NPR | Otis Hart / Published August 9, 2023 5:24 PM ET
Robbie Robertson, the lead guitarist and the primary songwriter for Canadian rock luminaries The Band, has died at age 80.
Family member Dawn Robertson confirmed the news to NPR.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s songwriting credits include several touchstone songs that would go on to establish the blueprint of Americana music, including “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek” and the controversial “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song narrated from the perspective of Confederate soldiers.
Robertson and The Band, who formed as a backing group for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, initially gained acclaim as the live backing unit for Bob Dylan, who first took them on tour in 1965 when they were still known as The Hawks. The group soon became stars of their own thanks to classic albums, Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, and The Band, released in 1969. Robertson would also immortalize The Band with the help of director Martin Scorsese in 1976 when they recorded a guest-star-studded performance announced as The Band’s final show. Scorsese’s concert film, The Last Waltz, would be released in theaters in 1978.
Members of The Band would reunite many times in the decades that followed, but Robertson never rejoined the group. He recorded music for soundtracks to Scorsese films like Raging Bull and The Color of Money and released a handful of solo albums. His last, Sinematic, came out in 2019.
Robertson is the fourth member of The Band to die, following Richard Manuel in 1986, Rick Danko in 1999 and vocalist/drummer Levon Helm in 2012. Keyboardist and organist Garth Hudson is now the group’s only living member.
Before he was Robbie Robertson, the future rock star was born Jaime Royal Robertson, the son of a Mohawk mother who was raised on the Six Nations reserve in Ontario. He learned later in life that his biological father, Alexander Klegerman, was a Jewish member of the Toronto underworld who was known for his gambling.
According to Hawkins, who appeared in the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, “Robbie’s real dad was a Hebrew gangster.”