Robertson worked extensively with Bob Dylan and director Martin Scorsese, working as composer, music supervisor, and music producer.
Robbie Robertson, The Band’s lead guitarist and songwriter who in such classics as 'The Weight' and 'Up on Cripple Creek' mined American music and folklore and helped reshape contemporary rock, has died at the age of 80.
Robertson died in Los Angeles, surrounded by family, “after a long illness,” publicist Ray Costa said in a statement.
He worked extensively with Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese, with Robertson having recently completed his fourteenth film music, Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon.
From their years as Bob Dylan’s masterful backing group to their own stardom, The Band profoundly influenced popular music in the 1960s and ’70s, first by literally amplifying Dylan’s polarizing transition from folk artist to rock star and then by absorbing some of Dylan’s own influences as they fashioned a new sound immersed in the American past.
The Canadian-born Robertson was a high school dropout and one-man melting pot — part-Jewish, part-Mohawk and Cayuga — who fell in love with the seemingly limitless sounds and byways of his adopted country and wrote out of a sense of amazement at a time when the Vietnam War had alienated millions of young Americans.
The Band remain defined by their first two albums, 'Music from Big Pink' and 'The Band', both released in the late 1960s. The rock scene was turning away from the psychedelic extravagances of the Beatles’ 'Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band' and a wave of sound effects, long jams and lysergic lyrics.
Through the 'Basement Tapes' they had made with Dylan in 1967 and through their own albums, The Band has been widely credited as a founding source for Americana or roots music. Fans and peers would speak of their lives being changed. Eric Clapton broke up with his British supergroup Cream and journeyed to Woodstock in hopes he could join The Band, which influenced albums ranging from The Grateful Dead’s 'Workingman’s Dead' to Elton John’s 'Tumbleweed Connection'. The Band’s songs were covered by Franklin, Joan Baez, the Staple Singers and many others.
Like Dylan, Robertson was a self-taught musicologist and storyteller who absorbed everything American from the novels of William Faulkner to the scorching blues of Howlin’ Wolf to the gospel harmonies of the Swan Silvertones. At times his songs sounded not just created, but unearthed. In 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down', he imagined the Civil War through the eyes of a defeated Confederate. In 'The Weight', with its lead vocals passed around among group members like a communal wine glass, he evoked a pilgrim’s arrival to a town where nothing seems impossible.
The Band played at the 1969 Woodstock festival and became newsworthy enough to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
They toured frequently, recording the acclaimed live album 'Rock of Ages' at Madison Square Garden and joining Dylan for 1974 shows that led to another highly praised concert release, 'Before the Flood'.
After the Band’s 1976 farewell concert The Last Waltz was captured on film by Martin Scorsese, Robertson worked with the director as composer, music supervisor, and music producer starting in 1980 on films including Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon.
Robertson married the Canadian journalist Dominique Bourgeois in 1967. They had three children before divorcing. His other survivors include his second wife, Janet Zuccarini, and five grandchildren.