Robbie Robertson of the legendary group The Band opens up to Marty Davis, Cambria CEO, about life, music, the release of his memoir, and the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz.
Leaders are not appointed so, they seem to emerge from an independent evolution in their life; its challenges, its varying moments and the often uneventful nature of each day. Many things influence who becomes a leader, other people, their environment, emotions, personal challenge, education, the times, genetics, life mixes influencing the psychology of an individual processing it all in their amazing human brain, wherein a leader becomes.
James Royal Robertson was born on July 5, 1943 in Toronto, Canada. His mother, Dolly, was from the Six Nations Indian reservation, she was of Mohawk and Cayuga descent, his father, James Robertson from a working class Toronto family. By the time he was 8 years old at his Mother’s Indian reservation, he was listening intently to his Indian relatives playing guitar and humming tunes. He became enthralled with music and it fast became his dream, his BIG DREAM, a life in music was it. At age 13 he got his first authentic guitar, a Christmas gift, at 15, two songs he wrote were headed to New York, a big time record producer was recording them, and by 16, he was off, headed to ground zero of the rock and roll revolution, the Mississippi Delta, Dixie. The dream was taking hold, and it would become the catalyst to all that he became, and the leader that would evolve.
Robbie grew up in the bustle of Toronto, with the diversity of time spent with his Mother’s family back on the reservation. It was there Robbie enjoyed his relatives, absorbing his heritage and the ways of the Mohawk nation, Indian life. Robbie was raised by his Mom and Dad in a seemingly normal, usual childhood. As in most, normal and usual, have no actual definition, it means something different for everyone. Robbie would learn by the age of 13 that his Father, James Robertson, wasn’t his blood father. His real Father Alex Klegerman, had died in a freak automobile accident while his Mother was unknowingly pregnant with Robbie. Klegerman, aJewish born card shark in Toronto, was rumored to have a sordid nature to him, and an amazing memory, the last of which Robbie already felt in himself. His Father who raised him, James Robertson, was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde, strong attempts at warmth and love for them, overwhelmed by intermittent, escalating violence and explosiveness ensuring Robbie’s withdrawal from him. Robbie was becoming ingratiated by his blood father’s family, the Jewish Klegerman clan. This was also near the time that Dolly and James Robertson split, and soon divorced. Robbie’s unique heritage, further spawned and nurtured the anxiety and mystery as to who he was, that in the end, developed his skill to figure things out.
He embraced his blood father’s family, the Klegerman’s Jewish roots, his Mama’s tribe, Mohawk and proud, and still found some of the good in the Father who raised him, James Robertson. He learned from many of the people in his life, the adversity, he hardly acknowledges. As Robbie put it “I was embracing all these aspects in life, I was developing a combination of being streetwise and later learning the code of the road from Ronnie Hawkins.” As to those obstacles in life, Robbie could easily process them, “I said so what, we go to where the light is shining, we can’t stand here and not imagine these things,” Robbie reflected, “I’m following my dreams.” Intrigued by Uncle Natie Klegermans deep involvement with the mob in Toronto in the 1950’s, and in spite of his seedy friends and acquaintances, Natie fast became a sort of mentor, even hero to Robbie. His family and friends, save for his Mother Dolly, tried to quell Robbie’s dreams in music. “I understood, at a very young age, the possibilities music could hand one and I started having big dreams,” Robertson said, “I didn’t understand why people didn’t dream, big dreams, and have a wild imagination of what you could do in your life,”Robbie continued, “I couldn’t fathom the limitations that people talked about. I don’t understand them, and I couldn’t let go of the dreams.” It was the enlightenment of these challenges, changes and oddities in his life, that brought clarity to how deeply Robbie’s dream remained, his world and his future, was music. His youth was a fervent member of all that formed him, but soon a part of his past, he had work to do, and dreams to realize.
In 1958, Robbie Robertson met Ronnie Hawkins on the west side of Toronto. Robbie’s small band, the Suedes, was opening for The Ronnie Hawkins Band. Ironically, they were playing the Dixie arena. It was there as well, that Robbie spotted a little bleach blond-headed drummer with a big smile, and drumming like he had never seen before, it was Levon Helm. Ronnie liked what he saw in young Robbie, and so did Levon. Robbie hung around the band for months doing any little thing he could to be involved.
