Robbie Robertson, 1943-2023

Lasting Legacy

It’s ironic that Robbie Robertson was famous mostly for his songwriting, because beneath the minimal, compositional style that marked his work with The Band hid a true guitar stylist and one of the most animalistic in rock history. The man who went from wild guitar solos with Ronnie Hawkins to penning classics like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” passed away August 9 from prostate cancer at the age of 80.

The mysterious quintet known simply as The Band released their debut album in 1968, following a stint backing Bob Dylan. In a year that saw Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Wheels Of Fire by Cream, and louder-than-God Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum, Music From Big Pink was a far cry from the extended guitar solos and Marshall amps of the day, and unlike anything that preceded it – ever.

As producer John Simon said in the “Classic Albums” video series, “The Band was unique in that we didn’t listen to anything else. We didn’t care what was on Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds. We liked them, but we were just in isolation, influenced by very old, established influences.”

Robertson’s bronzed ’58 Strat, as seen in The Last Waltz. Todd Krause at the Fender Custom Shop removed the Floyd Rose while prepping the reissue in 2016. Robertson’s ’51 Broadcaster. This Robbie Robertson signature Strat moved the middle pickup next to the bridge pickup. Its Moonburst finish was done by Krause at the Custom Shop.

Their stew of blues, country, folk, gospel, Cajun, jazz, rock and roll, and Tin Pan Alley was perhaps the seminal example of what is now called Americana.

Robertson wrote only four songs on Big Pink (he wrote or co-wrote everything on the group’s self-titled follow-up) and was not typically part of the vocal blend. But he had three fabulously distinctive singers at his disposal in drummer Levon Helm, pianist Richard Manuel, and bassist Rick Danko. As he told VG in November, 2011, “I’d say 90 percent of the time I wrote those songs specifically for them to sing. It was like a workshop.”

Jaime Royal Robertson grew up in Canada, born July 5, 1943, in Toronto. His father was Jewish, his mother Cayuga/Mohawk, and he split his time between the city and the rural Six Nations of the Grand River reserve.

This signature Strat is one of two Robertson commissioned with a Native-American finish. ’61 Gibson EMS-125. This 1920 Gibson Style O is the guitar Robertson is holding on the cover of The Basement Tapes, and was a prominent instrument in his days with The Band.

He used the terms “Indian” and “Native” interchangeably, as his friends in the community did. “On the Six Nations Indian reserve, where all my cousins and uncles and aunts were, it seemed to me like everybody played music,” he recounted. “I felt like I needed to get in on this. Finally, some cousins and uncles started showing me some chords on guitar. I was just really drawn to it. There was a time that I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, it’s so great, you guys turning me on to this and showing me this, but I actually can play better than you can now.’ I can remember thinking that at a pretty young age, around 12 or 13.”

He referred to 1956 as his “big bang,” when he was at the impressionable age of 13 and the sounds of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard were blasting out of radios.

Playing his first electric, a copper-colored Harmony H44 Stratotone, his ear was also cocked to Les Paul and Mary Ford, Joe Maphis, and the Collins Kids, but, as he declared, “I thought, ‘Man, Carl Perkins writes the songs, he plays the guitar solos, he sings!’ That’s even better than just somebody who strums the guitar to accompany themselves. And Chuck Berry. Look at that!

’66 Epiphone Howard Roberts. Robertson’s 1919 Martin OO-45K is the only koa 00-45 ever made. Robertson called this ’07 Martin Custom OM-42 “Showdog Workhorse.” It’s actually an OM-18 in Style 42 trim, with mahogany back and sides, ebony fingerboard with snowflake inlays, an Adirondack spruce top, 1935 Sunburst top finish, a slotted headstock with torch inlay, and a pyramid ebony bridge.

A string of garage bands followed for the pompadoured teen, including Robbie & the Rhythm Chords. When one opened for Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly singer asked Robbie to join his band, the Hawks.

