Robbie Robertson: A Living Legend, Live at the Rally

First in a Three-Part Series

Interview by Michael Laskow
robbie robertson taxi rally
I've never had a more difficult time editing an interview. Nearly every word that came from Robbie's lips that day was golden. I've got enough material for three or four parts, so make sure you read next month's installment, and the month after that...


I am honored that you're here with us today, Robbie.

Thank you.

Good to see you. We bumped into each other at the Village Recorder a couple of months ago. Little did we know we'd be sitting here today.

So you've been in the industry for nearly 50 years, which is mind-blowing to me.

I can't relate to that number.

As I began to write the questions for this interview, I decided not to concentrate so much on your well-documented biography, and chose to concentrate on things that you've learned in your extraordinarily long career that can be helpful to the people in the room with us today. These are all people who would most likely want to spend 50 years doing what they love and earning a living doing it. So let's find out what you've learned in half a century.

At the time when you started, did you have any plan or any specific goals for how you wanted your career to go? Or did you just do it and it took on a life of its own—like when you met up with Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto, was that the beginning?

Well, that's where the professionalism began for me. I was at such a young age, and at that age you're not so much thinking about a career. I wasn't thinking about anything except that day and trying to do something that I was involved in with music that I loved for that day.

When I first met Ronnie Hawkins, I was 15 years old. I wrote two songs that he recorded when I was 15, and I was shocked that he'd recorded them. Then he indicated that he thought that I had what he called "po-tential." He said, "I might want to hire you at some point." And I thought, "I can't believe that. All I've got to do is convince my parents that hooking up with this crazy Rock 'n' Roll band would be an OK thing to do." Then, when I was 16 years old, he called me. The band was Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks. I was the first Canadian in that group; they were all from Arkansas. He called me from this place in the Mississippi Delta. Just the idea of all of that, that he was even calling from this place, which was to me where Rock 'n' Roll grew out of the ground.

Anyway, I was just much too young to be thinking about anything other than what was immediately in front of me and crossing this next path, and then the next path. It did begin with that experience with Ronnie, and he was very professional in the way he looked at it. He prided himself in having surrounded himself with talent. He was one of the first people that I'd ever heard say, "Listen, if you're really smart in this game, what you do is you surround yourself with brilliant talent that makes you look good." I thought it was humble for him to put it that way, and I also thought it was a very smart thing, and to this day... I just got back from New York last night, where I was meeting with some people there, and that's exactly what I was trying to do—surround myself with some brilliant people.

"... when the Band ... was making Music From Big Pink and the Band album, I had to reach for something to write about. I knew I didn't want to write about typical things. I didn't want to just write catchy little love songs. Not that I felt there was anything wrong with that, it just wasn't my calling ..."

—Robbie Robertson

Did you grow up in a musical home?

I grew up with music around me. My mother was born and raised on the Six Nations Indian Reservation. I spent a lot of time there as a young kid, and everybody played music, it seemed to me. Everybody, because there was no other entertainment on the res. Everybody played an instrument or danced or sang or was good with drums or something.

Why did you pick the guitar?

Of the instruments that were around, I just thought it was the sexiest-looking instrument. There was no genius behind this thought. It was just like, "That looks good." And at that time, at a very young age, you'd see the people in movies and things playing guitars, more than you'd see somebody playing a mandolin or a banjo or something.

Were you totally self-taught?

No, my uncles and cousins on the reservation taught me a few things in the very beginning. And as time went on... At first they said, "Oh my goodness, you're gettin' pretty good at this." And then the next thing they were saying was, "You're gettin' better than me at this." And then the next thing people were saying, "Wow, this is gettin' really interesting." And that's all a young kid needs to hear. I'm sure many people here have heard at some point someone say, "You're really kinda good at this thing." And you start to believe it.

They were right, obviously. At what point did you know you wanted to write songs as well?

I started writing songs very young, and I wasn't very good at it when I was 13 and 14 years old. Like I said, when I was 15 years old I wrote two songs... I heard Ronnie Hawkins say one day... I had a little band in Toronto, and we opened for Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks. I had a little band called Robbie & the Robots, and Ronnie Hawkins thought we were really pretty good. So I would see them around when they would play up in that part of the country, and I heard him say one day, "I've got to make a record. I've got to find some songs." And he had at the time a couple of very successful bit hits out. So I went off and I wrote two songs, and I came back and I said, "I've got a couple of songs."

