Robbie Robertson R.I.P. – A Short Biography

Robbie Robertson Will Be Remembered as an Icon

Robbie Robertson on-stage

It was terrible news this week that Robbie Robertson is a Canadian musician, songwriter, film composer, and producer who is best known as the lead guitarist and primary songwriter for The Band passed away on August 9 in Los Angeles at the age of 80. Here’s a short, but in-depth biography of his life and career in music.

Early Life

Robbie Robertson was born Jaime Royal Robertson on July 5, 1943, in Toronto, Ontario. He was of both Mohawk and Cayuga descent through his mother’s side, and Jewish descent from his father’s side. Growing up, he spent time on the Six Nations Reserve, and this indigenous background would influence his music and storytelling in the years to come.

Early Career

Robbie took to music early on, learning to play the guitar as a teenager. He was heavily influenced by rock & roll, R&B, and country music, which would later characterize the unique sound of The Band. In the early 1960s, Robertson joined Ronnie Hawkins’ backing group, The Hawks. This was where he met future members of The Band: Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm.

The Band

The members of The Hawks split from Hawkins in the mid-’60s and eventually became Bob Dylan’s backing band when Dylan controversially “went electric”. Touring with Dylan through his tumultuous electric phase (1965-1966) helped the group garner attention.

After the tour with Dylan, the group retreated to a house in Woodstock, New York, known as “Big Pink”. Here they began crafting songs and creating demos. This period would result in their debut album as The Band, “Music from Big Pink”, released in 1968. Songs like “The Weight” showcased their unique sound, blending rock with Americana.

Over the next decade, The Band would release several more albums including self-titled “The Band” (which included classics like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), “Stage Fright”, and “Northern Lights – Southern Cross”. Robertson was the primary songwriter for the group, and his storytelling approach to lyrics helped define The Band’s sound.

In 1976, feeling that The Band had run its course, Robertson organized a farewell concert dubbed “The Last Waltz”. Featuring numerous guest artists, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young, the concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as a documentary in 1978.

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Post-The Band Career

After The Band’s dissolution, Robertson began a solo career, releasing his self-titled album in 1987. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he also delved into film, scoring movies and collaborating with Martin Scorsese on several film soundtracks.

His solo work often reflected on his indigenous heritage. Notably, in 1994, he released “Music for The Native Americans”, which was a soundtrack for a TV documentary.

In the subsequent years, Robertson continued to make music, often drawing on his rich heritage and experiences. His 2019 album “Sinematic” drew inspiration from his work on film soundtracks and his collaboration with Scorsese.

Continuation of Post-The Band Career:

Film Collaboration with Martin Scorsese:

Apart from his association with Scorsese for “The Last Waltz,” Robertson worked with the director on several film projects. He composed music for and served as a music producer on many of Scorsese’s films, including “Raging Bull,” “The King of Comedy,” “The Color of Money,” “Casino,” and “The Irishman.” Their professional relationship was deep and multi-faceted, with Robertson providing soundtracks, producing, and occasionally appearing in cameo roles.

Solo Albums

Robbie’s solo albums after his self-titled debut in 1987 include:

– “Storyville” (1991): A concept album inspired by the Storyville district of New Orleans. It was a musical exploration of the city’s rich history and culture.

– “Music for the Native Americans” (1994): As mentioned, this was a soundtrack for the television documentary “The Native Americans.” It saw Robertson diving deep into his indigenous roots and collaborating with Native American artists.

-“Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy” (1998): Another album focused on his Native American heritage, it incorporated modern sounds with traditional Native American music.

“How to Become Clairvoyant” (2011): This album delved into Robertson’s past, reflecting on his days with The Band, his relationships with fellow band members, and his personal journey. It was his first album of original pop songs in over a decade.

“Sinematic” (2019): Inspired by his film work, the album was a dark, atmospheric exploration of his experiences in the world of cinema. The album was influenced by his work on the film score for Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and the documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.”