Robbie Robertson began his dream, on the bottom rung of the ladder, he carried equipment for the band, practicing on the side while working to get his shot. It wouldn’t come easy, but Robbie was already proving he was an enormously hard worker. He was hooked, “mesmerized,” he would say later, this was it, music. “I am on my way down to the Mississippi Delta, I’m going to the holy land of rock and roll,” Robbie said, “I’m going to join up with the most wicked rockabilly band around, called Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.” Robbie was there to try and break through and become a playing member of the Ronnie Hawkins Band. He was on an audition with the band, wherein the Hawk
would take measure, and see if he had the stuff.
By 1960, Robbie was in, ultimately landing at lead guitar, with Levon on the drums, what would become The Band was beginning to form with Levon and Robbie quickly becoming brethren. “Levon and I had become running buddies in this,” Robbie remembers, “Levon can see I’m going to be something and, I think that he is the most musical guy I have ever been around in my life, and a great guy too!” Robbie goes on, “we’re growing and it was like Ronnie, Levon and me and its building to this stage.” In 1961, Ronnie hired, at the urging of Levon and Robbie, a meat cutter from Simco, Ontario, Rick Danko, to play bass guitar for the Hawks. Richard Manual, from Stratford, Ontario joined in as the newest Hawk, on piano. “Richard,” Robbie reflected, “had an amazing voice and was one of the nicest guys around.” Late in 1961, the Hawks had their eye on an organ player thought to be a music extraordinaire, Garth Hudson. He was highly skilled musically, and would bring an entire new dimension of musicality to the group. The Band members were to pay Garth $10 per week as their music teacher, satisfying his Father, the preacher, who didn’t want Garth simply playing in a sketchy, rock and roll band. The new Hawks band was set, as was the stage, ultimately for, The Band.
From 1962 to the beginning of 1964, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks developed into one of the most powerful rock and roll bands in Canada. Rock and roll was roaring in Canada at the time, having been stamped down in the United States. America wrestled with the advent of this harsher music called, rock and roll. Ultimately rock and roll was “here to stay”, but for the years 1960 to 1964, Canada was where rock and roll flourished, and the Ronnie Hawkins Band was the group leading the entire Canadian music scene. It seemed like it might never end. Then, one day in 1964, Ronnie Hawkin’s Hawks became restless; Helm, Robertson, Danko, Manual and teacher, Hudson, were leaving him. Hawkins was working the stage less, the boys were feeling a bit too controlled by the Hawk’s rules, the band was getting really good and being sought after all over the music industry, they were moving beyond Ronnie, and it was time for a good thing to come to an end. The five band members left Hawkins, and formed a new band of Hawks. Levon and the Hawks toured around Toronto for a while and ultimately, as a result of Robbie Robertson’s relationships in the New York music scene, hooked up with Albert Grossman and Bob Dylan. Grossman was close to Dylan and arranged an audition for Robbie to become a part of Bob Dylan’s Band taking Dylan electric. Dylan wanted Robbie to play with him for a couple shows, but Robbie was cautious, “I might do it, if you take Levon on the drums with us” Robbie suggested, ultimately Dylan agreed. After a couple of shows with Dylan, Robbie insisted, Dylan would need to take the whole band. “It’s all the Hawks,” Robbie told Dylan, “or nothing.” Dylan then came to Toronto to see the band audition. Dylan agreed, and Levon and the Hawks were now fully immersed as Bob Dylan’s band, soon becoming known as the band who took Dylan electric. Incidentally, the name, The Band, found its roots in this period of playing as “the band backing Bob Dylan”. As time passed, Dylan called them the band, and as Robbie noted “everyone just kind of referred to us as, the band, we just kind of became, The Band.”
It was highly toxic taking Dylan electric, the folk music crowds were unruly and raucous. Ultimately Levon hated the gig, and in 1965 he up and left New York, Bob Dylan, and Robbie. In doing so, he left his own band, basically in the dark of night, sharing only his departure plan with Robbie. Robbie described it to me still with a sense of dismay these many years later, “you can’t leave your own band, it’s your band, but he left.” Robbie assumed the role as the leader of the band, a role he had begun to share with Levon. “as all of these things are happening, I have to keep stepping up and stepping up, and taking on another responsibility”, Robbie reflects, “so I do that, Levon goes and we do all the stuff with Bob Dylan and we do the basement tapes when we come back.” In July 1966, Dylan was severely injured while riding a motorcycle in Woodstock, effectively ending his work with The Band.
