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CSHF Inductee Robbie Robertson, Co-Founder of The Band, Dies at 80

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By Karen Bliss

Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Robbie Robertson, the former guitarist and principal songwriter in The Band, successful solo artist, film composer/producer, and author, died Aug. 9 at a Los Angeles hospital from prostate cancer. He had just celebrated his 80th birthday on July 5.

“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,” read the statement issued by his manager Jared Levine. 

“He is also survived by his grandchildren Angelica, Donovan, Dominic, Gabriel, and Seraphina. Robertson recently completed his fourteenth film music project with frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon. 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 Centre.”

Robertson, who grew up on the Six Nations Reserve, just outside Toronto, before moving to the big city, picked up the guitar when he was 10, and joined his first band, Little Caesar and the Consuls, at 14, then 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 and respect, 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 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 the seminal Music from Big Pink in 1968, followed by the equally ground-breaking self-titled album a year later.

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 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, The Color of Money, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman, and aforementioned Killers of the Flower Moon (due for release in October in select theatres, then on AppleTV+).

In a statement following his death, Scorsese said, “Robbie Robertson was one of my closest friends, a constant in my life and my work. I could always go to him as a confidante. A collaborator. An advisor. I tried to be the same for him. It goes without saying that he was a giant, that his effect on the art form was profound and lasting. There’s never enough time with anyone you love. And I loved Robbie.”

After The Band, Robertson released six solo albums, from the self-titled debut in 1987 to his latest, 2019’s Sinematic, which includes the song “Once Were Brothers,” a reflection on his time in The Band. 

Robertson, it seems, was a workaholic with his creative hand in many different projects, from scores to books. He co-wrote the beautifully illustrated coffee table book Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed The World (Tundra Books, 2013) that introduces kids to some of the greatest artists of all time. He also wrote 2015’s Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. A year later, he released his memoir, Testimony, which covers the first three decades of his life, a short but transformative period in his life from birth to 1976.

“I’m following a path of inspiration,” he told me during a 2019 interview for Billboard. “I’m trying to challenge myself all the time. That keeps the blood flowing. That keeps me really interested. I go into projects, still after all this time, thinking, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do this? I’ve got to figure this out.’ It’s like a blank canvas…Even though it’s all got a connection to music, there are so many variables in it. Sometimes it’s a little stressful, but for the most part it just makes you want to do something magical.”

In 2019, the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, partly based on Testimonypremiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It 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.

In addition to his CSHF induction, Robertson received many awards over his career, including 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 won several JUNO awards, was honoured twice by Canada’s Walk of Fame, was 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.

“They say there’s never too many awards,” Roberston told me in an interview for Billboard, ahead of his Lifetime Achievement Award presented to him during Canadian Music Week’s Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame. “I always feel a sense of gratitude that people acknowledge your work and acknowledge what you’ve done.”

Adding to this acknowledgement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also expressed condolences upon learning of Robertson’s passing, calling him “a big part of Canada’s outsized contributions to the arts. I’m thinking of his family, friends, and fans who are mourning his loss. Thank you for the music and the memories, Robbie.”

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