This was your first attempt? You just said, "I've gotta write some songs," and you sat down and just did it?

Well, I heard that, and I thought I'd better rise to the occasion. I wrote two songs, and I came back and played them for him and he said, "I'm gonna record both of those songs."

Beginner's luck?

Yeah. I was on a mission, and not that they were brilliant songs. At the time I was 15 years old, so I was still trying to discover what I could do as a songwriter. But I figured out what he liked—I thought I did—and to a certain extent I guess I did, because he said, "I'm gonna record both of those songs." And then an extraordinary thing happened: He said, "Well, if you can write songs for me that way, I bet you would be good at helping me find songs to record." So he took me to New York and introduced me to Leiber and Stoller. And this all at the Brill Building in New York, and at the time, that was like the songwriter headquarters of the world. So he introduced me to Leiber and Stoller, Pomus and Schuman, Otis Blackwell—who wrote "Don't Be Cruel" and many other things—and a couple of other writers.

Did you know the importance of these people when you met them? Did you understand what a cool thing that was?

I knew that. I was studying this art form pretty intensely at a young age just to know who was what, and also forming a taste factor too—what I was drawn to.

It's pretty amazing that you were able to do that at 15, 16 years old and have that business head and have that kind of foresight.

Well, it wasn't a business thing at all, because I've always been—and still am—a strong believer in, "You do the work and you do something special, and the business follows." I've never done anything thinking about money or business first. I always thought about the idea or the song or something.

Yeah, but you had to make that creative connection of, "If I'm gonna write something, I'm should write the right thing for that guy." Maybe it's not a dollar-generated idea, but that's pretty heavy stuff for a kid, I think.

I guess so. It was instinctual. I don't think that I was being really clever. I was just following my gut feeling. But he introduced me to all these songwriters and that just lifted my appreciation, my admiration for what they did. And these were guys... They were all in these separate rooms in the Brill Building. These rooms each had a little piano in there and a couple of folding chairs. It wasn't a fancy operation. So I went in and met Leiber and Stoller, and Ronnie told them to play some of the songs for me. "He's gonna help me choose some things that would be good for me." Then Ronnie went and met with his record company president while I was doing that.

So they were playing me songs. They'd play me one song, and I thought, "Geez, that's really good." Then they'd play me another one and I'd say, "That's fantastic. Do you have any more?" And finally it would be like, "And who are you again?" Like, "Why are we playing songs for this young kid here?" And I just kept saying, "Have you got any more? Have you got any more?" I was just enjoying it so much, and learning at the same time. While this was going on, I couldn't help but think, "Oh, listen how he gets into the chorus on this song, and this one here, how they do that thing. And they're actually starting out with the chorus on this song." I was seeing them really demonstrate their craft right before my eyes with just a piano. There were no other things, no other smoke and mirrors, no tricks, no nothing—just somebody with some lyrics, a melody, and somebody playing some chords behind it. And just saying, "Wow, if it sounds good like that, then can imagine what it would sound like if you produced it properly?"

So that was good. Leiber and Stoller, they're still friends of mine from back then. Over the years we've had big laughs. Throughout all of my journeys along the way, I'd bump into them every once in a while.

To them you're still a snot-nosed kid. One of the things that is notable about you is that you're Canadian and you grew up on the reservation, and yet your music is so classically American. Was that partially their influence?

When I told you that Ronnie Hawkins called to hire me he was down in Helena, Arkansas. This area down there in Helena, Arkansas, is right across the Mississippi from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the other way is Memphis. This area right in there, for some reason, most of the music that I really liked at that time came out of this area—Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jimmy Reed, and on and on. It was just like it grew out of the ground there. So this was like Mecca; this was like the holy land of Rock 'n' Roll.

