Full name, Jaime Robbie Robertson; born 1943 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; father's name, Claygerman (a professional gambler). Education: Quit school at age 16. Addresses: Record company-- Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.

Robbie Robertson has been a professional musician since 1959, when he began playing guitar with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in juke joints and dives all across North America. Six years later, before thousands of fans, he was backing Bob Dylan as the folkie was making his transition to electric. By then the Hawks were known simply as the Band and were soon creating their own powerful originals. After another tour with Dylan, the Band decided to call it quits in 1976 and Robertson began working in movies, both acting and scoring soundtracks, while remaining relatively behind the scenes for nearly a decade. In 1987 he released his first solo LP, proving that his songwriting and guitar abilities were stronger than ever.

Robertson began playing guitar at age ten after his cousins introduced him to country music. After a brief period of Hawaiian lap steel lessons, the fifteen-year-old knew his life was in music and started writing songs. He developed a trademark guitar sound that can be traced back to blues masters like Muddy Waters. "I didn't realize that they were using slides, so for years I worked on developing a vibrato technique equivalent to a slide," he told Steve Caraway in Guitar Player. "It all made me develop a certain style." At sixteen Robertson quit school to join Hawkins as a bass player until the guitarist, Fred Carter, quit a few months later. For the next two years he practiced endlessly as the band toured Canada and the rural sections of the States. As the teenager was viewing the richness of Americana, he also became one of the most unique players around. "Robbie was the first guy to get into white funk, in Canada or anywhere," Hawkins told Ben Fong-Torres in Rolling Stone. "They were always two years ahead of their time."

Robertson fingerpicked as a youth to alleviate boredom and to accompany himself, but now he was beginning to explore the ringing tone offered by harmonics (picking a string and then grazing it with a finger to bring out a bell-like overtone). "Within a year (of joining the Hawks) I was actually onto something," he said in Guitar Player. "I was the only one playing a certain way in a big area; up north it just wasn't happening for that kind of guitar playing." In fact, besides Roy Buchannan on the east coast, it wasn't happening anywhere else. Robertson's guitar exploded on Hawkins's biggest hit, "Who Do You Love," in 1963, which would be their last year backing up the wild singer.

For the next two years drummer Levon Helm fronted the group as Levon and the Hawks toured Canada. After hearing them in Toronto, John Hammond, Jr., brought the members to New York, where Robertson played on some of the bluesman's recordings. While working in New Jersey the Hawks received a call from Dylan asking them to play with him at a Hollywood Bowl gig. They accepted and in the summer of 1965 they hit the road as Dylan's support band, playing America and Europe sans Helms--the only U.S. citizen in the group--who had headed back home to Arkansas, as Mickey Jones replaced him until the tour was over.

Helm rejoined Robertson and the rest of the Band (Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko) in West Saugerties, New York, where they retreated to write and record songs for their 1968 debut LP, music From Big Pink. The album reflected Dylan's lyrical influence as they worked closely with the singer while he recovered from a motorcycle accident. The Band's mountain-music sound also rubbed off on Dylan, as evidenced on his songs from the same period later released as The Basement Tapes. In Robertson, Dylan found not only an exceptional writer but also an excellent guitarist. He was, according to Dylan in Rolling Stone, "the only mathematical guitar genius I've ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rear guard sound."

As solid as their first LP was, their second release, The Band, would be remembered as the album that helped listeners bring life after the 1960s into focus. The Band moved to Los Angeles to record the LP as Roberstson took over as chief songwriter. As a Canadian giving his view of America, Robertson created "one of the greatest and most profound rock and roll albums ever made," stated Dave Marsh in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, "as close to a perfect statement of purpose as any rock group has ever come." Songs like "Across the Great Divide" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" established Robertson as a premier tale-teller. "In my mind there's this mythical place in America where the storyteller lives. And he tells stories based on this place and people who've come through, and his experiences," he later told Musician. SL In 1970, Robertson, at age twenty-six, appeared alongside his Bandmates on the cover of Time magazine with the release of Stage Fright, their third LP. With such an incredible album to follow, Stage Fright was a fine effort but not nearly as overwhelming. Their follow-up, Cahoots, was even weaker yet as Robertson's lyrics lacked his visionary punch. A live album, Rock of Ages, was recorded on New Year's Eve, 1971, at New York's Academy of music with the addition of Allen Toussaint's beefed-up New Orleans-style horn section. Robert Christgau, in his Record Guide, called it "the testament of artists who are looking backwards because the future presents itself as a vacuum--a problem that has afflicted even their best work." Although the record helped bring the Band back into the mainstream, it was followed by Moondog Matinee, a disappointing oldies album from a group known for their marvelous originals ("Life is a Carnival," "Chest Fever," "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek," and "The Shape I'm In").

