Jaime Royal Robertson was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1943 to a Canadian father and a mother of Mohawk descent who grew up in the Six Nations Reserve southwest of Toronto. He learned the guitar when he was a young child, during visits to his mother’s relatives still living in the reserve (his main mentor was his older cousin Herb Myke). He was an active professional musician around the Toronto scene while still in his teens by first joining the band Little Caesar and the Consuls, formed in 1956 by pianist/vocalist Bruce Morshead and guitarist Gene MacLellan, and then forming Robbie and the Rhythm Chords in 1957 with his friend Pete "Thumper" Traynor. In 1960, Robertson joined a formative rock ’n’ roller Ronnie Hawkins and his band the Hawks, which included Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, and toured the United States and Canada with them until 1964.
Thus, his long-lasting career of this understated artist stretches virtually from the roots of rock ’n’ roll to span over many decades, covering high points in the history of popular music. Despite that, many music fans know him primarily as the guitarist of The Band and Bob Dylan and picture him, if at all, with the odd monster of a Stratocaster that he played in the concert documentary The Last Waltz. Robertson and the Hawks signed on as Bob Dylan’s backup band in 1965. Then, after signing to Capitol Records in 1967 as a band in their own right, they changed their name to The Band and released several successful albums into the middle of the following decade, while still collaborating from time to time with Dylan.
Known as a Telecaster guitarist through the early years of The Band, Robertson bought afterwards a pre-CBS Stratocaster and played it more and more frequently. He decided to transform it to a sort of monument in honour of the final concert of The Band, recorded by Martin Scorsese in the documentary The Last Waltz, still considered one of the best concert films ever made. “I’ve had this souped-up old Stratocaster quite a while,” Robertson told Musician magazine in 1987. “It has number 0254 on the back. You can tell it’s old ’cause the neck’s a little thick. Before I used it in Last Waltz, I had it bronzed, like baby shoes.” Robertson modified the guitar by having the middle pickup moved back alongside the bridge pickup to clear up some picking space for the fingerpicks he habitually used. Thus, the guitar looks like it carries a humbucking pickup, but it’s actually the two single-coil standard pickups. Robertson has often said this guitar was a 1958 Stratocaster. However, the thicker neck profile, the round string guide on the headstock and its serial number suggest an older guitar, from 1954, but the interchangeability of Fender parts makes this virtually impossible to determine without a close inspection of the instrument. The bronze shell gave to the Strat “a very thick, sturdy sound” but also added considerable weight. While he used it throughout much of The Last Waltz, Roberts lightened the load by switching at times to what appears to be a ’57 Stratocaster in two-tone sunburst, although it’s unclear whether this was his guitar or Bob Dylan’s (certainly Dylan plays it on the finale, “I Shall Be Released”). Robertson later added a “double-locking” Washburn vibrato unit to the Stratocaster, taking it even further from its Leo-certified origins.
Robertson’s wry, spare playing style, rootsy tone and tasteful fills have made him a distinctive and noteworthy guitarist and he has been acknowledged as such by many prominent musicians and legions of fans. The live documentary film contains a few more representative examples of his musicality than the performances on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia,” and “The Weight” where the latter is a classic of The Band written by Robertson himself. As a composer, Robertson had a productive collaboration with director Martin Scorsese who, after The Last Waltz, asked him to produce the soundtracks of some of his dramatic movies, including Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Irishman (2019).
Fender has recently created a Custom Shop Robbie Robertson Stratocaster which is available in either the artist’s preferred Moonburst finish or a lacquer-based bronze. Robertson has recently been seen playing one of two Fender Custom Shop Strats decorated by the Apache artist Darren Vigil Gray.
Next player: Ernest Shamblin