So he was like, "How would you like to come down here and join up with us?" And I was like, "Holy moly. This is it. I am going to the fountainhead of Rock 'n' Roll here." I took a train from Canada down there, and as I was getting closer to the South, the names started to have those sounds to them—the names of towns, the names of rivers, the names of mountains. Everything gets that ring to it, that rhythmic sound. As I went into this frontier in my mind, I was taking this in, I was absorbing this.

You were in your teens, right?

I was 16. So I'm gathering all of this just because I love it, not because of any reason that I understand. When I was there, the drummer that played in the Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks was Levon, who was the drummer in the Band. I was the first Canadian, but over the next couple of years, all the guys, except for Levon, became Canadians. The Hawks became the Band.

When I first went down there, Levon kind of took me under his wing. He took me home to where his folks were. I remember this so vividly that we were sitting in his living room there and his father was telling me about that area—growing up and the way things worked around there. Then the Civil War came up in the conversation, and he said to me, "Robbie, don't worry, because one of these days the South is gonna rise again." He was saying it half in jest and half in a way that just gave me chills. It was coming from him, and his storytelling had a big effect on me as a gatherer of ideas. Absorbing all of this made me want to take it all in even more.

And so, what ended up happening was over the next three years or so... We were playing the chitlin circuit down there, and I just kept gathering and gathering, just loving it. I was storing it in some attic of the mind, and when the Band—flash-forward a few years—was making Music From Big Pink and the Band album, I had to reach for something to write about. I knew I didn't want to write about typical things. I didn't want to just write catchy little love songs. Not that I felt there was anything wrong with that, it just wasn't my calling I felt. So I sat down to write songs, and this is what came out. This is when I reached out for something, this appeared—this whole thing about writing songs that incorporate this thing because it made such a profound impression upon me at such a young age. It was like what I had stored in my trunk of goodies to call upon when it came time to writing songs.

The best writers always have an arsenal of experiences to draw on. I'm just blown away that you were able to accumulate that much of an arsenal at that young age.

I didn't know that I was doing it for any purpose. I just knew that I liked it; I was drawn to it.

During the years when you were with the Band, did you write with the Band's sound in mind, or did the Band's sound come from your experiences that became your songs?

Well, when we played with Ronnie Hawkins, and when all the guys that did become the members of the Band were all together, we really wanted to become very good at what we were doing.

From a playing perspective?

Yeah, from a playing perspective. Ronnie Hawkins used to make us rehearse and practice all the time. When I joined him, I thought that I have got to make the grade here; I've got to pull this off. So I used to... He would make fun of it, but he would say I was literally sleeping with this guitar, and it wasn't far-fetched at all. I was just so obsessed with trying to do something, and there was so much going on at that time of learning and just experiencing this thing—going from Canada down to this place in the Mississippi Delta. There was so much to absorb and take in—all these great players and these sounds. And this is before that whole wave had gone over to England, with all of these guys like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page... Before all of that happened, I was there, but I was on the front lines, I wasn't importing these ideas. I was there; I was going to the Cotton Club to hear Howlin' Wolf play at night. And on the circuit that we played, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, and many, many others were on the same circuit. So I was seeing these guys firsthand. After I was with Ronnie Hawkins, not long after we were recording, and I came flying out of the shoot, just chompin' at the bit to express myself musically. It gave me a goal to really try to impress these other musicians that were on this circuit, and Ronnie Hawkins and all of that. It gave me something to really live up to, because they were like the real shit, you know. It was like, "Wow! There's Bo Diddley sittin' right there. I gotta do something to make Bo Diddley remember this."

So it was about playing. What happened was, Ronnie Hawkins pushed us to play better and do better and work harder and harder. He pushed us to the point that we outgrew him. Musically we had evolved to a place beyond his scope. Then we left and we went out as the Hawks and we played around the circuit. The word on the street was, "These guys are the shit."

Where was "the street"? Were you still down South?

We were everywhere from down South to playing in the East. We weren't playing out here, but we were playing everywhere from Canada to New York to Atlantic City to down South. So the word out there was that we were the real thing. Then Bob Dylan had heard about us and wanted to check it out and, as we know, that worked out.

Make sure you tune in next month to hear all about Robbie's experiences with Bob Dylan and much more!

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