place from 1965 through 1966. Eventually, they came together for the informal recording sessions called The Basement Tapes a year after capping the Dylan tour.

During The Basement Tapes period, Robertson and others honed in on their desired sound, eventually securing a contract with Capitol Records, which led to The Band’s 1968 debut Music From Big Pink. Robertson penned four numbers on the initial LP, including “The Weight,” “Chest Fever,” “Caledonia Mission,” and “To Kingdom Come.” 

Their sophomore set, self-titled and released in 1969, brought forth a prolific period of creation for The Band. During the early to mid-1970s, they released notable studio sets such as Stage Fright, Cahoots, Moondog Matinee and Northern Lights – Southern Cross.

With tensions flaring for a variety of reasons, the group disbanded after their all-star 1976 Thanksgiving concert at San Francisco’s Winterland, which was captured through the lens of Scorsese and delivered as a 1978 documentary, known as The Last Waltz. The movie captured The Band’s talent and prowess, affirming their live energy for generations to come. 

In the years following the ensemble’s split, Robertson made time for a musical career while also exploring acting and screenwriting. He released his self-titled debut LP in 1986 and followed up with the release of Storyville in 1991, which included guest appearances from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond and others. The musician remained friends with Scorsese, and the pair shared creative endeavors, with Robertson contributing music to films such as Raging Bull, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman, and more. 

Robertson was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame in 1994 and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters in 1997. Most recently, Robertson created the score for Scorsese’s impending release, Killer of the Flower Moon, due out later this year. 

Read Robertson’s 2020 interview with Relix here

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