Storyteller, songwriter, guitarist, musicologist, singer: throughout a career spanning the 1950s through the present day, Jaime Royal "Robbie" Robertson wore many hats. The Toronto-born musician joined his first band in 1956 and attracted the attention of Ronnie "The Hawk" Hawkins in 1959. Hawkins liked what he heard, and recorded two of the teenaged Robertson's songs in 1959. Before long, he was playing in Hawkins' band alongside fellow Canadians Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, and American Levon Helm. That band would go their own way in 1964 - and soon, that band would become The Band. The rest is music history. Though the original Band split in 1976, Robbie Robertson remained active in music, forging an equally significant collaboration with filmmaker Martin Scorsese. With Robertson's death at the age of 80, one of rock's most original figures has passed, though his influence will surely remain.
"This film should be played loud!" read a title card at the beginning of 1978's The Last Waltz, Scorsese's document of The Band's starry final concert. But The Band's music wasn't loud like, say, The Rolling Stones' or Led Zeppelin's. It was a joyful, rustic, and rootsy noise. The Band's music was steeped in the traditions of folk, blues, country, and gospel, but spoke directly to the youth transforming "rock and roll" into "rock" in the late 1960s.
The Band surely learned a few tricks from Bob Dylan, for whom they served as backing band on his historic 1965-66 tour. They heard the brickbats hurled at Dylan night after night for going electric, but that only emboldened them. Robertson (who added guitar to Dylan's masterwork Blonde on Blonde) and his compatriots shared a Woodstock house with Dylan in summer 1967, leading to the treasure trove of recordings later known as "The Basement Tapes." Though the lion's share of the songs were Dylan's, some were The Band's, including Robertson's. The nominal leader of the group, he became their primary songwriter though not their primary lead singer.
The Band's 1968 debut Music from Big Pink was a fantasia of the American South from a band that was almost entirely Canadian; only drummer Helm was a bona fide southerner, having been born in Arkansas. Still, the group soaked up the influences that defined the sound of America, all rendered with the craft that informed pop. It remains a bedrock of Americana despite its northern origins. Dylan's singular influence was naturally felt, too. Although he didn't play on Big Pink, he contributed three songs. One of Robertson's four compositions, "The Weight," became the album's most famous track and The Band's most significant anthem. Though it never charted any higher than No. 63 in the U.S., it inspired successful cover versions from every corner of the music world: including from Jackie DeShannon (No. 55), Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations (No. 46), and Aretha Franklin (No. 19). Robertson and The Band had tapped into something truly universal. These were songs which couldn't be pigeonholed. While Big Pink was a response to, and an antidote for, the sounds of hard rock and psychedelia threatening to overtake the airwaves, heaviness wasn't entirely absent from Big Pink, either. It was both progressive and old-fashioned - in other words, timeless.
Robertson would go on to create more gripping stories and colorful characters on epochal songs including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Shape I'm In," "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show," and "Life Is a Carnival," the latter co-written with Helm and Danko. Robbie and his bandmates graciously stepped back into the role of sidemen for Dylan's 1974 Planet Waves; a joint tour the same year documented on the album Before the Flood featured both Dylan and The Band's songs.
In 1976, Robbie Robertson teamed with singer-songwriter Neil Diamond to produce what might be Diamond's finest LP, the stylistically expansive, conceptual Beautiful Noise. Robertson co-wrote the ballad "Dry Your Eyes," which Diamond would lead during The Last Waltz, and played guitar on a number of cuts. He continued his collaboration with Diamond as producer of the double-platinum live album Love at the Greek. Over the years, Robertson would also lend his talents to such friends as Jesse Winchester, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, and Libby Titus.
Though The Band had splintered after seven studio LPs and two live albums including The Last Waltz - memories differ as to whether the split was intended to become permanent, as it did (at least where Robertson was concerned) - Robertson forged another lasting partnership: this time with Martin Scorsese. In addition to contributing original music, Robertson worked with Scorsese to select the music heard in the director's seminal Raging Bull. Their relationship (with Robertson serving as music supervisor, music producer, composer, or any combination of the three) would continue for fourteen films including the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon. Outside of his work with Scorsese, he produced, co-wrote, co-scored, and acted in the 1980 MGM drama Carny.
Robbie re-emerged as a solo artist in 1986 with his self-titled Geffen Records debut. Welcoming such guest artists as U2, Peter Gabriel, Maria McKee, and the Bodeans, as well as Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson found the artist looking forward. This was no rehash of The Band; the sound honed with co-producer Daniel Lanois was sleek and contemporary. The result was a hit album that yielded hit singles "Showdown at Big Sky," "Sweet Fire of Love," and "Somewhere Down the Crazy River." Four more solo LPs followed, the most recent of which was 2019's Sinematic. He also remained a generous collaborator to Tom Petty, Maria McKee, Chuck Berry, and his friends in The Red Road Ensemble with whom he released a 1994 album (doubling as a soundtrack to a documentary film) inspired by his Mohawk heritage.
Robbie Robertson refused to be pigeonholed, with his later albums taking in electronica, trip-hop, and dance influences. His autobiography, Testimony, was released in 2016. In 2020, he reflected on his life of music to NME. "I could see some satisfaction in his eyes," Robertson remembered of the moment he first played Bob Dylan "The Weight." "Several times in my life, doors have opened and I've been able to say, 'See! I told you I'd do this!'" How lucky we are that Robbie Robertson did all that.