The August 9, 2023, death of the Band’s Guitarist-Songwriter, Robbie Robertson, drove home some sobering points for me. Primarily, in that consideration, is that no musical group has picked up the mantle from the Band. Little Feat, especially in their original form, came the closest. But the Band single-handily created the Americana genre. Absolutely unique in their approach to music.
There are so many reflections of their influence, especially in the current Roots/Country-Rock, and yes, Americana genres. It is a level of influence that you can trace directly back to them. Their influences
were born from a variety of musical traditions while creating a tradition of their own.
As a group, they played at least 26 instruments between the five of them. They had three distinct singers in Rick Danko, Levon Helm and my personal favorite, Richard Manuel. Any of whom could have been the centerpiece of their own band. In Robbie Robertson, the group had a songwriter who wrote songs with an astute vision and who had a profound work ethic. Garth Hudson is a musical genius and multi-instrumentalist. Garth orchestrated the Band with visionary keyboard and horn parts.
I have previously written about the group here at Politichicks. Once, within the context of the recently republished June 2020 article, “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” and in the April 2022 article, “Levon Helm: A Continuous Encore.” The Band remains part of my weekly, if not daily, listening diet.
What I would prefer to do here is to do a reasonably, concise sketch of the Band, as much of their story is referenced in the aforementioned articles. There are also many fine books, available in your local library or book outlet, about this legendary group.
The main focus, of this article, is to examine not only Robbie’s history with the Band, but to also examine his solo recordings, his soundtrack work with Filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, his astute and insightful songwriting, his unique guitar playing style, and his acting efforts, among other topics.
Any music fan worth their salt knows the story of the Band. How they were comprised of one American, the great drummer and singer, Levon Helm and four Canadians, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson. Robbie was born Jaime Royal Robertson, an only child, on July 5, 1943. He had an unusual background compared to his bandmates. His father was a Jewish gambler by the name of Alexander Klegerman. His mother, Rosemarie Myte Chrysler, born on February 6, 1922, had her own colorful background.
Dolly, as she was affectionately called, grew up on the Six Nations Indian Reserve. Dolly’s background was from the Mohawk and Cayuga tribes. At the age of 16, she went to live with an aunt in Toronto. After a year or two, she met Klegerman, which is where Robbie was brought into the picture. Klegerman was tragically killed early in their relationship. Robbie would never know his biological father.
Robbie would grow to love his mother’s relatives on the Reservation. Music was important on the Rez. A young Robbie Robertson, a street kid from Toronto, was greatly impressed with his cousins and his grandfather. All of whom imparted real Indian wisdom on this impressionable young man, like how to smell the air and determine that it was going to rain. Robbie’s time on the Rez imparted a level of perception and wisdom that would serve him well for the rest of his life.
One of the biggest attractions of life, on his mother’s reservation, was the music. It seemed that when the evening campfires were lit, the guitars & fiddles came out and the voices were raised in the songs of the ancestors.
Robbie learned his first guitar chords from his cousins. His first guitar, with a picture of a cowboy-on-it, was purchased for Robbie when he was about nine. Robbie also learned the art of storytelling on his mother’s reservation. As he described in the intro to his memoir, Testimony:
I was introduced to serious storytelling at a young age, on the Six Nations Indian Reserve. The oral history, the legends, the fables, and the great holy mystery of life. My mother, who was Mohawk and Cayuga, was born and raised there. Whether it was traditional music, or story songs like Lefty Frizzell’s “The Long Black Veil,” or sacred mythologies told to us by the elders, what I heard on the reserve had a powerful impact on me. At the age of nine, I told my mother that I wanted to be a storyteller when I grew up. She smiled and said, ‘I think you will.'”
Working in a Toronto jewelry plating shop, Dolly met Jim Robertson, who also worked there. They dated, married and Robertson adopted Robbie. Eventually, Dolly and Jim parted, as he was abusive to Dolly and Robbie. But not before she told Robbie about his real father. Robbie eventually developed profound and lifelong relationships with his biological father’s brothers, Natie and Morrie Klegerman. Both of Robbie’s uncles were connected to various underworld activities in and around Toronto and had served time in prison.
