Robbie Robertson, ‘The Band’ Lead Guitarist and Songwriter, Dies at 80

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was also known for his work with Bob Dylan

Robbie Robertson
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Robbie Robertson, singer and lead guitarist of The Band, has died. He was 80.

The news was confirmed by Robertson’s longtime manager, Jared Levine, who said he died in Los Angeles “after a long illness.”

A guitarist, bandleader, producer and composer who also wrote film scores for Martin Scorsese and served as a record executive, Robertson was best known for his stint in The Band, a group of four Canadians (including Ontario native Robertson) and one American who first met while playing backup for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins.

The group, which initially went by the name the Hawks, honed their craft in roadhouses and bars before striking out on their own. Eventually they worked as Bob Dylan’s backup band on the former folksinger’s raucous 1965 and 1966 tours, when uncomprehending audiences booed because they wanted to hear Dylan with an acoustic guitar rather than a rock band that helped give his songs a jolt of electricity and rage.

Following their stint with Dylan, which also included recording the epochal but long-unreleased “Basement Tapes,” The Band recorded their own debut album, 1968’s “Music From Big Pink.” The album came out at a time when the rock scene was getting increasingly psychedelic and elaborate, and led a return to American roots music that influenced a huge number of musicians who followed.

While the group included three magnificent lead singers — Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel — Robertson was its main songwriter, particularly after its first album. His work drew from a deep well of American country and blues, with haunted songs like “The Weight” carrying both timeless beauty and a bottomless mystery.

“Music isn’t necessarily made to last, and there’s always been disposable music,” Robertson told TheWrap in a 2013 interview that dealt partly with a new Band live album, partly with a children’s book he’d co-written about musical pioneers. “But there are always some people doing extraordinary work – work where you say, ‘Whoa, this could be around in a few years.’”

That quote could well describe the music of Robertson and his four bandmates: Danko, Helm, Manuel and gifted multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. They had a stormy run that included hits like “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” their music tapping into the myths and the rhythms of rural America even though all but Helm were Canadians. But substance abuse and ego took their toll, and the group split up shortly after its final, star-studded concert in 1976.

That show, “The Last Waltz,” which included guests Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Muddy Waters and many others, was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as a film in 1978.

The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. The group also received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. Robertson has been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

When The Band broke up in 1977 after seven studio albums, Robertson wrote music for “Carny” and for Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” “The King of Comedy” and “The Color of Money.” (The other members eventually reunited without him, carrying on until the deaths of Manuel in 1986 and Danko in 1999 made it impossible.)

Robertson began his solo career with “Robbie Robertson” in 1987 and released five other solo albums over the years. While his solo career wasn’t as successful commercially as his work with the Band, it allowed Robertson to explore more experimental territory, from the indigenous music of his Native American heritage to the dark instrumental textures of his 2019 album “Sinematic.”

Robertson’s most recent work included his 2016 memoir “Testimony” and the score for the 2019 Scorsese movie “The Irishman” and the upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“Robbie Robertson was one of my closest friends, a constant in my life and my work,” Scorsese said in a statement. “I could always go to him as a confidante. A collaborator.  An advisor. I tried to be the same for him.

“It goes without saying that he was a giant, that his effect on the art form was profound and lasting. There’s never enough time with anyone you love. And I loved Robbie.”

In 2019, the documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” had its world premiere as the opening-night film at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Robertson is survived by his wife, Janet; his ex-wife, Dominique; three children; and five grandchildren. According to his manager, Robertson was surrounded by his family at the time of his death. Garth Hudson, who just turned 86, is now the last surviving member of the Band.