Born in Toronto in 1943, Jaime Robbie Robertson was the son of a Jewish father and Mohawk mother. Naturally growing up with a wide range of musical stylings, his interest in native-Canadian meshed with his early exposure to the country hits of the 50’s. He started up a number of bands while in school including Robbie And The Robots, Little Caesar And The Consuls and Thumper & The Trambones before dropping out of high school at 16 to pursue his dreams full-time.
After Ronnie Hawkins recorded two of his songs in 1960 (“Hey Baba Lu” and “Someone Like You”) he then joined his backup group, The Hawks as guitarist. But after 3 years or touring with people like Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Jackie Wilson – Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson left Ronnie’s nest to fly on their own. They released 2 songs as 3 singles under the name The Canadian Esquires and Levon & The Hawks over the next two years. His penchant for the blues got Robertson a backup gig on John Hammond Jr’s SO MANY ROADS and I CAN TELL albums, which happened also to feature Danko.
After releasing a pair of singles under the names Canadian Esquires and Levon & The Hawks, they were hired as Bob Dylan’s backup band on the road before again going solo a year later. After a few more name changes they eventually settled on The Band and were signed to Capitol Records in ’68. Along with Helms, Robertson guested on Jesse Winchester’s self-titled debut in 1970 and co-wrote “Snow”. The Band went on to record 11 albums and pen such timeless rock classics as “The Weight”, “Up On Cripple Creek”, “Ophelia”, “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” and “The Shape I’m In”.
After they brought in director Martin Scorcese to film their Thanksgiving Day farewell finale in 1976 (released as THE LAST WALTZ). Robertson left music all together to work on other projects and study acting and directing. 1980 he re-appeared in the public eye on 2 films. He wrote, directed and co-starred in ‘Carny’ with Jodi Foster & Gary Busey with a cameo by fellow Band-mate Levon Helm.
That same year, his previous THE LAST WALTZ association with Scorcese also led to Robertson writing the score for his new movie ”Raging Bull”, starring Robert DeNiro and Susan Sarandon. He continued working in films for the next few years, including Scorcese’s ”The King of Comedy” – which included “Between Trains”, his first post-Band recording – & ”The Color of Money” with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, “Gangs of New York,” and “Shutter Island.”
His long-awaited solo album debut came in 1987 on Geffen Records. Critical praise was instantly thrust upon the self-titled masterpiece. With guest appearances by U2, Daniel Lanois (also serving as producer), Peter Gabriel and Band-mates Danko and Hudson. A moody and atmospheric rock album by any name, it helped seperate Robertson from his country/blues roots with The Band, giving everyone a brief glimpse at his dexterity and range. Backed by the singles “Showdown At Big Sky”, the laid-back “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” and energy in “American Roulette” the album soon went double platinum. Other noteable cuts included the bitter “Hell’s Half Acre”, “Broken Arrow” (later covered by Rod Stewart) and “Fallen Angel” – a tribute to his deceased Band-mate Richard Manuel.
He again dropped out of sight, preferring to work in films again, including 1988’s ‘Scrooged’ with Bill Murray and Buster Poindexter. That same year saw him reunite with The Band for the first time in 12 years, performing on stage during their induction into the Juno Hall of Fame. His next solo album was STORYVILLE, released in ’91. Recorded in New Orleans with Lanois returning as producer, it naturally had a very Cajun flavour to it, boiling over with the imagery that served as the backdrop for most of the stories behind the record. Robertson also spent a great deal of time in that neck of the bayou during the 60’s between Hawkins & Dylan, thus giving him past experiences to write about as well. Bruce Hornsby co-wrote and guested on “Go Back To Your Woods”, as was the case with Aaron Neville with “What About Now”. The same year had Robertson working on a Japanese cable TV program, where he hosted ‘The Full Moon Show’ – a retro-documentary on American music.
After turning down the invitation to join the reunited Band in ’93, he released his third solo release a year later. MUSIC FOR THE NATIVE AMERICANS featured The Red Road Ensemble, a North American Aboriginal group. Originally designed as the backdrop to a TBS documentary, the album returned Robertson to his roots, blending traditional Native rhythms with a folk/country sound. Record execs thought it too ‘unconventional’ for mainstream radio so no singles were released. Even so, the album scored big with Native Americans with tracks like “Mahk Jchi (Heartbeat Drum Song)”, “Coyote Dance”, “Golden Feather”, and “Cherokee Morning Song.”
He again retreated to filmwork, first in a guest role in ‘The Crossing Guard’ with Jack Nicholson and then as music producer for ‘Casino’ starring Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone and ’96’s ‘Phenomenon’ with John Travolta. The theme song “Change The World” won the ’97 Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and the soundtrack took home Record of the Year. He then released LIVE IN ITALY. Recorded in Agrigento on the MUSIC FOR NATIVE AMERICANS tour, it featured a mostly acoustic set of that album, with a few unreleased tracks mixed in.
His next solo album had both execs at Geffen, critics and the general public all equally bewildered, and yet still compelled. CONTACT FROM THE UNDERWORLD OF REDBOY found its way onto the shelves in ’98, a collaberation with techno bigwigs Howie B and Marius de Vries. With the electronic beats and uncharacteristic over-production, it was largely an experimental phase he was going through which wasn’t particularly well-received by anyone. Execs didn’t sell it. Critics didn’t get it and fans didn’t buy it.
Tracks like “Peyote Healing” and “Stomp Dance” still played heavily on his heritage, just with a little more technology. The angst and protest of the song “Sacrifice” is especially endearing. It features Leornard Peltier – a Native American who’s been in prison since ’76 on what many believe to be a trumped up murder charge. Though described by some as pretentious and repetitive, others hail the record as thought-provoking and reflective. A PBS Special ‘Making A Noise: A Native American Musical Journey With Robbie Robertson’ aired in November of that year.
While he continued to do production and film work, the greatest hits compilation CLASSIC MASTERS was released in 2002. The album featured bits and pieces of his career after the STORYVILLE album, including remixes of three of the songs.
His next album wouldn’t be until April of 2011, when HOW TO BECOME CLAIRVOYANT was released. Immediately heralded by the critics, it included several guest appearances, including Eric Clapton (who co-wrote three tracks), Tom Morello, Robert Randolph, Trent Reznor, and Steve Winwood. While he’d explored his ancestry and Native roots in earlier albums, this took him back to his rock heritage, including the evocative “This Is Where I Get Off,” the first song he’d released regarding his leaving The Band. “Straight Down The Line” gives a glimmer into the past – when rock n roll was considered the Devil’s music, while “When The Night Was Young” tells the tale of Toronto’s early club scene while countless performers like Robertson were experimenting with their sound.