“After the Harmony, I found probably a ’57 Strat in a store, and got a pretty good deal on it. But I had to pawn it about a year later to pay for my ticket to join up with Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks in Arkansas. He said, ‘You don’t need a guitar; just figure out how to get down here and we’ll get you a guitar.’ So when I got there, we got a Telecaster. I played Telecasters for years.”

’51 Martin D-28. This 1928 12-fret 000-45 gut-string inspired a Robertson signature Martin. 1928 Bruno.

Robertson can be heard strangling leads out of that Tele on recordings like Hawkins’ cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.”

“At that time, there weren’t a lot of people playing that style of guitar – like James Burton and Roy Buchanan,” he recalled. “They were very unusual and unique in the beginning. And I learned a lot of their tricks from Fred Carter, Jr., and then from Roy Buchanan. Most people played a different style, and when I first was playing with Ronnie, I took what they were doing and made it more raging. On those first recordings I played with Ronnie, and just from us playing wherever we played, guitar players were coming from all over to hear me do that. They didn’t know about moving the strings down and using a banjo string for the first string. They thought I was doing that with regular guitar strings, because there were no ‘light-gauge’ strings back then, right? So the fact that I could bend this thing, and in the particular way that I did it, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, the world’s coming to an end!’”

With Robertson on guitar and Arkansas boy Helm on drums, Hawkins moved the group to Canada and became a hot act in Toronto clubs. He soon replaced members with Canadians Danko, Manuel, and keyboardist/saxophonist Garth Hudson. In The Band: The Authorized Video Biography, Carl Perkins said they were as good as any rockabilly players anywhere.

Producer/engineer George Semkiw played guitar with Toronto’s Richie Knight & the Mid-Knights. In the Robertson documentary Once Were Brothers, he said, “Every guitar player in Toronto learned from Robbie. I watched them all change from their old style of playing to the new Robbie style of playing. I was one of the pack.”


Recollections of Robbie

I remember vividly the making of Blonde On Blonde. Robbie and I shared a hotel room in Nashville, and we didn’t sleep because we stayed up laughing all night. I was a big fan of his guitar playing, and I loved playing with him on the album. I was on some of those “Boo Tours.” I thought Music From Big Pink was incredible, an amazing record. What they did was much more difficult than making a blues album, for instance. – Al Kooper

I always had the deepest respect for Robbie Robertson. Here was a guy that created some of the greatest American music of all time, was an incredible songwriter, and led The Band, a group I have always loved. His blues-rooted guitar playing never really got the credit it deserved, and he was a master at “playing for the song,” whatever that meant at the time.
The years I spent as part of the Woodstock, New York, scene were very dominated by his and The Band’s accomplishments, and as The Band went, so did the town… songs of his, such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” and “Rag, Mama Rag” are just part of this master’s American songbook, and he definitely deserves a place among all the greatest song writers of all time! He will be sorely missed by us all, and thank goodness he has left such a rich creative musical legacy! – Arlen Roth

I was asked to come to a meeting with him at Village Recorders in Santa Monica. He was going to make a film with [writer/director] Zalman King, and he played me a bunch of songs. The film never happened, but those songs made up about half of his first solo album. It was just me and Robbie talking for a couple of hours about blues and rockabilly. He was like “How do you know about this stuff?” or “What’s your deal?” – at 15 or 16. I just told him my story – where I grew up, how I grew up. What was really special was after talking a while, he said, “You don’t have to live anymore. All you have to do is figure out how to tell your story.” He had that sort of cinematic side to him. Of all the songwriters I’ve been around or worked with, that was the best advice anyone ever gave me. Eventually, that’s kind of what I did. I’m very thankful for that day with him. He was really inquisitive and observant about things, and you can see that in his writing.

