Published on February 27, 2013 by Amy
Robbie Robertson, OC (born Jaime Robert Klegerman; July 5, 1943) is a Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist. He is best known for his work as lead guitarist and primary lyricist within The Band. He was ranked 59th in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. The Band has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. As a songwriter, Robertson is credited for such classics as “The Weight”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up On Cripple Creek”, “Broken Arrow” and “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”, and has been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
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Robertson was born Jaime Robert Klegerman in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His mother, Rosemarie Myke Chrysler, was of “predominantly Mohawk descent”. His father, Alexander David Klegerman, was Jewish. His father died when he was a child, and his mother re-married to James Patrick Robertson, who adopted Robbie and whose surname Robbie had taken. He had his earliest exposure to music at Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, where he spent summers with his mother’s family.
By 1958, Robertson was performing in various groups around Toronto, including Little Caesar and the Consuls, Robbie and the Robots, and Thumper and the Trambones. By 1959 he had met singer Ronnie Hawkins, who led a band called The Hawks. In 1960 Hawkins recorded two early Robertson songs, “Hey Boba Lu” and “Someone Like You” on his Mr. Dynamo LP. Robertson then took over lead guitar with The Hawks and toured often, before splitting from Hawkins in 1963. Robertson’s skill on his instrument continued to increase, leading Howard Sounes to write, “By twenty-two, he was a guitar virtuoso.”
After Robertson left Ronnie Hawkins, along with Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson, the quintet styled themselves Levon and the Hawks, but, after rejecting such tongue-in-cheek names as The Honkies and The Crackers, as well as the Canadian Squires—a name the record label called them and that they immediately hated—they ultimately called themselves The Band.
Bob Dylan hired The Hawks for his famed, controversial tour of 1966, his first wide exposure as an electrified rock and roll performer rather than his earlier acoustic folk sound. Robertson’s distinctive guitar sound was an important part of the music; Dylan famously praised him as “the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound.” Robertson appears as one of the guitarists on Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde.
From their first albums, Music from Big Pink (1968), and The Band (1969), The Band was praised as one of rock music’s preeminent groups. Rolling Stone magazine praised The Band and gave its music extensive coverage. Robertson sang only a few songs with The Band, but was the group’s primary songwriter, and was in the later years of the Band often seen as the de facto bandleader.
In 1976, at the urging of Robertson, The Band decided to cease touring; they gave their final concert in November of that year. Robertson’s friend, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, captured the event on film, released in 1978 as The Last Waltz. The concert featured The Band’s friends and influences: Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ron Wood, and Ringo Starr. Since Robertson was the only one in the group who had seriously wanted to stop touring, The Band resumed touring in 1983 with a revolving door of musicians filling his place.
Early solo career
Robertson produced Neil Diamond’s albums Beautiful Noise in 1976 and Love at the Greek (live) in 1977.
Between 1979 and 1980 Robertson co-starred with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster in Carny. He also co-wrote, produced, and composed source music for the film. For Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Robertson created background music and produced source music.
For another Scorsese film, The King of Comedy (released in 1983), Robertson served as music producer and also contributed with his first post-Band solo recording, “Between Trains.” Additionally, he produced and played guitar on Van Morrison’s song “Wonderful Remark”. Robertson signed via A&R executive Gary Gersh for his debut solo album on Geffen Records. Robertson recorded with producer (and fellow Canadian) Daniel Lanois. He also scored Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986), working with Gil Evans and Willie Dixon and co-wrote “It’s In the Way That You Use It” with Eric Clapton.
Robertson was enlisted as creative consultant for Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987), Taylor Hackford’s film saluting Chuck Berry. Wherein he interviewed Chuck Berry and played guitar while Chuck recited some poetry
From 1987 onwards, Robertson has released five solo albums. The first was self titled followed by Storyville, Music for the Native Americans and Contact from the Underworld of Redboy. In 1990, he contributed to Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto’s album Beauty. Robertson’s song “Broken Arrow”, off the Robbie Robertson album, was covered by Rod Stewart on his album Vagabond Heart and became a hit single. “Broken Arrow” was also a part of the Grateful Dead’s rotation of live songs 1993–95 (sung by bassist Phil Lesh), and later with Phil Lesh and Friends. The song “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”, became Robertson’s biggest solo hit.
In 1994, Robertson returned to his roots, forming a Native American group the Red Road Ensemble for Music for The Native Americans, a collection of songs that accompanied a television documentary series.
Also in 1994, Robertson joined Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and inductor Eric Clapton onstage to perform “The Weight” when The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
How To Become Clairvoyant was released on April 5, 2011 and is the fifth solo release from Robertson. It features Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Trent Reznor, Tom Morello, Robert Randolph, Rocco Deluca, Angela McCluskey, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. Pino Palladino, and Ian Thomas are the rhythm section. Robbie performed “He Don’t Live Here No More” on CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman and ABC’s The View in support of the album, with the band, Dawes, and solo artist, Jonathan Wilson. The album was also released in a de luxe edition containing five bonus tracks (four demos and the exclusive track Houdini, named after the magician).
In 1995, in Rome, Robertson headlined an annual Labour Day concert festival with support acts Andrea Bocelli, Elvis Costello, and Radiohead. In 1996, Executive soundtrack producer Robertson heard a demo of Change The World and sent it to Clapton as a suggestion for the soundtrack to Phenomenon, starring John Travolta. Babyface produced the track. Change the World won 1997 Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
In 1997, Robertson received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters.
In 2000, David Geffen and Mo Ostin convinced Robertson to join DreamWorks Records as creative executive. Robertson, who persuaded Nelly Furtado to sign with the company, is actively involved with film projects and developing new artist talent, including signings of A.i., Boomkat, eastmountainsouth, and Dana Glover.
On February 9, 2002, Robertson performed “Stomp Dance (Unity)” as part of the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Robertson served as music supervisor on the Martin Scorsese film Gangs Of New York.
At the 2003 commencement ceremonies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Robertson delivered an address to the graduating class and was awarded an honorary degree by the university.
In 2003, Robertson was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.
In 2004, Robertson contributed the song “Shine Your Light” to the Ladder 49 soundtrack.
In 2005, Robertson is the executive producer on the definitive box set for The Band entitled A Musical History.
In 2006, Robertson recorded with Jerry Lee Lewis and Samuel Bidleman on Last Man Standing on the track “Twilight”. That same year, he received the Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. He also produced the soundtrack for the Scorsese film, The Departed.
On July 28, 2007, at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Bridgeview, Illinois, Robertson made a rare live appearance. Also in 2007, Robertson accepted an invitation to participate in Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino (Vanguard). With the group Galactic, Robertson contributed his version of Domino’s “Goin’ To The River”.
In 2008, Robertson and The Band received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2010, Robertson provided music supervision for another Scorsese film, Shutter Island.
On May 27, 2011, Robertson was made an Officer of the Order of Canada by Governor General David Johnston.
Martin Scorsese was hired to direct The Last Waltz based on his use of music in Mean Streets. The two were housemates during the editing of The Last Waltz and became friends. Robertson went on to compose the musical score for his 1980 film Raging Bull, and in the years since the two have been frequent collaborators. Robertson would later work on Scorsese’s movies The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Casino, The Departed, Gangs of New York, and provided music supervision for Shutter Island.
In 1967, Robertson married Dominique Bourgeois, a Canadian journalist. They are now divorced. Together they have three children: daughters Alexandra and Delphine, and son Sebastian.