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Robbie Robertson, Lead Guitarist of the Band, Dies at 80

robbie robertson guitarist of the band
Photo by Heinrich Klaffs

R.I.P. Robbie Robertson: The visionary main songwriter and guitarist for the Band, Robbie Robertson, died Wednesday at age 80 in his Los Angeles home, following a long illness.

Robertson’s ascent paralleled that of the ’60s singer-songwriter-based rock 'n' roll movement, beginning in the band of roadhouse wildman Ronnie Hawkins, then supporting Bob Dylan as a member of the Band during Dylan's rise from folk hero to rock icon, and then at the helm of the Band itself, which released its debut album, Music from Big Pink, in 1968 and became a musical powerhouse, revered in its own right.

Many of the songs he wrote for the Band—including “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” full of rich language that evoked an earlier era of life in the United States, and particularly in the South—become the foundation for a genre that would eventually become known as Americana. Ironically, Robertson was born in Canada and grew up on the Six Nations Reserve southwest of Toronto. But his first musical attractions were to blues and primal rock 'n' roll.

While touring with Hawkins, and under the influence of incendiary guitarist Roy Buchanan, who was briefly a bandmate, Robertson developed a terse, muscular style, with solos and accents marked by squealing bent notes, intense vibrato, and repeated notes that called attention to lyric themes. He was a perfect accompanist for any singer.

Robertson’s swan song with the Band was 1976’s The Last Waltz, one of the most notable concerts in the history of rock, which he arranged and brought to film with his friend, the director Martin Scorsese. The event included appearances by Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and other icons, and is considered one of the most important music documentaries, enshrined by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Over subsequent decades, Robinson made a handful of solo albums, including 1987’s Robbie Robertson and 1991’s Storyville, but turned the bulk of his ambitions toward film music. He created 14 soundtracks—the most recent for Scorsese’s Killer of the Flower Moon, which will be released in October. He also produced films, including 1980’s Carny, in which he starred.

Variety published this statement from Robertson’s longtime manager, Jared Levine: “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. He is also survived by his grandchildren Angelica, Donovan, Dominic, Gabriel and Seraphina. 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 Center.”