Robbie Robertson 1943 - 2023

Published on 10 August 2023

 Yesterday, the world said goodbye to Robbie Robertson, legendary Canadian musician and one of the last remaining members of The Band.

Born in Toronto in 1943 as Jaime Royal Robertson, his first experience of life as a performer was actually with a travelling carnival as a freak show assistant. He was playing in bands as early as 13 years old, and changed his name to Robbie after seeing the Leslie Neilson sci-fi flick Forbidden Planet and loving the character Robbie the Robot.

  

As a pro musician, his most significant early gig was as a member of The Hawks, who played as a backing band to singer Ronnie Hawkins. As a Hawk, Robertson travelled the US and Canada as lead guitarists with future Band members Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. Apart from Robertson and Hudson, the other band members all also sang vocals, so when they elected to leave Ronnie Hawkins’ employ in 1963, there was something of a revolving mic policy, with the band allowing time for each vocalist.

 

Backing Dylan

Briefly changing to Levon and the Hawks, the group continues to tour and were picked up by fan Bob Dylan to play as his backing band. This was a major moment for the acoustic folk star, and made worldwide headlines as he ‘went electric’, earning himself accusations of being ‘Judas’ from his own audience members. This period - and much more before and after - were well chronicled in Robertson’s autobiography, Testament, which was released in 2016. Dylan, for his part, helped his fellow musicians navigate their new found fame and encouraged them to write their own material up in the Catskill mountains at a place known as Big Pink. The results were to change musical history.

 

The Band

Without The Band, there would be no Americana genre. It’s actually difficult to overestimate their influence on American music, even though most of the members were from Canada! Blending rootsy country with other traditional genres and adding some funk for good measure, The Band created a sound that was immediately olde-worlde and dazzled with magic. With their three lead vocalists (including singing drummer Levon Helm) taking the limelight, Robertson was still seen as the de facto leader thanks to his songwriting and musical direction.

 

They made a brace of hit records throughout the late 60s and early 70s before deciding to bow out in style by getting Martin Scorsese to film their final gig - a formal dinner/dance evening - called The Last Waltz. They had friends on hand to help out, so the movie contains performances by The Band alongside Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Dr John, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and, for old times’ sake, Ronnie Hawkins. The Last Waltz is essential viewing for all fans of American music. Guitar fans will want to check out Robbie’s Last Waltz Stratocaster, which was literally dipped in bronze for the performance! Fender’s Custom Shop honoured this moment a few years back with a special replica, which is easily one of the coolest Strats we’ve ever seen.

 

 

After The Last Waltz

That was supposed to be the end for The Band, and  for Robertson at least, it was (after a couple more years). The other members elected to continue without him, and sadly, the remainder of the Band’s story is mired in tragedy.

For Robertson, however, he was able to release a series of solo records and also collaborate on numerous occasions with his old Last Waltz colleague Martin Scorsese, who used Robertson as his musical consultant/supervisor on many films including Goodfellas and Shutter Island.

Robertson’s last work included his aforementioned book and musical supervision on Scorsese's movie The Irishman. Preferring not to tour after the Band split up, he was only ever sporadically seen with a guitar in his hands during his last decades. That said, his influence over generations of musicians has been tremendous, and his vision continues to inspire to this day.

 

Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson OC

5th July 1943 - 9th August 2023

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Ray

Features Editor, Warehouse

I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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