NEW YORK—Robbie Robertson, guitarist and primary songwriter for the seminal rock group The Band, has died, his manager said in a statement. He was 80 years old.
As the leader of the Canadian-American group, Robertson penned The Band’s most iconic songs, including “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”
His manager said in a statement that Robertson was surrounded by family at the time of his death, which followed “a long illness.”
Prior to his work and leadership with The Band, Robertson was a key collaborator with none other than Bob Dylan, touring with him and playing on the “Blonde on Blonde” album.
Born on July 5, 1943, in Toronto, Canada, to Mohawk and Jewish roots, Robertson worked in traveling carnivals in his early teens, before joining and forming a variety of bands.
“I’ve been playing guitar for so long I don’t remember when I started,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1968. “I guess I got into rock and roll like everyone else.”
He joined rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band when he was just 16 years old, where he eventually met fellow musicians Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm.
The group formed a strong bond, becoming Dylan’s backing band in the mid-1960s for his infamous first electric tour.
They also played around with the icon on their heavily pirated “basement tapes.”
‘The Last Waltz’
After several name changes, the musicians became known as The Band.
Robertson’s historical compositions were masterly threads that evoked the wilds of America and the characters that colored them, and in particular focused on the American South.
“The Weight” is a regular on the greatest song lists of all time. A folk tune with country and gospel elements, as well as biblical allusions, it is considered a classic of the American songbook.
The group played Woodstock and recorded a series of albums including “Music from Big Pink”, “The Band” and “Cahoots”.
The Band broke up in 1976 with a farewell concert in San Francisco, immortalized in a film by director Martin Scorsese in “The Last Waltz.”
The film, released theatrically in 1978, has become known as a critically acclaimed pioneering rock documentary.
It also marked the beginning of Robertson’s longstanding collaboration and friendship with Scorsese, who hired the guitarist as a music supervisor on a number of his films, including “Casino” and “Gangs of New York.”
At the time of his death, Robertson had been working on the follow-up to his memoir, Testimony, and had just completed the music for Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, due for release this fall.
Hailing his friend as “a giant,” Scorsese called Robertson “a constant in my life and work.”
“Long before we met, his music played a central role in my life, mine and millions and millions of other people around the world. The Band’s music, and Robbie’s subsequent solo music, seemed to come from deep within the heart of this continent, its traditions, tragedies and joys,” Scorsese said in a statement.
“His effect on the art form was profound and lasting.”
Robertson did not tour again after “The Last Waltz,” but released a series of solo albums beginning in 1987, when he released “Robbie Robertson.”
He remained a beloved figure of American rock and folk music, both for his guitar skills and for his poetry.
“I thought of a couple of words that led to a couple more,” he told Rolling Stone in 1969, when asked how he wrote the classic “The Weight.”
“Next thing I know, I wrote the song,” Robertson continued. “We realized it was a simple song, and when it came up, we tried it out and recorded it three or four times.”
“We didn’t even know if we were going to use it.” /ra
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