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RIP Robbie Robertson. He was 80.

Robbie Robertson, one of the most important songwriters, guitarists, and performers to come out of Canada, has died at the age of 80 after a long illness. He passed away today (August 9) in Los Angeles.

I met Robbie a bunch of times, most often around Canadian Music Week where he was a frequent guest. I also met and interviewed him when he co-wrote a children’s book. Every single time he was pleasant and engaging with zero rock star diva-ness about him. It was easy to forget that he was one of the most important songwriters of the 1960s and 70s.

Robbie came from the Six Nations Reserve in Hamilton–a rare Indigenous rock star, but born in Toronto as Jaime Royal Robertson–something that everyone who has ever seen the excellent documentary, Once We Were Brothers. It tells the story of The Band, who grew from being a bunch of teenagers playing with Arkansas refugee Ronnie Hawkins to Bob Dylan’s back-up band to The Band proper, a group responsible for creating the genre we now called Americana. Not bad for a group that was 80% Canadian.

Robbie was the band’s chief songwriter and musical director. Their best songs were Robertson creations: “Chest Fever,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Stage Fright,” and more. Those first two albums, Songs from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969) were especially important and influential.

After The Band, Robbie continued making solo music, acting, and accepting numerous awards: Canadian Juno Hall of Fame (1989) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1994), Canada’s Walk of Fame (2003), Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2011), Canada’s Walk of Fame (2018), and more.

His good buddy was Martin Scorsese, the director of The Last Waltz in 1976. They did 14 film projects together (including Raging Bull, The Color of Money, Casino, The Departed, Shutter Island, Gangs of New York), most recently the still-unreleased Killers of the Flower Moon.

Some cool facts about Robbie:

  • Robbie’s father was Jewish. The man was a gambler and was killed in a car accident before Robbie was born. His mom was a member of the Mohawk nation. After he was born, he grew up on the Six Nations Reserve west of Hamilton which is where his mother was born and raised.
  • Robbie first picked up a guitar at age 10. He was taught to play country songs by those on the reserve.
  • He loved old-time rock’n’roll radio. When he was a kid, he was always tuning in stations from across the border.
  • Robbie worked as a carnival barker and at a freak show. Now you know where the song “Life is a Carnival” and the movie Carny (with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster) came from.
  • He was just 16 when he joined Ronnie Hawkins in The Hawks.
  • In 1994, there was a $3 million offer for Robbie to get back together with Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson for the first time since The Last Waltz (Richard Manuel had died by then).
  • He had a difficult relationship with Helm over songwriting credits and The Band’s financials. In the end, before Helm died in 2012, he and Robbie reconciled.
  • Robbie performed at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
  • In 2011, his image was on a series of Canadian stamps.

Robertson’s family says: “In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Six Nations of the Grand River to support the building of their new cultural center.”

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38403 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “RIP Robbie Robertson. He was 80.

  • The Band was the best group of musicians to come out of Canada.

    Period.

    Full stop.

    Reply

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