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 in Los Angeles, surrounded by family, “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 some of Dylan’s own influences as they fashioned a new sound immersed in the American past.
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.
The Band started out 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 made them able to take on virtually any kind of music. Besides Robertson, the group featured drummer-singer Levon Helm, 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.
Like Dylan, Robertson was a self-taught musicologist and storyteller who absorbed everything American from the novels of William Faulkner to the scorching blues of Howlin’ Wolf to the gospel harmonies of the Swan Silvertones. At times his songs sounded not just created, but unearthed. In “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” he imagined the Civil War through the eyes of a defeated Confederate. In “The Weight,” with its lead vocals passed around among group members like a communal wine glass, he evoked a pilgrim’s arrival to a town where nothing seems impossible.
The Band played at the 1969 Woodstock festival, not far from where they lived, and became newsworthy enough to appear on the cover of Time magazine. But the spirit behind their best work was already dissolving. Albums such as “Stage Fright” and “Cahoots” were disappointing even for Robertson, who would acknowledge that he was struggling to find fresh ideas. While Manuel and Danko were both frequent contributors to songs during their “Basement Tapes” days, by the time of “Cahoots,” released in 1971, Robertson was the dominant writer.
They toured frequently, recording the acclaimed live album “Rock of Ages” at Madison Square Garden and joining Dylan for 1974 shows that led to another highly praised concert release, “Before the Flood.” But in 1976, after Manuel broke his neck in a boating accident, Robertson decided he needed a break from the road and organized rock’s ultimate sendoff, an all-star gathering at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom that included Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Muddy Waters and many others. The concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and was the basis for his celebrated documentary “The Last Waltz,” released in 1978.
Robertson had intended The Band to continue recording together but “The Last Waltz” helped permanently sever his friendship with Helm, whom he had once looked to as an older brother. Helm accused of Robertson of greed and outsized ego, noting that Robertson had ended up owning their musical catalog and calling “The Last Waltz” a vanity project designed to glorify Robertson. In response, Robertson contended that he had taken control of the group because the others — excepting Hudson — were too burdened by drug and alcohol problems to make decisions on their own.
“It hit me hard that in a band like ours, if we weren’t operating on all cylinders, it threw the whole machine off course,” Robertson wrote in his memoir “Testimony,” published in 2016.
The Band regrouped without Robertson in the early 1980s, and Robertson went on to a long career as a solo artist and soundtrack composer. His self-titled 1987 album was certified gold and featured the hit single “Show Down at Big Sky” and the ballad “Fallen Angel,” a tribute to Manuel, who was found dead in 1986 in what was ruled a suicide (Danko died of heart failure in 1999, and Helm of cancer in 2012).
Robertson, who moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s while the others stayed near Woodstock, remained close to Scorsese and helped oversee the soundtracks for “The Color of Money,” “The King of Comedy,” “The Departed” and “The Irishman” and the upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon.” He also produced the Neil Diamond album “Beautiful Noise” and explored his heritage through such albums as “Music for the Native Americans” and “Contact from the Underworld of Redboy.”
Robertson married the Canadian journalist Dominique Bourgeois in 1967. They had three children before divorcing. His other survivors include his second wife, Janet Zuccarini, and five grandchildren.