After playing to 600,000 fans at the Watkins Glen, New York, festival, the Band hooked up with Dylan again for his 1974 tour. The live show, released as Before the Flood, was a huge success netting nearly $2.5 million. "No way do we feel we deserve it," Robertson told Rolling Stone. "But I don't think a gallon of gas is worth a dollar, either." After the tour and live album, Dylan went back into the studios with the Band to record his Planet Waves LP.

The Band took a few years off before hitting the road for an American tour in 1976. But, after just two months, they decided the group had run its course and announced their farewell concert for Thanksgiving Eve in San Francisco. "I've been playing in the band for sixteen years and I'm thirty-two," Robertson said to Patrick Snyder in Rolling Stone. "It's been eight years in the back streets and eight years uptown. We're going to conclude this chapter of our life.... We have to bring it to a head." They did it with style, too, putting on a star-studded finale that included some of music's most famous names: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Emmylou Harris, and, of course, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. The $25-per-seat concert at Bill Graham's Winterland, site of their debut some seven years earlier, featured the Band playing their hits and backing up their friends with the fire and passion that made them one of rock and roll's classiest acts. Director Martin Scorcese filmed the show, entitled The Last Waltz ("so far no one has even tried to match it," wrote Greil Marcus in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll ) and a subsequent triple live album of the same name was released in 1978.

With such a natural screen presence in the movie, the next step for Robertson was acting. He appeared as Patch, a carnival hustler, in the movie Carny and also worked on the soundtrack for the film. "It's not a matter of me shifting from rock and roll into movies," he told Chet Flippo in Rolling Stone. "It's a natural course, a gradual thing. It's all storytelling, if it's music or movies or books." Robertson teamed up with Scorcese to score three more films: Raging Bull, King of Comedy, and The Color of Money. For the latter, Robertson did a last-minute rush job for the lyrics to Eric Clapton's hit "It's in the Way That You Use It."

Robertson had laid low for the most part while members of the Band had reunited without him shortly after their breakup (he did join them onstage once in 1989). In 1986 keyboardist Manuel died from the very reasons that Robertson had decided to quit life on the road. "We're talking about living a dangerous life. One thing equals another whether it's drinking or drugs or driving as fast as you can or staying up for as long as you can," he told Bill Flanagan in Musician. "That way of life seemed very fitting. At a certain age you don't think, 'this is insane!'"

Robertson signed a recording contract with EMI, which was later bought by Geffen Records, and in June of 1986 he began working on his first solo LP while finishing up The Color of Money with Gil Evans. Robbie Robertson was produced by Daniel Lanois with a bevy of friends lending their support: Peter Gabriel, Maria McKee, Tony Levin, the BoDeans, Garth Hudson, and Bill Dillon. Among the songs, "Broken Arrow," "Hell's Half Acre," "Showdown at Big Sky," and "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" once again display Robertson's talent for writing musical mini-novels. "Sweet Fire of Love" was a special treat with U2's The Edge trading blistering guitar licks with Robertson. The big question was why did he wait so long? "I never said I'm not going to write songs for a while; I just didn't have the lure to get in there, sit down and suffer. I wasn't so sure I had something to say," he told Musician. "I just didn't want to make mediocre moves."

by Calen D. Stone

Robbie Robertson's Career

Began playing guitar at age 10; played with Ronnie Hawkins's band, the Hawks, 1959-63, remained with band after Levon Helm replaced Hawkins, 1963-65, group name changed to the Band, 1965, backed Bob Dylan, 1965-68, first group LP released 1968, band dissolved, 1976; solo performer, 1976--. Composer of musical scores for films, including Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Raging Bull, and Carny; actor in films, including Carny.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 15 years ago

does robbie feel betrayed by levon helm? ripped pretty good in his book.

almost 16 years ago

Robbie's still around. I'd like to know his mom's maiden name; we may be related.

about 16 years ago

Is Robbie Robertson still alive? Did Rick Danco pass away?