Robbie Robertson, the lead guitarist and main songwriter of The Band, has died at the age of 80 after a long illness, his manager said on Wednesday.
The group profoundly influenced popular music in the 1960s and 70s, initially as a support band for Bob Dylan in his “Going Electric” tours of 1965-1966 when he shocked fans by switching to the electric guitar at the height of his popularity as a folk singer-songwriter.
The Canadians who captured the essence of America
Born on July 5, 1943 in Toronto, Canada, in a family with Mohawk and Jewish roots, Robertson dropped out of high school to follow his dreams as a musician.
After working with traveling carnivals in his early teenage years, Robertson joined and started a variety of bands, including The Hawks, the backing band of rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, which he joined at the age of 16. It is there that he eventually met the musicians that would form The Band.
While The Band forged the sound of a music genre known as Americana, along with Robertson, three other band members — Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel — were Canadian. Their sound was anchored by Arkansas drummer, Levon Helm.
Their 1968 debut album as The Band, “Music from Big Pink,” was seen as revolutionary for its storytelling authenticity, and for its sound that captured the essence of American music by blending country, blues, gospel, folk, gospel and rockabilly.
Their second album from 1969, titled simply “The Band,” is another acclaimed classic of American rock. Eric Clapton and George Harrison are among the musicians who said they were profoundly influenced by their sound at the time.
‘The Last Waltz’: Launching a tight collaboration with Martin Scorsese
Their 1976 farewell concert in San Francisco was captured by Martin Scorsese’s 1978 movie “The Last Waltz.” The star-studded show, which featured Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Ringo Starr and Muddy Waters, is hailed as one of the greatest documentary concert films ever made.
It launched a longstanding collaboration between Robertson and Scorsese, and the musician contributed to many of the filmmaker’s works, from “Raging Bull” and “The King of Comedy,” to “The Irishman” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
“Robbie Robertson was one of my closest friends, a constant in my life and my work,” Scorsese said of The Band frontman in a statement. “I could always go to him as a confidante. A collaborator. An advisor. I tried to be the same for him.”
Scorsese added in his tribute that Robertson’s music played a central role in the life of “millions of people,” and described his songs as seemingly coming “from the deepest place at the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys.”
Edited by: Louisa Schaefer