Beverly Jean Santamaria, better known as Buffy Sainte-Marie, built a career on the false claim that she was a Cree Indian born in Canada. That marks a stark contrast to Robbie Robertson, born Jaime Royal Robertson on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario – same place as Jay Silverheels – on July 5, 1943. Robertson never traded on his heritage and built a career by putting American folklore to music.
The songwriter and guitarist passed away on August 9, but the New York Times failed to publish an obituary until September 4. Word has since been slow to emerge, doubtless because Robertson was not a “rock star” as currently understood. He had a solo career scoring movies but his major role was the driving force of The Band. And what a band it was.
In the early 1960s they backed up rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins and from there it was on to Bob Dylan before branching out on their own. Robertson, Garth Hudson (keyboards, saxophone) Rick Danko (bass) and Richard Manuel (piano), all from Canada, partnered with Levon Helm who like Hawkins hailed from Arkansas. They were going to call themselves “The Hawks” but finally settled on the “The Band.” Their “Music from Big Pink” album made quite a splash in 1968.
They all sang in their own voice, never trying to sound like anybody else. In “The Weight,” penned by Robertson, they cried “take a load off, Fanny.” The lively “Up on Cripple Creek” makes reference to bandleader Spike Jones, an obscure figure even then. These and other hits were best showcased in The Last Waltz in 1978, when The Band finally called it quits. Even now, it’s hard to think of a better concert movie.
“Don’t Do It” introduces the players in fine style and Robertson turns in one of his better solos. Manuel busts up “The Shape I’m In,” and Helm shines on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” beautifully arranged with horns. The same goes for “Ophelia,” one of Robertson’s more swinging tunes. Pitching in on “The Weight” are the Staples Singers, and there’s more to come.
Also appearing are Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield (check him out with Helm on “Mystery Train”), Dr. John, and Ron Wood. They dial it way back with Hawkins on “Who do You Love,” and join with Bob Dylan on “Forever Young.” Great song, but it wasn’t going to happen.
Richard Manuel passed away in 1986, Rick Danko in 1999, and Levon Helm in 2012, now joined by Robertson. Garth Hudson, the last surviving member, is 86 and in poor health. Back in April, Hudson turned in his first public performance in five years, with a rendering of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” on piano. His virtuosity is still in evidence but like Robbie Roberson he’ll always be known as a member of The Band. There was nothing quite like them back in the day, and there sure isn’t now.