Robbie Robertson, best known for his work as a member of the Band, died today in Los Angeles surrounded by family, according to his manager. “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.” He was 80.
Robertson grew up in Toronto. He learned music from his mother’s side of the family, who were Mohawk and lived on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. As a teenager, he met the lively Ronnie Hawkins and his group the Hawks on the bar band circuit around Toronto. Robertson took up with the group as a guitarist alongside Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson.
After Robertson and his other colleagues split from Hawkins, Bob Dylan recruited the group to be his backing band in 1965—including at his famed “gone electric” set at the Newport Folk Festival that year. The Band followed Dylan to Woodstock, New York, where they holed up in the house that lent the title to their 1968 debut Music from Big Pink, recorded what became The Basement Tapes, and picked up their name. Over the course of the next decade, Robertson and the Band developed a sound that blended the barroom rock of their Hawks days with the American folk-music revival.
Some of the Band’s biggest songs were “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” Music from Big Pink, 1969’s The Band, and 1970’s Stage Fright were critical and commercial hits, with Robertson taking the bulk of the songwriting credit and thus getting a larger share of the group’s money. Helm was consistently vocal in his claim that the majority of their songs had been written collaboratively and that Robertson’s publishing share was unfair. In the 2020 documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, Robertson—one of two living members of the band upon its release—claimed that the others had not contributed due to their drug use.
As the group grew exhausted of their time together with 1973’s Moondog Matinee and 1975’s Northern Lights – Southern Cross, the Band eventually decided to call it quits. Their final performance on Thanksgiving in 1976 was documented by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz, which was released in 1978 and is widely considered an all-time classic music documentary.
Robertson continued to work with the other members of the Band on side projects, occasionally joining them in the studio. Though the Band reunited in other iterations in the 1980s and 1990s Robertson did not participate. Before his death in 2012, drummer Levon Helm maintained that Robertson’s actions contributed to Richard Manuel’s death by suicide in 1986 and the substance abuse that contributed to Rick Danko’s death in 1999.
He maintained an active solo career through the same period, releasing his self-titled debut in 1986 and following it with Storyville in 1991. He made guest appearances on records by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ringo Starr, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Neil Diamond, and several others.
Robertson maintained a long-term relationship with Scorsese after The Last Waltz, contributing to films like Raging Bull, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman, and several others. In 2020, Scorsese produced Once Were Brothers, a documentary about the Band based mostly on Robertson’s accounts. Robertson’s final album was 2019’s Sinematic. Scorsese’s new movie Killers of the Flower Moon, due this year, was scored by Robertson.