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Perhaps best known for his work with The Band, Robbie Robertson started out on his musical path at an early age. He is half-Mohawk, from his mother’s side, and he spent many summers on the Six Nations Reservations as a child. There he learned to play guitar.
Robertson dropped out of school at 16 to pursue a life in music. After playing with some local groups, he went to work for rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins as part of his backup band, the Hawks. Hawkins recorded two early tracks by Robertson—”Hey Boba Lu” and “Someone Like You.” Touring extensively with Hawkins, Robertson eventually branched out with some of the other Hawks: drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson. They played as Levon & the Hawks for a time.
Robertson and his Hawks bandmates joined Bob Dylan for his first electric tour in the mid-1960s, which drew mostly negative reactions from Dylan’s acoustic-folk fans. Helm left the band for a time, but he later rejoined Robertson and the rest of group near Woodstock, New York, while Dylan recuperated from a motorcycle accident. Living in a pink house in West Saugerties, Robertson and the others began working on some songs together.
The results of these sessions were amazing. Together they had created their own roots rock sound, a hybrid of country, folk, blues and rock. As Robertson later explained to the music blog Spinner, “The Band was rebelling against the rebellion. The rebellion went to a place where it became too obvious, too trendy, like you were just following the pack. So it was our choice to get off the bandwagon—no pun intended—and do things that were in our background and what was the most honest thing to do. In our music, there were all these influences from Canada to gospel music to the blues to rhythm and blues to rockabilly—everything was part of our gumbo.”
Their first album, Music from Big Pink (1968), was warmly received by critics. While the main vocals were usually provided by Helm, Manuel and Danko, Robertson sang lead on one of the album’s tracks, “To Kingdom Come.” The recording has been cited by other rock stars, such as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, as an important influence. With The Band, Robertson had dropped his wailing guitar method, striving for a more nuanced approach to the music. “I wanted to develop a guitar style where phrases and lines get there just in the nick of time, like with Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper,” he later told Guitar Player magazine. “Subtleties mean so much, and there is a stunning beauty in them.”
Commercial success soon followed with their 1969 self-titled release, which featured such songs as “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Behind the scenes, Robertson penned many of the group’s songs and was praised for his storytelling abilities. The group became part of music history as one of the acts at the legendary Woodstock Festival held that year.
The Band continued to enjoy great popularity with their subsequent albums, including 1970’s Stage Fright and the live recording Rock of Ages, released in 1972. They reunited with Dylan for a 1974 tour. While on the road together, Dylan and The Band recorded the concert album Before the Flood, which proved to be another big hit.
Robertson was growing tired of the group and of life on the road. In 1976, The Band called it quits, and their final show was an all-star salute to the groundbreaking rock act. Muddy Waters, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris were just a few of the music stars who participated in this farewell concert. Martin Scorsese filmed the event and later released it as The Last Waltz. Robertson and Scorsese became good friends during the project.
Even before the group’s breakup, other band members took issue with Robertson over the songwriting credits. Some felt that he claimed ownership of songs that were done collaboratively and that he should have shared the credits. This helped fuel a feud between Robertson and Helm that lasted for decades.
Even before The Band officially split, Robertson had begun to go his own way. He produced Neil Diamond’s 1976 album, Beautiful Noise. Delving into the film world, Robertson tried his hand at acting with 1980’s Carny, with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster. He also helped create the music for the movie.
Working with Martin Scorsese, Robertson served as a producer and arranger for the soundtrack to the boxing classic Raging Bull (1980), starring Robert De Niro. The pair have joined forces numerous times since then, with Robertson helping Scorsese out on such films as The King of Comedy (1983) and The Color of Money (1986).
In late 1987, Robertson launched his solo career with a self-titled album. The new recording featured appearances by Peter Gabriel and members of the rock band U2. While the album sold well, Robertson didn’t achieve the same level of commercial success he had experienced with The Band. He then turned his focus to the sounds of New Orleans for 1991’s Storyville, which garnered him two Grammy Award nominations.
Robertson returned to his roots for 1994’s Music for the Native Americans. As he told Guitar Player, “I wanted to do something that didn’t conform to the stereotype of Native American music. Everything on this album—the stories, rhythms, and harmonies—evolves out of some tradition, but we weren’t trying to be old-fashioned.” Native American music also informed his next work, 1998’s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy. Additionally, he created a documentary for television on the subject, Making a Noise: A Native American Journey with Robbie Robertson.
Around this time, Robertson reunited briefly with his former bandmates for The Band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eric Clapton gave the honor to The Band in a 1994 ceremony, which Levon Helm decided to skip. Accepting the honor on behalf of the group, Robertson thanked Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan and many others in his speech.
Returning to acting, Robertson appeared in the 1995 drama The Crossing Guard, with Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. Robertson also worked with Martin Scorsese on the soundtrack for Scorsese’s crime drama Casino that same year.
In 2000, Robertson put his musical know-how to work for DreamWorks Records. There he served as creative executive and signed such acts as Nelly Furtado and Boomkats to the label. Robertson also worked hard on preserving The Band’s musical legacy around this time. He handled the reissuing of the group’s recordings, overseeing the remastering and remixing of all their songs.
In 2011, Robertson released his latest recording, How to Become Clairvoyant, breaking a 13-year absence from the music scene. The project started out as a joint session with Eric Clapton, in which they were “hanging out and playing a little music and telling stories.” The pair came up with some song ideas, but their schedules took them in different directions. Robertson later revisited the material, which inspired his new album. On the recording, Clapton served as a creative cohort, performing on seven of the songs. Robertson also had some help from such performers as Trent Reznor and Steve Winwood.
On the album, Robertson explored some personal topics. He sang about his time with The Band in “This Is Where I Get Off,” which seems imply that they all “drifted off course” and that their enormous fame contributed to the split. In an interview with Maclean’s, Robertson said that he and his former bandmates matured “in different directions. Everybody grows in their own way. And so you start seeing things through different lenses.”
In 2012, Robertson managed to make peace with Levon Helm. The pair had already lost two bandmates, Richard Manuel to suicide and Rick Danko to a heart attack, by this time. Robertson visited Helm in the hospital shortly before the latter’s death that April.
Robertson lives in Los Angeles with wife Dominique. They have three children, Alexandra, Delphine and Sebastian.