We played guitar a little that afternoon, but that was it. I played the Strat that he had bronzed, which weighed 9,000 pounds. I told him, “You’re supposed to bronze your child’s shoes, not your ’58 Stratocaster!” He was awesome, but so underrated. He always played the right part for what was going on. I appreciated the fact that not every song needed a solo. Robbie did a lot of the Bobby Womack/Hendrixy double-stops, like in the intro to “The Weight.” He was all about composition – in all definitions of the word. – Charlie Sexton

Robbie’s guitar stylings were the perfect fit for The Band, and a great example to all players and songwriters of what can happen when one is inspired by the musical company they keep. His tone shined throughout a vast landscape of sound and songs that defined an undefinable new genre of music. – Cindy Cashdollar

We lost one of America’s great songwriters – the visual  songs and melodic lead playing he did with The Band greatly inspired me and many others. The songs combined folk, blues, and rock and roll into what’s now called Americana music. – Jim Weider

I met Robbie in 1963 in Toronto, and he became my friend. He was a very knowledgeable guy about the scene there, and hipped me to stuff I didn’t know. Ronnie Hawkins was notoriously cheap, so they decided to split from him. I used to go hear their show, they came to hear mine, and we became really good friends. They were trying to get a record deal, and I was signed to Vanguard Records, so I suggested we make a record together. My friends Michael Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite were in New York at that time, and I invited them to the session.

At the time, I was good friends with Bob Dylan, and he also came to the session, so I introduced him to Robbie and the guys. Dylan wanted to do something electric, and as soon as he heard Robbie and the guys, he knew who he wanted to do it with.
Robbie was a great blues guitar player. He knew his stuff and had a great ear. I was so surprised when he didn’t just become more of a blues player, but he was a great musician and very capable of making that transition. I honestly wasn’t too impressed with the Big Pink album; it took a while for me to understand how they had made that transition. But after they worked with Bob and had their own inspiration as to how to come up with their original stuff, I was very impressed later. But at first I was so disappointed; I thought they would make a blues record.

In the fall of ’65, I did the I Can Tell album, also with Robbie. The Rolling Stones were in New York at the time, so I invited them to the session, and Bill Wyman played bass. Brian Jones wanted to play harmonica, but I said, ‘No, I’m playing harmonica.’ We had a grand old time. – John Hammond

The Forest Hills concert (August, 1965) was my first live gig with Dylan, and then the Hollywood Bowl. We had two weeks of rehearsal with Robbie replacing Bloomfield and Levon replacing drummer Bobby Gregg. Prior to that, I was familiar with the Hawks. Robbie was a good part player with licks that related to the song melody. In Woodstock, we hung out at the Bear Cafe and spent time jamming at Big Pink. He was a good co-writer but needed the band to make the songs work. Producer John Simon really helped The Band develop their sound, and he would play tunes for me. Music From Big Pink is one of the all-time great albums. – Harvey Brooks

I was on a different side of the moon when the early Band albums came out. I backed into them by way of The Last Waltz. I knew a bit about them because they backed Bob Dylan, and I knew they were a great band that was responsible for a lot of cool things. But when I saw The Last Waltz, I did a deep dive, and I was in it from the first note. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime combinations of people that was probably even beyond their comprehension. It was so good and so right, and at the bottom of it all was the songs.
Levon was my pal, and Robbie and I shared a table at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and I hung out with him at Billy Bob Thornton’s studio. I saw Richard Manuel play in Nashville not long before he passed. I never met Danko, and I’ve yet to meet Garth. But the other ones, I at least got to shake their hands – it was truly shaking hands with somebody.

Robbie was absolutely a good guitar player. I was assigned a mission in the ’90s, when I was on MCA Records. I did this project called Rhythm Country And Blues, where they paired us hillbillies with soul stars. They asked me who I wanted to sing with, and without question it was the Staple Singers. The song that went with that was “The Weight,” and there’s one guitar fill in The Last Waltz that wrecked me, on the line “Catch a cannonball now, and take me on down the line.” That one particular guitar lick absolutely made the sun come out for me. He knew what to play to make those songs sparkle. And that’s the mark of a great guitar player, to me.

God bless Robbie Robertson, a once-in-a-lifetime cat. – Marty Stuart

This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.