By Karen Bliss
Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Robbie Robertson, former guitarist and principal songwriter in The Band, successful solo artist, film composer/producer, and author, celebrates his 80th birthday today (July 5), and the CSHF thought we’d celebrate him too.
Robertson grew up on the Six Nations Reserve, just outside Toronto. Before moving to the big city, he picked up the guitar when he was 10 years old and joined his first band, Little Caesar and the Consuls, at age 14 before forming Robbie and the Rhythm Chords (which became Robbie and the Robots). But it was his next band, The Suedes, which drew the attention of rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins in 1959 and cemented a mentorship, even though he was still a teen.
Robertson was part of his road crew and co-wrote a couple of songs for Hawkins. A year later, at 17, Robertson was recruited to play in his backing band, The Hawks.
After leaving Hawkins to pursue their own career, the band members accepted an offer to back Bob Dylan on his infamous electric tours, and later recorded “the basement tapes.” In 1968, The Band, as the American-Canadian line-up was now called, recorded its seminal debut album, Music From Big Pink, followed a year later with the equally ground-breaking self-titled album.
Inducted into the CSHF back in 2011, Robertson has been actively involved in a range of creative projects, most recently supporting the 2019 documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, partly based on his 2017 memoir, Testimony.
Below is a breakdown of just a sample of the things Robertson done throughout his 80 years.
The Hawks went on to play with Bob Dylan on his legendary ‘going electric’ tours in 1965 and 1966. In 1967, Robertson and his bandmates recorded the “basement tapes” with Dylan in Woodstock, NY, before changing their name to The Band and cutting Music from Big Pink in 1968.
Over the course of seven studio albums, Robertson penned such classics as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Acadian Driftwood” and “It Makes No Difference.”
The Band’s farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland on Thanksgiving 1976 was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz. It would be the beginning of a long-standing friendship and working relationship with the famed director.
Robertson went on to score or produce music for Scorsese’s films Raging Bull and The Color of Money, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Irishman.
He has released six solo albums, from the self-titled debut in 1987 to his latest Sinematic, which includes the song “Once Were Brothers,” a reflection on his time in The Band.
Robertson co-wrote the beautifully illustrated coffee table book Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed The World (Tundra Books) that introduces kids to some of the greatest artists of all time. He also wrote Hiawatha and the Peacemaker.
His 2016 memoir, Testimony, covers the first three decades of his life, a short but transformative period in his life from birth to 1976.
2019’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, was directed by then-26-year-old Toronto native Daniel Roher and includes rare archival footage and tales, plus present-day interviews with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, David Geffen, and the late Ronnie Hawkins. Scorsese executive produced.
Playing For Change, a global non-profit which helps provide music education to young people on every continent, released a collaborative version of “The Weight” in 2020 to celebrate its 50th. Participants include Robertson, Ringo Starr, Marcus King, and other musicians from all over the globe, including Japan, Italy, Nepal, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bahrain (no Canada) on instruments ranging from guitar to sitar and oud.
Robertson has been honoured with GRAMMY’s Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as lifetime awards from the National Academy of Songwriters, the Native American Music Awards and the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame. In Canada, he has won several JUNO awards, been honoured twice by Canada’s Walk of Fame, been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. Alongside The Band, he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.