By the time he was in his early teens, Rock and Roll had fervently captured Robbie’s attention. Like many kids at the time, school went out the window. His first electric guitar at hand, Robbie formed the first of several teenage bands as he continued to learn both the latest Rock and Roll songs and also studied deep Blues guitarists, like Hubert Sumlin and Willie Johnson. Both Sumlin and Johnson were featured guitarists with Blues singer Howlin’ Wolf’s band.
One of his teenage bands got an opportunity to open for American Rockabilly Legend, Ronnie Hawkins. Hearing that Ronnie was getting ready to record, and needed some songs, Robbie went home that night and wrote two songs. They were “Hey Bobba-Lu and Someone Like You.” Solid efforts for a 15-year-old. Ronnie Hawkins recorded both of those songs. He figured that if Robbie could write songs, maybe he could spot songs for Hawkins to record. So he took Robbie to the Brill Building in New York City which turned out to be a profound and influential experience for Robbie.
The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway was famous for housing a series of music industry offices and studios where some of America’s greatest songwriters wrote and where many classic songs were written. Songwriters such as Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Otis Blackwell, among many, plied their trade and wrote their songs. Robbie would listen to the latest opus from some of these legendary songwriters, nod his 15-year-old head sagely and would say something like, “That’s pretty good. Got anything else?”
When he was 16, Robbie got the call from Ronnie Hawkins asking him to travel down to the South, Arkansas, and audition for the Hawks. Robbie pawned his 1956 Fender Stratocaster and took a train from Toronto to Fayetteville, Arkansas. His Mother, after much pleading, had given him her blessing. School was a forgotten distraction.
After being on the reservation, Robbie’s first trip to the American South was his second significant esthetic experience.
He got to see first-hand some of the great music of America and he was never the same. It was not only the music, but the people, the accents. Years later he would state that even “the beer flowed differently.”
Robbie had established a great friendship with the drummer of the Hawks, Levon Helm. Levon was the musical director of the Hawks, he called the tempos, he built the grooves. Levon was equally apt on rhythm guitar, mandolin and harmonica.
Levon’s dad, Diamond, played great mandolin and sang in a country-blues style that intrigued Robbie. Born around the Turkey Scratch section of Arkansas, the music of the American South was as natural as breathing for Levon. He showed Robbie the ways and mores of the road, good and bad.
All this was greatly influential to Robbie. Eventually, as the Arkansas Foundation of the Hawks was shifting with musicians becoming homesick or who gained studio employment, like Fred Carter, Ronnie Hawkins started replacing the displaced Arkansans with Canadian musicians, Robbie, Rick Danko, the ever-soulful Richard Manuel and eventually, the Maestro, Garth Hudson.
It was guys like Fred Carter, Roy Buchanan, Hubert Sumlin, Willie Johnson, that made Robbie want to be better than any of them as a guitar player. He developed a style of guitar playing that used part of his finger in conjunction with the tip of his pick, creating false harmonics. Roy Buchanan originated this style with bombastic effects, created by his own knowledge of the guitar and his great dexterity. Robbie’s tone was very wooden and, in the pocket, groove-wise.
Without a doubt, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks were the best bar band in the world. The three vocal attacks of Danko, Helm and Manuel and the organ and horn work of Garth Hudson made them hard to beat. Robbie had a very distinct guitar style, playing in-your-face deep Blues licks. Ronnie leaned toward the Rockabilly of the fifties and marriage.
The young Hawks were leaning more towards Chicago green (Pot) and Chicago Blues. They had outgrown their rough and ready Rockabilly origins and they eventually parted ways with Ronnie Hawkins. Playing joints, like the Jack Ruby owned, Fort Worth roofless club, the Skyline Lounge, took the excitement out of the mix. Staying up all night at the Skyline, with a gun-at-hand to guard their equipment, made the more civilized hours and atmosphere of Canada far more attractive to the young Hawks.
The parting with Hawkins was in the early part of 1964. They continued to play their old circuit from Canada down as far as the American Southwest. On one occasion, they ran into one of the legends of Southern Blues, Sonny Boy Williamson II. They thought about joining forces with Williamson. Regrettably, Williamson died before this idea came to fruition. It was an idea before its time. The Hawks were living gig-to-gig, with occasional shoplifting excursions at various grocery stores when times got lean.
In 1965, Blues singer and friend, John Hammond Jr, took Robbie to a very special recording session in New York. It was a Bob Dylan recording session at Columbia studios. This was the session that produced the seminal Rock and Roll classic, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan had previously heard Robbie, Levon and Garth when they played behind John Hammond Jr. on his freshman electric Blues outing, the album “So Many Roads.” Dylan was impressed and was starting to think in 1964 about working with a band again. He had not played in a band since the 1950’s in his native Minnesota.
After some abortive experiences working with Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper during the Summer of 1965, Dylan approached Robertson and Helm to be part of his band along with keyboardist Al Kooper and bassist Harvey Brooks.
What Levon and Robbie didn’t realize was that Dylan was being booed resoundingly by his folk purist fans. Previously, Dylan had been typecast as the King of Protest. He railed against society’s injustices with songs like “Blowing in the Wind, armed with only an acoustic guitar, his voice, and a harmonica.
So, in the Summer of ’65, this four-piece band backed up Dylan at a concert at Forest Hills and one at the Hollywood Bowl. This gave Robertson and Helm a clear-eyed view of the extremism of the Folk Music Purist movement. Personally, I never got the no-electricity extremism of Folk Music. After all, most of them sang through electric microphones.
Bob Dylan decided that he needed a permanent band as Kooper and Brooks had a lot of production and session work obligations. He became very intrigued by the Hawks. Dylan decided to hire the band for a 1966 World Tour, he was greatly enamored by band member, Garth Hudson. Amazed, like everybody else, by Garth’s genius.
With the exception of the first Dylan shows with this new group in Texas, most of the shows were met with prolific booing and scattered hostility. Robbie Robertson thought it “was a strange way to make a buck.” To travel to a town, set-up, play, get booed, get paid, travel to the next town and do the same thing all over again.
When the band completed the first leg of the tour in America, Levon Helm decided to bail out on the tour. The hostile reaction of the crowd was too much for anybody, especially with someone like Levon Helm who preferred to “whistle while he worked.” Former Johnny Rivers drummer, Mickey Jones, admirably filled the drummer’s chair for the rest of the tour.
What followed for Dylan and this anonymous band was a mean, hard tour in 1966. They toured the world, getting booed. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, had Dylan overextended to the max. With a book contract to be fulfilled, a pending ABC-TV live concert film, obligations to his record company, on top of the tour, Bob was beyond tired.
To paraphrase Dylan’s later statements, it took a lot of “medicine” to meet this punishing schedule, writing into the night. To put it bluntly, the 1966 tour was, more-than-occasionally, amphetamine fueled. Yet, Robertson and Dylan grew closer. Robbie got some Brill Building quality songwriting lessons in the many countless late-night songwriting sessions with Dylan. He saw the American song structure deconstructed before his eyes and he found that revelatory. Especially with the immediacy of the songwriting process as seen through Dylan’s eyes.
Eventually, in the Summer of 1966, Dylan and the Band returned to the states. They had a short time off and had another American tour facing them, with other deals in the balance. Bob Dylan was running on fumes by this time. On July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan had a motorcycle accident near his manager’s residence in Woodstock, New York.
In retrospect, this accident saved Bob Dylan’s life. The accident forced him to rest, detox and take stock of his life. He would not do any extensive touring for eight years after the accident.
