Robbie Robertson’s unique guitar style on songs ushered in an era of classic bluesy rock that influenced numerous musicians.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Robbie Robertson joined Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band, The Hawks, in 1960 which would eventually include future Bandmates Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. His unique guitar style on songs such as Who Do You Love ushered in an era of classic bluesy rock and influenced numerous musicians. In 1965, The Hawks backed Bob Dylan on his maiden electric world tour and the next year Robertson sculpted the distinctive guitar solos on Dylan’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’. Other recordings with Dylan would later be issued as ‘The Basement Tapes’.
In 1968, The Hawks became The Band and its debut album, ‘Music From Big Pink’, marked a watershed in rock history, boasting the Robertson-penned classic The Weight. The next year, The Band performed at the Woodstock Festival before releasing an eponymous album that included the Robertson-composed Up On Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. The Band became the first North American rock group to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
‘Stage Fright’ (1970) with the title track and The Shape I’m In; ‘Cahoots’ (1971) with Life Is A Carnival and the double live set ‘Rock Of Ages’ (1972) followed. In 1973, The Band performed before the largest rock concert audience in history (an estimated 650,000 people) at the Watkins Glen Festival in New York. 1974 saw the release of the retro collection ‘Moondog Matinee’ and, after backing Dylan on ‘Planet Waves’, The Band co-headlined and backed him on a much-heralded reunion tour which resulted in ‘Before The Flood’. The Band’s 1975 album ‘Northern Lights – Southern Cross’, which included Ophelia and It Makes No Difference, followed.
In 1976, The Band bade farewell to live performing with the gala ‘The Last Waltz’ concert on Thanksgiving night. Guests such as Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Morrison, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell joined the group at San Francisco’s Winterland. The concert film, directed by Martin Scorsese, and a three-record box set, were released in 1978 and are considered landmarks in each medium. ‘Islands’ (1977) was the final Band studio album with Robertson. He then produced Neil Diamond’s ‘Love At The Greek’ live album (the previous year he helmed Diamond’s ‘Beautiful Noise’).
Long fascinated with film, Robertson co-wrote, produced, appeared in and composed the source music for ‘Carny’ (1979), starring Gary Busey and Jodie Foster. One of the first rock ‘n’ rollers to seriously engage movie music, he followed up by creating and producing music for Scorsese’s ‘Raging Bull’ (1980), ‘King Of Comedy’ (1983) and ‘The Color Of Money’ (1986), which included It’s In The Way That You Use It co-written with Clapton. For Taylor Hackford’s film saluting Chuck Berry, ‘Hail, Hail Rock & Roll’, he was enlisted as creative consultant.
Robertson made his solo album debut with a 1987 self-titled effort featuring guests Peter Gabriel and U2 and the track Somewhere Down The Crazy River. Certified gold and Grammy-nominated, the album swept the JUNOs. When The Band was inducted into the Juno Hall Of Fame, Robertson reunited with the group for an awards ceremony performance. His second solo album, ‘Storyville’ (1991), featured some of New Orleans’ most respected musicians and earned two more Grammy nominations. Meanwhile, his Broken Arrow became a major hit for Rod Stewart.
In 1994, The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and performed live at the ceremony. On the film front, Robertson scored Barry Levinson’s ‘Jimmy Hollywood’ and acted in ‘The Crossing Guard’, starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Sean Penn. On record, ‘Music For The Native Americans’ from Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble contained songs from the soundtrack to the highly regarded television mini-series.
Robertson continued his multimedia activities in 1995 by producing the soundtrack album for Scorsese’s ‘Casino’ and being the subject of ‘Going Home’, a Disney Channel documentary highlighting his revisiting the moments, people and places of his musical past.
The next year, executive soundtrack producer Robertson heard a demo of Change The World and sent it to Clapton as a suggestion for ‘Phenomenon’, starring John Travolta. He enlisted Babyface to produce and Change The World won Grammys for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Also in 1997, Robertson received a prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters.
His fourth solo album, the Grammy-nominated ‘Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy’ (1998), inspired the one-hour PBS documentary ‘Robbie Robertson: Making A Noise’, which took viewers along on his journey back to the Six Nations Reservation, where his mother was born and raised and where Robertson spent his summers first learning to play guitar.
Robertson has since consulted for, produced or supervised music for numerous films, including ‘American Beauty’ (1999), ‘Any Given Sunday’ (1999), ‘Gangs Of New York’ (2002), ‘The Departed’ (2006) and ‘Shutter Island’ (2009). In 2008, The Band was honoured with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.