By 1967, Levon Helm was back, and The Band was reborn, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manual and Garth Hudson. Robbie was glad to have Levon back as was the rest of the band, “but now I’m in this other position, he’s still the older brother but now I’m the one that kind of knows what’s going on,” explained Robbie, “and I bring him back in with all the love you can imagine and we do fantastic stuff together.” The Band had moved forward with Robbie’s leadership, “as time goes on we both understand that I am the person that needs to think of what to do,” says Robbie, “I need to be the creative force in this, that it makes sense,” Robertson went on, “the guys in the band were incredibly talented, but they didn’t have a path, they couldn’t see beyond and they each needed to have a responsibility, my responsibility kept growing and growing.” Robertson then sets the stage for the first record, and is the lead in that development, “I’m not doing it to take charge, I’m doing it because it’s my responsibility and everybody realizes that I’m better at it, or willing to do stuff they don’t want to do.” John Simon, a near member of the group, would produce their first two records.
The band melded together to make unbelievable music, Helms vocals in sync with his awesome drum playing, Richards voice, Rick’s harmonies, and the sounds of a Garth’s organ made the music a style of its own, but it was Robertson’s lyrics through his poetic songwriting and the strings of his lead guitar that would begin to embody The Band’s style and musical tone; his leadership that would cultivate the journey. “I never said to anybody that I was the leader of the band,” Robbie states, “but it was the responsibility that fell on my shoulders, and somebody had to take it, I was more comfortable with it than the other guys, they respected my taste and my vision, my point of view, my writing and my ideas.” The first album release, the Music from Big Pink, was in 1968, with their most recognized single, Robertson’s, “The Weight”, leading the way. It was a big hit, and they followed it up with a second album, The Band, in 1969, featuring, again Robbie’s, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “King Harvest”. In 1969, The Band toured all over the world and became recognized as one of the greatest bands of the times, Time magazine, who put them on the cover on January 12, 1970, called them a culture maker. Stage Fright, The Band’s third album was released in 1970. The Rolling Stone gave large amounts of praise and attention to The Band, hailing them as one of the most influential and unique bands of their era. Eric Clapton and George Harrison cited The Band as a major influence on their changing styles of music, with Clapton wanting to join The Band in 1969.
They struggled handling their enormous success. The Band spiraled up and down in the years following their very accomplished work, as addiction and the distrust amongst partners that it breeds, abound. Robertson explained, “everything had driven right up to the edge of the cliff, and we needed to pull it into the station, I could no longer go out in front of the public with the health issues that had arisen in the band.” The group was out of control, still making good music, but going in different directions and taking turns going near the edge. Robbie Robertson began to realize, in all ways, this would end badly if he didn’t do something about it, that The Band couldn’t continue like this “it was time to get the train into the station,” adding, “we just couldn’t continue to survive this way, people were in real trouble, we needed to stop and catch our breath.”
Robertson had a brilliant idea, and with it he would begin the process to create, orchestrate and produce what would become the greatest rock and roll concert of all time.
It should be a celebration, he concluded, allowing for The Band to leave the road on high ground. In doing so, Robertson was doing what he had done naturally for a long time, ever since he was that young boy in Toronto, he was taking the responsibility and leading.
Robbie would take charge of the entire enterprise, meet up with Martin Scorsese, and share this vision around a final concert. The Band was an extraordinary group of musicians who had performed extraordinary work together, they should go out on top, not flailing off the rails. Over the next couple of months Robertson led a team who planned, orchestrated and produced the greatest rock and roll concert of all time and they called it, The Last Waltz. It was Robbie’s idea and Robbie’s vision. The Last Waltz did more to elevate the music of their generation and the music of The Band, than any other single thing associated with both. It was brilliant, hugely successful, and will live endlessly, frozen in time, elevating all who participated in it to a mythical place, forever, in the lore of music.
It was on Thanksgiving Day 1976, The Band celebrated their amazing body of work and performed their final concert, The Last Waltz. It was at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, California, the first concert hall wherein the band played as The Band.
The Last Waltz was a celebration of an awesome time and place in musical history, and it happened because a young indian-jewish boy, born of the 1940’s, dared to dream…big dreams.
Thank you Mr. Robertson.