As Dylan recuperated, the rest of the Hawks left their temporary digs in New York City and moved north to Woodstock. Woodstock, New York was established as a tolerant artist’s community by 1900. The Hawks found various places to live and a very conducive atmosphere in which to create.
Rick Danko found a pepto-bismal pink house in the West Saugerties area of Woodstock. By this time, Dylan had largely recuperated from his motorcycle accident. He and the band started getting together about five or six times a week for extensive playing and creation. They called this house of creation “Big Pink.” It had a basement large enough to house the five of them. They kept a typewriter, with plenty of paper in the upstairs area. Dylan’s output was strong, and he was turning out new lyrics at a breakneck pace. “Got another one boys,” he would say, and they would go down to the basement and work on putting music to Bob’s words.
This is where the famous Dylan and the Band, “The Basement Tapes” first took root. They were on salary, they could relax. The early and middle days of 1967 were a fruitful period in songwriting for these six talented men. Some of those basement experiments ended up as songs on the first Band album, “Music from Big Pink.” Bassist Rick Danko was pushing Dylan manager, Albert Grossman, to find them an individual record contract as a group.
Capitol records signed them to a 10-record deal, basically an album a year. Around this point they realized they needed to bring Levon Helm back into the fold. With Levon back on drums, the nucleus they had built as teenagers was coming to fruition.
The Band’s first two albums, “Music from Big Pink and The Band,” are crucially seminal moments in American and world music. Whereas a lot of Rock and Roll of 1968 and 1969 was an exercise in active rebellion, those first two Band records said a lot about an active community of people, both for the Band themselves and their audience.
The first album was where some of the basement collaborations, between Dylan and Band members Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, opened up new territories in songwriting that broadened Dylan also. “Tears of Rage, (Dylan-Manuel) and “This Wheel’s on Fire, (Dylan-Danko), both had gorgeous melodies that greatly strengthened Dylan’s words.
Initially, for the first two records, the Band were an embracement of a tradition other folks were rebelling against. A tradition of family and the love thereof. They seemed to be five guys that could almost finish each other’s sentences, musically and verbally. They influenced a great deal of musicians with those first two records, from the Beatles to the Stones and beyond. Their lyrical subtlety continues to influence the current generation and will, more than likely, influence future generations.
Fame and the huge windfalls from songwriting royalties started to eat at the brother-like core of the group. Add on to that those drugs, alcohol and the hangers on who were happy to provide whatever.
Attach on to that a dissatisfaction with the distribution of songwriting credits; well, you can start to smell the internal decay within the group.
Their critical acclaim remained high, even though they did not tour extensively. They were featured on the cover of Time magazine on January 12, 1970, bringing a new level of fame of which there is no handbook. Right around the time of the third album, “Stage Fright,” heroin came into the picture among members of the group, with Robertson and Hudson abstaining. But no matter what was going on with those guys, I found gems of inspiration on every record released by the Band in their original lineup and beyond.
We also have to consider that all these guys had wives, relationships, children and the attendant mortgages of this life.
These guys had done 16 years in each other’s company; perhaps it was time for a break? Some members had substance abuse issues that needed to be addressed. That came into clearer focus for Robbie Robertson with the birth of his son, Sebastian, his third child after his daughters, Alexandra and Delphine. At the time Robbie, his wife, Dominque and their children, had established a life, far removed from Rock and Roll madness.
Ultimately, Robbie was tired of being the caretaker of the group. It is incredibly difficult to navigate other people’s habits especially if you have a few of your own, as Robertson surely did. But something had to give.
The final nail in the coffin came in the band’s summer tour of 1976. Richard Manuel was struggling badly with serious drug and alcohol abuse. Robertson had enough, the road seemed dangerous by his perception. He told Levon and the rest of the guys he was done with the road. Helm took it badly. Levon stated plainly that “He was not in it for his health.” Meaning the life of a musician on the road, even with its attendant dangers, had not lost an appeal for Levon.
