Robbie Robertson, Co-Founder of The Band, Dead at 80

The legendary songwriter died Wednesday after "a long illness"

Robbie Robertson plays his Fender Stratocaster electric guitar as he performs outside onstage in June 1976.
Robbie Robertson plays his Fender Stratocaster electric guitar as he performs outside onstage in June 1976.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Robbie Robertson, the guitarist and co-founder of The Band who penned timeless classics like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” has reportedly passed away at the age of 80. No specific cause of death has been announced, though the musician’s longtime manager Jared Levine said Robertson died after “a long illness.”

 “Robbie was surrounded by his family at the time of his death, including his wife, Janet, his ex-wife, Dominique, her partner Nicholas, and his children Alexandra, Sebastian, Delphine, and Delphine’s partner Kenny,” Levine said in a statement. “In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Six Nations of the Grand River to support the building of their new cultural center.”

Robertson was a rock ‘n’ roll lifer, joining Ronnie Hawkins’s backing band The Hawks when he was just 16 years old. That’s where he first met and began playing with Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Eventually, that group would break off on their own — dubbed simply The Band — and put out some of the 20th century’s most beloved albums, including their 1968 debut Music From Big Pink, their 1969 self-titled effort and 1970’s Stage Fright. Eventually, in-fighting and substance abuse took their toll on the group, and they decided to go their separate ways after one last hurrah — the star-studded 1976 farewell concert documented in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.

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Robertson’s friendship and collaboration with Scorsese would both prove to be enduring, and the musician served as a soundtrack producer and composer on many of the director’s films, including Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Irishman (2019) and the forthcoming Killers of the Flower Moon.

When I spoke to Robertson a decade ago and asked him to consider The Band’s legacy, he responded by saying, “The Band is probably the ultimate example of people taking all kinds of music, from gospel to blues to mountain music to folk music to on and on and on and on and putting them all in this big pot and mixing up a new gumbo. And The Band is somebody who collected all of these musicalities…We were together for seven years before we made Music From Big Pink, and we really studied music, really studied being as good as we could on our instruments and on our vocals and studying writing songs and all of these different elements. We really put that together, and when our first record came out, people acted like, ‘What planet did this come from? Wow! What’s up with this?’ And we were like, ‘What do you mean?’ Because it’s about gathering the beautiful things about music and having inspiration that really raised the bar, and it has its depth to it. It has a history to it. It has a soul to it. It isn’t just about a fancy performance, you know, it goes back, and it goes in this big circle of moving things forward and gathering from the past.”

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