The Band guitarist Robbie Robertson dies, aged 80

Robbie Robertson
(Image credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

The Band guitarist Robbie Robertson has passed away at the age of 80. His management announced that he died in Los Angeles on Wednesday 9 August after a long illness.

“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," his longtime manager Jared Levine said in a statement. He is also survived by his grandchildren Angelica, Donovan, Dominic, Gabriel and Seraphina. 

"Robertson recently completed his fourteenth film music project with frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon. 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 Centre.”

In addition to his film work with Scorsese, Robertson is best known as guitarist-songwriter and singer with the Canadian-American group The Band. Robertson wrote a number of their classic songs including The Weight, Up On Cripple Creek, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, It Makes No Difference and The Shape I'm In.

He and bandmates drummer Levon Helm, pianist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko and organist Garth Hudson first played as rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins backup band before striking out alone as The Hawks in 1964. The lineup – mostly without Helm – became Bob Dylan's backing band for his infamous electric tour.

Somewhere in the middle of that tour I realised that we were in the midst of a musical revolution

“Well, on that tour in 1965 and ’66… I have never heard of anybody going through something like that, ever, in music history," Robertson told Guitarist 2017. "The idea that we played all over North America, all over Australia, all over Europe, and people booed us every night, sometimes threw stuff, sometimes charged the stage. 

“It was challenging. To be able to do that and go through it… But I thought, ‘If Bob can do it, I can do it,’ you know, so it was an extraordinary experience to be playing music and thinking, ‘We are right and the world is wrong.’ 

“It was a phenomenon," Robertson added. "Somewhere in the middle of that tour I realised that we were in the midst of a musical revolution. Because you start out, people boo you every night – normally, a group would say, ‘Maybe we are doing something wrong.’ But we never budged. Bob didn’t take one step back. I admire him so much for standing his ground.”

They would reunite again with Helm in 1967 to collaborate with Dylan for the sessions that would become known as The Basement Tapes. The following year they signed to Capitol records as The Band, finding fame in their own right with the albums Songs From The Big Pink and their 1969 self-titled follow-up.

“When The Band made Music From Big Pink and went on as The Band, people said, ‘What the hell is this? Where did this come from?’" recalled Robertson to guitarist. "But we had been together for like six or seven years before we made it. It was because we’d already done our woodshedding. We had paid some dues, to say the least.” 

The Band's final show would be documented by Scorsese and featured appearances by Hawkins, Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters and Van Morrison amongst others.

“The film was the last thing we were thinking about," remembered Robertson. "We played over 20 songs with all these artists that we had barely any time to run over. People don’t realise that, because you don’t want to make it look like you’re struggling with this kind of thing. 

“To me, it was Guinness Book Of Records," added Robertson. "The fact that we could play with all of these different artists, from Dr John to Neil Diamond… We never screwed up once the whole night. We did the whole thing and aced it. But it was because of focus and concentration. There was no time to be thinking about filming.”

With Robertson's passing, Garth Hudson remains the only surviving member of The Band's original lineup.

Robertson's early soundtrack work for Scorsese included Raging Bull and The Color Of Money. He released his self-titled solo debut in 1987, with guests including U2 and Peter Gabriel. In addition to his own music he worked as a producer and session player for artists including Tom Petty. 

One of his last rare live appearances as a musician in the last 20 years came at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival in 2013 – originally from Dylan And The Band's Basement Tapes. 

In 2017 Toronto-born Robertson received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Native American Music Awards. His mother was Mohawk and had grown up on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, a place he would visit as a child and that has been requested as the recipient for donations in the wake of his death. 

“It seemed to me that everybody played a musical instrument or sang or danced," he told The Guardian in 2019. "I thought, ‘I’ve got to get in on this club!’ I said, ‘I think a guitar looks pretty cool.’” His mother bought him one with a cowboy painted on it. “I thought it was very ironic that Indians would teach me to play guitar with a picture of a cowboy on.”

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.