By Matthew Lewis in Los Angeles
ROBBIE Robertson, the guitarist and main songwriter in The Band, the Canadian-American group known for songs including “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, has died at the age of 80.
Robertson, who left his Toronto home at 16 to pursue his rock’n’roll dreams, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles after a long illness, Robertson’s manager of 34 years, Jared Levine, said in a statement.
“Robbie was surrounded by his family at the time of his death,” the statement added.
The Band included four Canadians – Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel – and was anchored by an Arkansas drummer, Levon Helm. Originally dubbed The Hawks as the backing band for rockabilly wild man Ronnie Hawkins, they gained attention supporting Bob Dylan on his Going Electric tours of 1965-1966.
After changing their name to The Band and rebasing in Woodstock, New York, they became one of the most respected groups in rock. Their 1976 farewell concert in San Francisco was the basis of Martin Scorsese’s 1978 movie “The Last Waltz.”
The Band had a unique chemistry. Known for their vocal harmonies, they had three excellent singers in Helm, bassist Danko and pianist Manuel. Organist and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson was also crucial.
“They were the goods,” Robertson wrote of his four band mates in his 2016 autobiography, Testimony.
“This band was a real band. No slack in the high wire here. Everybody held up his end with plenty to spare.”
“The impact of The Band’s first album can’t be exaggerated,” critic Greil Marcus wrote in 2000, referring to their 1968 debut album, “Music from Big Pink”. It contained “The Weight” and Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”, among others.
Their 1969 sophomore album, titled simply “The Band,” was even better. With their frontiersman look and unique blend of folk, rock, country, soul and gospel, The Band influenced the likes of Eric Clapton, Elton John, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, and generations of later musicians who played music that was by then called “Americana.”
Their music harked back to an earlier America, reflected in such song titles as “Across the Great Divide”, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.”
Robertson became infatuated with the guitar early on and gained a reputation as a guitar hot shot during his time with the Hawks. “Rolling Stone” magazine eventually ranked him No. 59 on its 2015 list of 100 Greatest Guitarists. His unique guitar style was displayed to great effect on such Band songs as “Jawbone” and “Smoke Signal”.
In February 2022, Variety reported, citing sources, that Robertson sold his music publishing catalogue to a firm called Iconoclast for about $US25 million ($A38 million).
After all the highs and lows, Robertson looked back at his Band mates with love and affection.
“Through all the turbulence, I am left with such a deep appreciation for my journey,” he wrote in his autobiography.
“This shining path I’ve travelled being part of The Band – there will never be another like it. Such a gift, such talent, such pain, such madness… I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
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