But Robbie was done with the road. He decided to bring this chapter of the Band to a close. He wanted the Band to do their set and then back up a litany of friends. Everyone they invited guests ranging from Ronnie Hawkins to Muddy Waters to Dr John to Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton, among many luminaries, all agreed to appear at the concert. It was to be held on Thanksgiving, 1976, at Promoter Bill Graham’s San Francisco concert hall, Winterland. This was the same hall that the Band had performed their first concert as the Band. They decided to call the concert, the Last Waltz.
Robbie thought about documenting it in Super 8 or 16mm, for the archives. But wanting to get it right, he made a list of filmmakers to consider documenting this event. The first and last name on that list was filmmaker Martin Scorsese.Robbie had been previously introduced to Scorsese by the Band’s old road manager, Jonathan Taplin. After leaving the Band, Taplin became a film producer by producing Scorsese’s great drama, “Mean Streets.” Robertson had always been a film buff since childhood, film scripts were hugely influential to Robbie’s songwriting. Scorsese had always passionately loved music. They started to spend a lot of time together to the detriment of both of their marriages. Eventually, both of their wives kicked them out and Robertson moved in with Scorsese.
After being the “responsible one” in the Band, Robertson was reliving a second Rock and Roll childhood with Scorsese. They each had daytime duties, with Scorsese editing what became the Last Waltz concert film and Robertson working on the Soundtrack. After hours, Robbie’s bedroom became the screening room for all night film showing marathons, backed by some prodigious intake of high-end cocaine. The “Last Waltz “film, had an interesting point of view in comparison to other Rock and Roll documentaries. The point of view was what was happening on the stage, with minimal footage of the capacity crowd. It revealed the nervous and exciting moments of playing music from a musician’s point of view and avoided the unnecessary, cute crowd shots. Scorsese framed the concert footage with interviews of the group members, mainly Robertson, at their Malibu rehearsal/recording studio, Shangri-La, a former bordello. These days the studio is owned and maintained by music producer Rick Rubin.
They also recorded two tracks at the MGM soundstage. The performances, a Robertson tune “Evangeline,” with Emmylou Harris, emphasized the influence of Country music on the Band. Vocally, they were greatly influenced by the Gospel group, The Staples Singers, and their Gospel-like interpretation of “The Weight,” with the Staples guesting, also emphasized that influence.
The April 1978 release of the film, “The Last Waltz,” brought rave reviews. Robertson’s central role as a focal point and co-producer of the film made him a “player” in Hollywood parlance. In the midst of all this, the Band released their final studio album, “Islands.” Initially, the idea was for all the members of the Band to take a break, get healthy and record new music. Because of schedules and infighting, that was not to be. Touring the world, promoting the film, took a toll on Scorsese’s health. Yet, it built a life-long friendship between Robertson and Scorsese.
Many of the reviews of the Last Waltz film noted Robbie Robertson’s presence and potential as an actor. That led to Robertson being inundated with many, at times questionable, movie scripts. The only one that piqued his interest was the Robert Kaylor script for a film called “Carny.” This was a script about a traveling carnival. Cast in primary roles were Actors Gary Busey and Jodie Foster. Robertson wore several hats in this film, producer, writer, co-composer, along with classic film composer, Alex North, of the carnival midway music.
Soon into production, Robertson was cast in a role as the fixer of the carnival, Patch Beaudry. He has a dark, commanding presence in the film. The film was released to mixed reviews. I find it to be an inspired piece of work and one well worth seeking out. I have a copy of the soundtrack on vinyl. The one side being sort of midway, strip-show music and the other side is a great set of atmospheric instrumental music by Alex North. North is noted as composer of many classic film scores such as the ones for “Streetcar Named Desire and Spartacus.”
Other than appearances in various documentaries, Robertson had a notable walk-on film role in the 1995 Sean Penn film, “The Crossing Guard.”
Interestingly enough, the member of the Band that had the biggest film career was Levon Helm. Starting with the critically acclaimed films, “Coal Miner’s Daughter and the Right Stuff,” Helm had a great career as a character actor appearing in many films to great acclaim almost up to his death. He inhabited his characters.
