August 9, 2023 –Robbie Robertson, The Band’s lead guitarist and songwriter who in such classics as “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek” mined American music and folklore and helped reshape contemporary rock, died Wednesday at 80.
Robertson died surrounded by family in Los Angeles “after a long illness,” publicist Ray Costa said in a statement.
From their years as Bob Dylan’s masterful backing group to their own stardom as embodiments of old-fashioned community and virtuosity, The Band profoundly influenced popular music in the 1960s and ‘70s, first by literally amplifying Dylan’s polarizing transition from folk artist to rock star and then by absorbing the works of Dylan and Dylan’s influences as they fashioned a new sound immersed in the American past.
“Long before we ever met, his music played a central role in my life — me and millions and millions of other people all over this world,” Martin Scorsese, Robertson’s close friend and frequent collaborator, said in a statement. “The Band’s music, and Robbie’s own later solo music, seemed to come from the deepest place at the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys.”
The Canadian-born Robertson was a high school dropout and one-man melting pot — part Jewish, part-Mohawk and Cayuga — who fell in love with the seemingly limitless sounds and byways of his adopted country and wrote out of a sense of amazement and discovery at a time when the Vietnam War had alienated millions of young Americans. His life had a “Candide”-like quality as he found himself among many of the giants of the rock era — getting guitar tips from Buddy Holly, taking in early performances by Aretha Franklin and by the Velvet Underground, smoking pot with the Beatles, watching the songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller develop the material, chatting with Jimi Hendrix when he was a struggling musician calling himself Jimmy James.
The Band began as supporting players for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s and through their years together in bars and juke joints forged a depth and versatility that opened them to virtually any kind of music in any kind of setting. Besides Robertson, the group featured Arkansan drummer-singer Levon Helm and three other Canadians: bassist-singer-songwriter Rick Danko, keyboardist singer-songwriter Richard Manuel and all-around musical wizard Garth Hudson. They were originally called the Hawks, but ended up as The Band — a conceit their fans would say they earned — because people would point to them when they were with Dylan and refer to them as “the band.”
They remain defined by their first two albums, “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band,” both released in the late 1960s. The rock scene was turning away from the psychedelic extravagances of the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and a wave of sound effects, long jams and lysergic lyrics. “Music from Big Pink,” named for the old house near Woodstock, New York, where Band members lived and gathered, was for many the sound of coming home. The mood was intimate, the lyrics alternately playful, cryptic and yearning, drawn from blues, gospel, folk and country music. The Band itself seemed to stand for selflessness and a shared and vital history, with all five members making distinctive contributions and appearing in publicity photos in plain, dark clothes.
Through the “Basement Tapes” they had made with Dylan in 1967 and through their own albums, The Band has been widely credited as a founding source for Americana — or roots music. Fans and peers would speak of their lives being changed. Eric Clapton broke up with his British supergroup Cream and journeyed to Woodstock in hopes he could join The Band, which influenced albums ranging from The Grateful Dead’s “Workingman’s Dead” to Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection.” The Band’s songs were covered by Franklin, Joan Baez, the Staple Singers and many others. During a television performance by the Beatles of “Hey Jude,” Paul McCartney shouted out lyrics from “The Weight.”