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Legendary guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson has had several hit albums with The Band, an influential rock group of the 1960s and 1970s.
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Born in 1943, Robbie Robertson became a professional musician as a teenager. He joined Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in 1959. While working with Bob Dylan, Robertson later formed The Band with some of his fellow backup musicians. Releasing their first album in 1968, The Band had a string of hit recordings. They broke up in 1976. Since then, Robertson has worked on music for films and made several solo albums.
"If I can play one note and make you cry, then that's better than those fancy dancers playing twenty notes."
Perhaps best known for his work with The Band, Robbie Robertson started out on his musical path at an early age. He is half-Mohawk, on his mother's side, and he spent many summers on the Six Nations Reservations as a child. There he learned to play guitar.
Robertson dropped out of school at 16 to pursue a life in music. After playing with some local groups, he went to work for rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins as part of his backup band, the Hawks. Hawkins recorded two early tracks by Robertson—"Hey Boba Lu" and "Someone Like You." Touring extensively with Hawkins, Robertson eventually branched out with some of the other Hawks: drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson. They played as Levon & the Hawks for a time.
Robertson and his Hawks bandmates joined Bob Dylan for his first electric tour in 1964, which drew mostly negative reactions from Dylan's acoustic-folk fans. Helm left the band for a time, but he later rejoined Robertson and the rest of group who were staying near Woodstock, New York, while Dylan recuperated from a motorcycle accident. Living in a pink house in West Saugerties, Robertson and the others began working on some songs together.
The results of these sessions were amazing. Together they had created their own roots rock sound, a hybrid of country, folk, blues and rock. As Robertson later explained to the music blog Spinner, "The Band was rebelling against the rebellion. The rebellion went to a place where it became too obvious, too trendy, like you were just following the pack. So it was our choice to get off the bandwagon—no pun intended—and do things that were in our background and what was the most honest thing to do. In our music, there were all these influences from Canada to gospel music to the blues to rhythm and blues to rockabilly—everything was part of our gumbo."
Their first album, Music from Big Pink (1968), was warmly received by critics. While the main vocals were usually provided by Helm, Manuel and Danko, Robertson sang lead on one of the album's tracks. "To Kingdom Come" is one of the few Robertson-sung songs. The recording has been cited by other rock stars, such as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, as an important influence. With The Band, Robertson had dropped his wailing guitar method, striving for a more nuanced approach to the music. "I wanted to develop a guitar style where phrases and lines get there just in the nick of time, like with Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper. Subtleties mean so much, and there is a stunning beauty in them," he later told Guitar Player magazine.
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