Where Robertson had a real impact on film was with his soundtrack work, as both a composer and as a music supervisor, in his many collaborations with Martin Scorsese. The relationship that was forged during the making of the Last Waltz together proved fruitful in the continued creative interaction between Robertson and Scorsese. They worked together in a smooth manner that was built on a well-earned, mutual respect. They connected on a level that embraced their shared love for film and the best that music has to offer. Starting with 1980’s, “Raging Bull,” Robbie Robertson always added to the sonic landscape of Martin Scorsese’s films for over 40 years. Robbie’s last collaboration with Scorsese was his posthumously released work, the soundtrack for the 2023 Scorsese film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The “Killers” soundtrack was largely composed by Robertson and there is a great measure of accomplishment with this final soundtrack work by him. I find the music for Killers of the Flower Moon to be quite profound. Like a man approaching the end of life with some insight and dignity.
I have greatly enjoyed the Scorsese film soundtracks, whether composed by Robertson or in the songs he would select as a Music Supervisor, in his many collaborations with Martin Scorsese. They always demonstrated a great degree of taste, skill and a studied, understanding of how to make music work effectively in the context of film. In the pursuit of his soundtrack muse, Robbie got to work with folks as varied as Jazz arranger Gil Evans, Blues composer, Willie Dixon, and guitar contemporary, Eric Clapton. From time to time, in the context of his soundtrack work, he would also utilize the skills of former bandmates, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. He also worked with other filmmakers on various projects, from 1980 on, either as a narrator, music consultant or composer.
Around 1983, Manuel and Hudson had reunited with Levon Helm and Rick Danko and Woodstock guitarist, Jim Weider, in a revamped version of the Band that kicked some serious butt. They played venues, in various forms and combinations until the late 1990’s. As friends and bandmates, they had to face the deaths of Richard Manuel, 1986, and Rick Danko, in 1999. Those deaths obviously and permanently changed the dynamic of what group of individuals could sincerely be called the Band. Though he had done some scattered, mostly instrumental, performances on some of the Scorsese soundtracks, it was Richard Manuel’s suicide that seemed to motivate Robbie to write, to put out some solo recordings. It seemed, to me, that he needed an emotional motivator, that large, to consider performing again.
The solo recorded works of Robbie Robertson are uniformly excellent. From his first, self-titled album, in 1987, to his last studio album, “Sinematic,” in 2019, six albums in total, have further cemented Robertson’s reputation as a storyteller.
That is the true legacy of Robbie Robertson, particularly in the stories that he wove inside his songs both with the Band and his solo work. The southern stories that he heard from Levon Helm, the songwriting lessons that he learned from Bob Dylan and the Brill building team of songwriters, the stories heard on his mother’s Reservation as a child, those first trips to the American South, all influenced and developed a structure for Robbie to realize the restless storyteller inside of him.
There are many more facets of Robbie such as his time as a Project Developer at Dreamworks, his activism towards various American Indian causes, his producing of other artists like Jesse Winchester and Neil Diamond, among others.
On August 9, 2023, after a year of battling prostate cancer, Robbie Robertson passed away in Los Angeles.
He died surrounded by his children and his ex-wife, Dominique, they had divorced in 1987, after several attempts at reconciliation. In March of 2023, Robertson married longtime companion, Janet Zuccarini, a Canadian entrepreneur, restaurateur, and Top Chef Canada judge. She joined Dominique and the children at Robbie’s deathbed.
The story of Robbie Robertson and the Band is one of great art created in spite of the pitfalls of success. The Band also has a controversial legacy, amongst its members, that I will not address here. Not appropriate for the living to speculate on the dead, it is merely reductive.
Many musicians after me, will continue to be influenced, inspired and instructed by Robbie Robertson and the Band’s art. Perhaps, any differences between the members of the Band are being ironed out in Heaven? I hope so.