Canadian music icon Robbie Robertson is singing with angels

Robbie Robertson, 1943 - 2023, image excerpted from the cover of "Testimony: The musical odyssey of Robbie Robertson."

By Terry Lusty, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

(ANNews) – The last member of the much-heralded group, The Band, has left Planet Earth.

Jaime Royal Robertson, better-known as Robbie Robertson, is gone. Gone to Big Sky Country to join the likes of other huge legends in the music industry: people like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis and a raft of other icons – all giants in their own right. They each put their own indelible stamp on the music scene and, indeed, on music history.

Robertson, at age 80, passed away August 9, 2023, surrounded by family members after a lengthy bout of pancreatic cancer, according to American media sources. He was a hero in Indian Country and well beyond.

Along with the other greats, he was at the heart and soul of a generation that mined, defined, shaped and altered an era of generational musicology in the genres of folk, country, roots, gospel and blues.

It was a time when America was struggling to find some sense of self-identity while mired in an encompassing cloud of smoke (pot) and drugs (heroin). It was a changing time, a transitional period during which the hippie movement, free love and individuality prevailed.

It was also a time when a young eastern Canadian of Jewish and Mohawk/Cayuga parentage was feeling his own way around – establishing himself in his recently-adopted adult world which, co-incidentally, included his passion for music. Not knowing quite where and how he fit into the scheme of things,

It was in the early 1960’s that Robertson hooked up with one of Canada’s foremost entertainers. That man was the legendary Manitoban, Ronnie Hawkins and his band, The Hawks. By and large, the popular rockabilly group performed mostly around the honky tonks and pubs of fast-paced Toronto where Robertson lived. It was a natural fit, so he threw in with the group.

But Robertson tired of the gigs and within a few years, an inner desire drove him to move on to other pastures.

So it happened that he picked up three other Canadian musicians and songwriters to form his own group. They were: Rick Danko (singer/songwriter), Garth Hudson (multi-musician) and, Richard Manuel (keyboards). He also added Arkansan drummer, Levon Helm. The new group struggled but managed until the latter 1960s when they were recruited as backup for a then-rising artist by the name of Bob Dylan. Dylan, at the time, had been added as a featured entertainer for a highly publicized concert labelled Woodstock. It was terrific exposure for Dylan – and also, for Robertson and his band.

Both he and Dylan were talented songwriters as well as self-taught musicians who got along well with one another. Quickly, Robertson established himself as the group’s lead guitarist and songwriter. Following Woodstock, they continued as backup to Dylan and, consequently, concert goers began referring to them as “the band,” meaning Dylan’s band. In the process, the name stuck and the group went on to adopt and be known throughout music’s circles as, The Band.

In the late ’60s, they put together three albums – Music from Big Pink (1968), The Band (1969), and Stage Fright (1970). A few of their better-known singles were: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Up On Cripple Creek, The Weight, and It Makes No Difference.

They toured for a while with Dylan but eventually split and hit the road to tour on their own. Occasionally, they’d regroup to back some of Dylan’s concerts. In ’74. for example, they helped Dylan in a 40-show tour which also resulted in a later album, Planet Waves. In 1976, he worked tirelessly, helping produce a San Francisco concert at the Winterland Ballroom that included such luminaries as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, and others.

Dylan and Robertson remained close friends. And Dylan truly admired Robertson’s talents. In fact, he once proclaimed that Robertson, “was the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into!” And Robertson always availed himself to assist Dylan when called upon.

Aside from their influence on the general music scene, Robertson and The Band were also an influence on such world-renowned icons as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Elton John and many more. At one time, Clapton left his very successful group, Cream, to travel to the U.S.A. with an intense desire to join up with The Band. It never happened though; it wasn’t in the cards.

Speaking of greatness, many of Dylan’s and Robertson’s compositions were covered by high profile icons in the industry, people such as Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, among others.

When The Band split up in the mid-70s, Robertson remained very active and it regrouped in the ’80s to back Robertson as a solo artist. He produced a debut solo album in 1986, made another album in ’91 and helped produced others for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Grateful Dead, Neil Diamond and Ringo Star. His last solo album, Sinematic, was released in 2019.

In 1994 The Band was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

Renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese produced a documentary entitled The Last Waltz that featured The Band. He followed that with a 1991 documentary about the American music scene, entitled, Once Were Brothers. It’s been subject to a lot of airing on TV stations and particularly on APTN television over the last couple of years. Needless to say, Robertson played a big role in that production. How involved on projects together were the two? Consider this: Robertson developed musical scores for many of his established productions including: Casino, The Color of Money, Gangs of New York, Killers of the Flower Moon, Raging Bull, and Wolf of Wall Street. One repeatable compliment about Robertson that came from Scorsese is, “He was a giant [and] his effect on the art form was profound and lasting.”

As for Dylan, he wasn’t the only artist to lean on and rely on Robertson’s talents. After The Band broke up and Robertson toured solo, he was known to often help out his former bandmates with special projects of their own – concerts, recordings and other productions.

No, he never really left the music business. He was always dabbling in it in some manner or other. After all, it really and truly was his passion.

Robertson leaves behind: First wife, Dominique Bourgois and three children – Alexandra, Sebastien, and Delphine, and second wife, Janet Zuccarini, and five grandchildren.

R.I.P. Robbie.

Be the first to comment on "Canadian music icon Robbie Robertson is singing with angels"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.