Robbie Robertson – The Soul of a Musician

Robbie Robertson, most recognized for leading the ’70s Rock group, The Band, and his work with Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese, sadly passed away after a long illness on Wednesday August 9, 2023 at the age of 80.

Born Jaime Royal “Robbie” Robertson on July 5, 1943, his mother was Rosemarie Dolly Chrysler, a Cayuga and Mohawk woman who was raised on the Six Nations Reserve southwest of Toronto, Ontario. Robertson was an only child who became a self taught musician. Having a passion for it, at an early age he began learning guitar from relatives during his summer visits to the reservation.

He would go on to write classic hit songs as an inventor of the Americana music genre, create music soundtracks and earn numerous accolades and awards. Not only this, but he would not only be the primary songwriter/guitarist for The Band who penned classic hits such as; “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and many others, but he was also a pathfinder for Native American music.

The Band / Capitol (1969)
The Last Waltz / Warner Bros. (1978)

Formed in Toronto, Ontario in 1967, The Band was a Canadian-American Rock band consisting of Canadians Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, American Levon Helm, and of course, Robbie Robertson. Quite unique, The Band combined elements of Americana, Folk, Rock, Jazz, Country, and R&B, influencing musicians such as; George Harrison, Elton John, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton and Wilco. Solidifying their impact, Robertson and The Band were inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in 1989, but also The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few later in 1994.

This in itself would be enough of a career, but following The Band, Robertson went on to enjoy a successful solo career, with six solo albums including two featuring Native American musicians. In 1998, at the inaugural Native American Music Awards, Robertson performed live and was honored for his Lifetime Achievements.

Proud of his heritage, in 1994 Robertson returned to his Mohawk roots, forming a Native American group the Red Road Ensemble for Music for the Native Americans (1994), a collection of songs that accompanied a PBS television documentary series. A handful of years later in 1998 he released a follow up solo recording entitled Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, which took a closer look at native music traditions. For those wondering, the album’s title comes from an experience when Robertson was referred to as “Red Boy,” by several bullies when he was a child.

Robbie Robertson / Geffen (1987)
Contact from the Underworld of Redboy / EMI (1998)

Still active, prior to his death, Robertson had just completed soundtrack work on Martin Scorsese’s soon to be released Killers of the Flower Moon movie; marking their fourteenth film music collaboration together. The film, due out in October of 2023 is about members of the Osage Native American tribe of Osage County, Oklahoma, who are murdered after oil is found on their land, in the 1920s.

Having a long history together, Robertson also worked on Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Gangs of New York (2002), and Casino (1995) after The Band’s legendary 1976 farewell concert that was made into a 1978 documentary, The Last Waltz. In their final concert, The Band was joined by more than a dozen special guests, including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood and Neil Young. Filmed by director Martin Scorsese, it has been hailed as one of the greatest concert films of all time. Additionally, Robertson’s personal story with The Band was also captured in the 2019 documentary Once Were Brothers.

Following the announcement of his death, Rolling Stone called Robertson, “A Master Storyteller.The NY Times referred to him as a, ”Songwriter who captured the American spirit.” Furthermore, Scorsese remembered Robertson as “one of my closest friends, a constant in my life and my work.

According to an announcement from Robbie Robertson’s manager of 34 years, Jared Levine, “Robbie was surrounded by his family at the time of his death, including his wife, Janet, his ex-wife, Dominique, her partner Nicholas, and his children Alexandra, Sebastian, Delphine, and Delphine’s partner Kenny. He is also survived by his grandchildren Angelica, Donovan, Dominic, Gabriel and Seraphina. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Six Nations of the Grand River to support a new Woodland Cultural Center.

A sorrowful loss to the music world, there is no question that Robbie Robertson’s musical legacy will live forever. 

Feature photograph credit: Don Dixon

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