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Robbie Robertson, The Band’s Guitarist/Songwriter, Dies At 80

Artist also worked closely with Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, and Martin Scorsese throughout his career
The Band's Robbie Robertson performing in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1971 (photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redfern).

Robbie Robertson, the guitarist and main songwriter of The Band who collaborated with everyone from Bob Dylan to Neil Diamond, has died at the age of 80. According to his manager, the veteran musician died at his home in Los Angeles 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,” the statement said. He is also survived by his grandchildren Angelica, Donovan, Dominic, Gabriel, and Seraphina. Robertson recently completed his 14th 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.”

Born on July 5, 1943, in Toronto as Jaime Royal Robertson, he began his music career as a member of Little Caesar and the Consuls, which was formed in 1956 by pianist/vocalist Bruce Morshead and guitarist Gene MacLellan. As a teen, he met Ronnie Hawkins and join his band the Hawks, which featured Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. In 1964, the non-Hawkins members branched out on their own as the Hawks and befriended Dylan, who they backed on a legendary tour in 1966.

Afterward, Dylan and the musicians newly renamed The Band collaborated on songs in an upstate New York house dubbed Big Pink (the so-called Basement Tapes sessions were widely bootlegged but not officially released until 1975). The Band’s debut album, the aptly titled Music From Big Pink, arrived in August 1968 and cemented its rootsy, Americana folk sound on classic songs such as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”

Three more critically and commercially successful albums followed through 1975, when The Band fractured due to drug use and arguments over songwriting credits, of which Robertson received the lion’s share. The group’s final shows took place the following year at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, with the star-studded Thanksgiving performance captured by Scorsese in the 1978 documentary The Last Waltz. Scorsese and Robertson bonded during the process and became frequent collaborators, working together on such films as Raging BullCasinoThe Wolf of Wall Street

The Band returned to activity minus Robertson in 1983 but was hobbled again by Manuel’s 1986 suicide. Still, it managed to release three albums in the ’90s before Danko died in 1999. Helm passed away in 2012, leaving Hudson, now 86, as the lone surviving member. The Band was inducted into the Canadian Juno Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Outside of the Band, Robertson released six solo albums beginning with a 1987 self-titled effort and also produced Diamond’s two mid-’70s albums, including Beautiful Noise, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. In 2016, Robertson released his autobiography, Testimony, followed three years later by his final studio album, Sinematic. In 2019, Robertson and the Band were once again in the spotlight thanks to the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band.

“The music world lost a great one with the passing of Robbie Robertson,” Diamond wrote on the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Keep making that beautiful boise in the sky, Robbie. I’ll miss you.” Added Scorsese in a statement to NBC News, “Long before we ever met, [Robertson’s] music played a central role in my life — me and millions and millions of other people all over this world. The Band’s music, and Robbie’s own later solo music, seemed to come from the deepest places of the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys.”