Robbie Robertson’s journey to musical prominence, as well as his unique style, is deeply rooted in his influences and experiences. Let’s delve into these aspects of his illustrious career:

Musical Influences:

1. Indigenous Roots: Robbie’s Mohawk and Cayuga heritage from his mother’s side deeply influenced his music. Traditional stories, rhythms, and melodies from these cultures would find their way into his songs, particularly in his solo work in the ’90s. 

2. Rock & Roll and R&B: Growing up in the 1950s, Robertson was exposed to the burgeoning sounds of rock & roll and R&B. Artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard left a lasting impression on him.

3. Country Music: The storytelling elements and instrumentation of country music, including the sounds of Hank Williams and Roy Acuff, played a significant role in shaping The Band’s distinct sound.

4. The Blues: Robertson has often credited the blues as a foundational influence, drawing inspiration from legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

5. Gospel: The spiritual and soulful melodies of gospel music, especially from artists like the Staple Singers, were essential in molding The Band’s and Robertson’s approach to harmony and song structure.

Making it in Music:

1. Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks: Robbie’s first major break came when he joined Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band, The Hawks. Here, he honed his skills as a guitarist and met the musicians with whom he’d form The Band.

2. Bob Dylan: After splitting from Hawkins, the group’s stint as Bob Dylan’s backing band during his controversial electric phase gave them exposure and experience. This period also helped them forge their identity as a group, separate from their association with any leading act.

3. Woodstock and “Big Pink”: Moving to a house in Woodstock allowed the group to incubate their sound away from the public eye. The demos they created there formed the basis of “Music from Big Pink,” which was a commercial and critical success.

4. Consistency and Originality: The Band’s subsequent albums solidified their position in the music world. Their original compositions, combined with their unique fusion of rock, country, R&B, and other genres, set them apart.

Distinctive Style:

1. Storytelling Lyrics: Robbie Robertson’s songwriting is characterized by its rich narratives. Songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or “Acadian Driftwood” tell intricate tales that often reference historical or personal events.

2. Instrumentation: The Band, under Robertson’s direction, often employed a diverse range of instruments, from traditional rock instruments to more arcane ones like the mandolin, accordion, or even the tuba.

3. Collaborative Sound: While Robertson was the primary songwriter, The Band’s sound was undeniably collaborative. Each member brought a distinct flavor, be it Helm’s southern-inflected voice, Hudson’s virtuoso keyboard work, or Danko’s impassioned vocals and bass lines.

4. Evolution: Robertson was never one to stagnate. His solo work, especially albums like “Music for the Native Americans” or “Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy,” showed him experimenting with different sounds, incorporating electronic elements, and diving deeper into his indigenous heritage.

Other Endeavours and Contributions:

Robertson authored an autobiography titled “Testimony” published in 2016. The memoir is a deep dive into his early life, his time with The Band, and the tumultuous years that followed.

In 2019, the documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was inspired by his memoir and highlighted the deep bonds and eventual rifts within The Band, as well as his personal evolution as an artist.

Robbie Robertson’s contributions to the world of music have solidified his legacy as not just a rock star but also as a storyteller, historian, and an advocate for indigenous cultures. His work often bridges gaps between the old and new, traditional and contemporary, all while maintaining a distinctive sound and narrative voice that’s truly his own.


Robbie Robertson is regarded as one of the finest songwriters and guitarists in the world of rock music. His work with The Band has left an indelible mark on the genre, influencing countless artists. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Band and has received numerous accolades throughout his career.

In addition to his musical accomplishments, Robertson’s commitment to telling the stories of his indigenous heritage has been influential, shedding light on histories and perspectives that have often been overlooked in mainstream media.

This biography provides just a glimpse into Robbie Robertson’s storied career and the impact he’s had on the world of music.

In summary, Robbie Robertson’s rise in music can be attributed to his immersion in diverse musical influences, the right opportunities with influential artists like Bob Dylan, a deep commitment to originality, and an ever-evolving approach to his craft. His distinctive style is an amalgamation of his storytelling prowess, diverse instrumental choices, and a rich tapestry of cultural influences.

For an even more in-depth writing on his biography, check it out here.