Robbie Robertson celebrates his 78th birthday today. The renowned guitarist and composer was born on July 3, 1943 in Toronto. After stints backing Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s, Robertson would found The Band in 1967 with Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel.
Robertson’s time with The Band saw him emerging as one of the best songwriters of his generation, writing or co-writing stellar songs like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Life Is A Carnival,” “Acadian Driftwood” and more. Whether it be from his own experience or putting himself in other peoples’ shoes in a historical context (something he was especially skilled at), Robbie had an incredible knack for storytelling, something that would serve him well as he transitioned into a career as a film composer after leaving The Band.
While The Band would reform without Robertson in the 1980s, the group’s classic lineup played their final show on Thanksgiving 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom which was documented by famed director and Robertson’s friend Martin Scorsese to become the iconic concert film The Last Waltz. The farewell event was largely conceived by Robertson and spoke to his narrative mind. Every story must have an end.
Robbie subsequently brought his storytelling skills to a film career. After filming his starring role in the 1980 film Carny, Robbie began working on the music for Scorsese’s landmark 1980 film, Raging Bull and continued working with Marty on subsequent Scorsese favorites like 1995’s Casino, 2006’s The Departed, 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street and 2019’s The Irishman.
While any songwriter must possess the ability to distill the mind’s movie into song, a more pronounced cinematic quality began to seep into Robertson’s style on his solo albums beginning with his eponymous release in 1987, followed by Storyville in 1991 and running through his 2019 LP, the aptly titled Sinematic, which featured allusions to various Scorsese films. Sinematic was the follow-up to Robertson’s 2011 album, How To Become Clairvoyant, which opens with the funky rocker “Straight Down The Line.” The song tells a story in vignettes of a musician encountering various figures in the roots of rock ‘n’ roll like blues and gospel.
Robertson would tell that story when he appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and performed “Straight Down The Line” with The Roots and pedal steel guitar master Robert Randolph, who also played on the album. Backed by the killer band, Robbie even reeled off a solo of his own in his unique style that Bob Dylan called “mathematical.”
To celebrate Robbie Robertson’s birthday, watch the famed musician perform “Straight Down The Line” on Fallon below via the JamBase Live Video Archive: