Singer-songwriter-guitarist Robbie Robertson

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The celebrated musician and founding member of The Band shares his insight on the business that made him a legend.

Before going solo, Canadian singer-songwriter-guitarist Robbie Robertson was a member of The Band, one of rock's preeminent acts. He's also considered one of the rock era's premier songwriters and was one of the first rockers to become seriously involved in scoring films, having collaborated on several movies with longtime friend Martin Scorsese. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and is a member of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Robertson's latest project is the book and accompanying compilation CD, Legends, Icons & Rebels, which profiles 27 of the most influential voices in musical history.


Tavis: As a musician, Robbie Robertson has been hailed by “Rolling Stone” magazine as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. He’s been inducted to both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, so it’s safe to say he knows a little bit about great music.

He’s now co written a book for young people called “Legends, Icons, & Rebels: Music that Changed the World.” Also just out, a two-CD set called “The Band: Live at the Academy of Music,” which was recorded during four legendary concerts in New York back in 1971. Let’s take a look at The Band.

[Clip of The Band performing]

Tavis: I always get a kick out of rock and roll stars whether or not you actually remember this.

Robbie Robertson: Though they say, if you remember it, you weren’t there (laughter).

Tavis: (Laughter) Do you remember those nights in ’71?

Robertson: I very well remember those nights. That was a very special time. We had Allen Toussaint, you know the great –

Tavis: Absolutely

Robertson: – New Orleans musician. He came and did horn charts for this show and the last of these shows – it was four nights at the Academy of Music in New York and, the last of those nights, New Year’s Eve, Bob Dylan came, our old buddy, and we had just a great time. So it was very memorable.

Tavis: When you hear this stuff all these years later, what do you hear? How’s it sound to you?

Robertson: It holds up pretty good.

Tavis: Yeah.

Robertson: Yeah. For this collection, it was great. The record company came to me a few months ago and said “We found the tapes.” In the course of this we found lost footage, we found photographs, we found so much stuff that we had to do a collection like this.

Tavis: I am always amazed, and maybe because I hold on to everything and hoard stuff, but I am constantly amazed, and it made me, for the sheer volume of stuff you guys were doing, maybe the volume of stuff I’m doing doesn’t measure up.

But I’ve never quite understood how historic stuff like this gets lost. You had Alan Toussaint, you had Bob Dylan. (Laughter)

Robertson: Yeah.

Tavis: How does something like that get lost for, like, 50 years?

Robertson: Well, they have to store it somewhere, and there’s so much of it that things like that happen. Sometimes there’s more stuff that I’d like to find, so we’re going to keep on searching.

Tavis: I’m sure there’s more stuff there, too.

Robertson: Yeah.

Tavis: You might be putting one of these out every couple years. (Laughter)

Robertson: It’s a lot of work. I don’t know about that.

Tavis: I mentioned a moment ago the high regard that exists for you personally and The Band more broadly. When you hear accolades of how great a guitar player you were, are, how does that sit with you, how does that resonate?

We all want to be admired and appreciated and respected for whatever it is that we do, but have you always thought you –

Robertson: Well, it’s better than the alternative?

Tavis: Yeah, I guess so. (Laughter)

Robertson: No, it’s great.

Tavis: What have you thought of your gift, is what I’m asking.

Robertson: Well, I’m very grateful for all of the wonderful opportunities that I’ve had over the years, but a lot of it truly was a tremendous amount of work, and with The Band, we were together seven years before we made “Music from Big Pink,” our first album.

So we were woodshedding, we were working on it. Now when young bands today – there’s a lot of young bands that were tremendously influenced by The Band – I understand how they zero in on that and why, because there is a musicality there that is really undeniable.

Tavis: What is so undeniable about it as you look back on it?

Robertson: We put together, when this group came together, we were very, very much on a mission of finding people that were so extraordinary, each person, at what they did that we could be a club.

That we could do something and we could go out in the world and make a difference. It was really that serious. This wasn’t about let’s get some guitars for Christmas and start a band thing.

We were dead serious about this thing, and then in the early days we played everywhere. We picked up so much musicality along the side of the roads, and incorporated it like a gumbo into our music.

It became – when our first record came out, people were like, “What is that? Where did this come from?” We were like, “What do you mean?” This is called do your homework and try to gather as much as you can, try to incorporate as much as you can. It’s all circled around and ended up in this book, in a kind of way.

Tavis: For the long-time fans of The Band, I suspect they know the answers to these questions, two questions I want to ask about naming. But for those who might not have heard the answers, let me ask it one more time.

How did The Band get to be called The Band, and how did you end up being Robbie Robertson? That’s not your given name.

Robertson: It was kind of a common thing for kids when I was growing up at that age. My first name is Jamie, and in school –

Tavis: What do you got against “Jamie?”

Robertson: I don’t have nothing against it. (Laughter) But I was just called something else, and I finally had to answer. They did that with people with names like that, and it just stuck. I didn’t argue about it, so it just stuck.

Tavis: And how did The Band get to be called “The Band?”

Robertson: Because in this particular period, in, like, 1967, 1968, there was a lot of groups with very silly names. Because like I said, we had been doing this for a while, and we couldn’t get on any trendy thing, we couldn’t start calling ourselves some silly name.

Playing with Bob Dylan, everybody just referred to us as “the band,” and we got used to it. It was a way of saying we’re not part of all of this over here. We’re not going to play that silly game. We’re just here for the music. This was our way of kind of putting that out there.

Tavis: Give me your sense of whether or not you think there is – I’m trying to find the right word here – there is the respect, the regard, the deference for the musicality in this generation that there ought to be or once was.

Robertson: I think that there’s always great music being made. Always has been, always will be. But we do live in a more disposable period right now. A lot of music is made, it’s not meant to be timeless. It’s not meant to be taken that serious, and that’s fine. It’s okay. But there’s great stuff, always. There’s a balance in it, I feel.

Tavis: I resonate with the point you make now about the fact that everything isn’t meant to be timeless, but what happens societally when that scale is so imbalanced, when 90 percent of the stuff is not meant to be timeless, or certainly won’t be, and 10 percent or less is, how does that – what’s the narrative going to be about this period years down the road if the scale is that imbalanced?

Robertson: It’s a reflection of the times, and we’re just in it. So we’re going to take the ride, and we just hope in there that we find some things that do resonate with us and say ooh, that’s got some depth to it, that feels really good. That’s going to be around for a while. But it’s hard to recognize, because only time will tell.

Tavis: I want to push back on that. I don’t think only time will tell. I think that we have ears right now that let – and your ears are better than most. I think we have ears right now that let us know that some of this stuff ain’t going to hold up 25, 50 years from now, Robbie.

Robertson: I’m going to let you –

Tavis: You’re being charitable, man.

Robertson: I’m going to let you make that list. (Laughter)

Tavis: It’s not about making lists. I’m just saying you would argue me on that point?

Robertson: No.

Tavis: You don’t hear stuff now that you know good and doggone well ain’t going to hold up?

Robertson: Yeah, it’s very true. But it’s all – I don’t think that this is unique to this period, though. I think there’s always been some stuff that’s been a little shallow and wasn’t meant to. It’s trendy, it’s gimmicky.

Tavis: Who do you blame for that? Do you blame the artists – and I dare not call all of them “artists,” – but do you blame the artists, do you blame the industry, do you blame the bean counters? Who do you blame for that imbalance now?

Robertson: I don’t blame anybody. I think it just is what it is. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just –

Tavis: You’re in a good mood today, man.

Robertson: It’s a reflection, though. It is a reflection of the time that we live in. Some people love some music, and they hear it a year later and they think, what was I thinking?

So you know what I mean? There’s all these different balances of it, and I think that it’s all valid in its own kind of way. We need toys in our life as well.

Tavis: Like I said, you’re in a really good mood today. (Laughter)

Robertson: You’re trying to get me to bash somebody.

Tavis: No, I’m not trying to get you to bash anybody. I’m just trying to make a clear distinction between what was and what is and what ain’t going to be (laughter) if we don’t course-correct sometime soon where the music is concerned. But I digress on that point.

Robertson: Do you feel much stronger about what was than what is?

Tavis: Oh, absolutely. I’m glad you said that. Nice segue. Thank you, Mr. Robbie Robertson, because I was saying to myself when I saw this book the other day, “Self,” (laughter) “In 50 years, who’s going to be, as we look back on this period, who’s going to be in a book, and will it be this thick?

Robertson: Uh-huh.

Tavis: Could it be this thick 50 years from now, a book of legends, icons, and rebels? Maybe rebels, depending on how one defines that. But legends and icons? Who’s going to write this book 50 years from now? So yes, I think the people in this book really do fit this moniker.

Robertson: Maybe the list will just be a little shorter.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying – it’s going to be a real thin book. Like a pamphlet. But again, I digress on that.

When you put together a book, though, like this: “Legends, Icons, & Rebels,” where do you start? By start, I mean how do you – what’s the definition, the characteristics, the qualities that you’re looking for to even make this list?

Robertson: Well, that’s what I was saying earlier, that time has really proven this to be undeniable, and these artists that are in here in 50 years will be just as valid.

Tavis: Precisely.

Robertson: This is truly timeless, these artists, and all of the people in this book, they did something that made a contribution that moved the whole thing around. They made music that did change the world, and the idea of – as an idea, I started thinking God, for a kid who’s nine years old or something, this book is for nine to 99.

But for a kid who’s nine years old, to have this kind of a foundation in music, to know about these people and grow up and be able to say, “What are you talking about? When I was nine years old I knew who Billie Holiday was. I’d heard Louis Armstrong. I knew what Buddy Holly did.”

And for parents, too, are thinking, that’s my kid. This is so great to have that kind of a depth and that kind of a foundation for the rest of your life in music?

Tavis: How does a kid nowadays even access that though, Robbie?

Robertson: Well, that’s why this is long overdue, because you need to share these kind of things. In my house, growing up with my son, who is where this whole idea started, Sebastian, he grew up in a house where he heard this music all the time.

Then as he grew up he said, “A lot of kids don’t have this opportunity. They don’t know about this stuff. They don’t know what’s good and what’s bad and what’s real and what’s not.”

So over a period of time it became like this needs to be done. Somebody needs to do this. Somebody needs to share this in such a lovely way that a kid can be invited into this thing and not think oh, I’ll never know about this, or this is not for me. Or I live today and this doesn’t matter. It is – it’s universal.

Tavis: I love the way the book’s laid out. I’m going to turn this round right quick, Jonathan. I’m just going to take a couple shots here.

I love the way it’s laid out. It’s a book for young people, obviously, but look at how – I love the artwork. Every artist has his or her own page. There’s Chuck Berry, of course. Let me flip this right quick – one of my favorites, Ms. Ella.

Robertson: The First Lady of Song.

Tavis: Yeah, but love how the book is – I love the layout and the artwork is absolutely beautiful. When you said a moment ago, and the book’s subtitle suggests that: “Music that Changed the World,” take one or two artists, if you will – we’ve mentioned a few already on this program.

But take one or two artists for me and tell me your view, at least, of how they changed the world, how their music changed the world. I’m asking that because here again I think we live in a culture where the word “icon” has been bastardized.

It’s so over-used. Everybody who’s called an icon ain’t really an icon. (Laughter) I think you’re right about that fact. Icons are people who changed the game.

Robertson: Yeah.

Tavis: They brought something to the table that just changed the way it’s done. They elevated it to such a level that, you know. So we use that word all the time. I’m just trying to get a sense from you, give me one or two examples of people who you think their music changed the world, that they changed the game, they really are iconic.

Robertson: Here’s an example that you wouldn’t have – without a book like this, you might not be aware of something like this. But some years ago I was spending some time with Chuck Berry, widely considered the father of rock and roll.

Chuck Berry told me if it wasn’t for Louis Jordan, he wouldn’t have probably ever even got into music. That Louis Jordan changed everything and made him want to become a musician.

He was that good, and Chuck Berry said, “I only wanted to do what Louis Jordan did.” Then cut to a few years after that. I was talking with another person in the book, the great Little Richard, another one of the founding fathers of rock and roll.

He says, “If it wasn’t for Louis Jordan, I don’t know whether I would have even gotten into music.” I think whoa, if these guys are the fathers of rock and roll, Louis Jordan is the grandfather of rock and roll, and not everybody knows that.

Tavis: When you spend time with the artists who are celebrated in this book who are still living, since you mentioned Little Richard and Chuck Berry, is there a thread, a through-line that you’ve come away with that is consistent for all of these artists who are legends and icons and world-changers?

Robertson: It’s about an extraordinary talent, a unique talent that nobody else could do what they did. It just stood out like a diamond, and you had – and when I was growing up, these guys were like my heroes.

I could have said what Chuck Berry about Louis Jordan to him. You’re the guy who made me say I’ve got to be a part of this thing. The thread that runs through this, when you talk about Billie Holiday, nothing before, nothing after in her own, unique, special way compares.

Louis Armstrong. What he did for music changed the world. These people – Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, changed the world in music, and it holds up today as good as it ever did.

Tavis: I wonder sometimes, Robbie, whether or not – and not just with regard to music. I think about this in other arenas. Certainly technology doesn’t fit this paradigm, because technologically we’re advancing every day, if you can call it advance. Sometimes I think what we think are advances are really setbacks, but that’s another conversation for another time.

So technology doesn’t fit this paradigm, but I wonder if music and other genres might, which is to say that we have seen, we have heard, we have experienced the best that’s ever going to come, and that the most you can do is try to elevate to the level of a Sarah Vaughan.

The most you can try to do is to get to the level of a Billie Holiday or whomever the person might be, or a Louis Armstrong. But I wonder how it is that – this is where I’m cutting this generation some slack – I wondered is how they become – not that this ought to be the goal. The goal ought to be to express your artistry.

But how do they become iconic? How do they push the envelope? How do they change the world? Is that still possible in a genre like music if the argument from some of us is that it don’t get no better than X, Y, or Z?

Robertson: I’m not sure that it doesn’t get better.

Tavis: Okay.

Robertson: I know when we’re in it. When I was playing with Bob Dylan in, like, 1966, I was, like, 20 years old. I didn’t know that that was it. I didn’t know this was a musical revolution. I didn’t know that what we were doing was going to change music forever.

Sometimes when you’re in it, and that’s why I say this time element does play a part in it, and I do believe that there is music today that will hold up, and that there are artists today that will grow and they will do something magical.

Time will tell in that. So you’re very much a traditionalist in this, and I’m trying to keep an open mind in that.

Tavis: No, I’m trying to be (unintelligible). (Laughter) Believe me, I want to be the latter, and that’s why when I find something –

Robertson: But you’re kicking and screaming, though.

Tavis: Well, when I find – you know why? Because I think the standard is so high, and I find, at least my own sense of it, since you raised it, I think the standard is so high, and I find that rather than try to elevate to the standard, people do what’s making money.

Robertson: Yeah.

Tavis: I think that in so many ways the music business has just sold out, man, and as a result, it’s all about the numbers. I just don’t find the level of creativity, the level of innovation.

Put another way, everybody is trying to be a copy of somebody else. Ain’t nobody trying to be an original. That’s what my issue is. So that when I hear something original, I can’t wait to get these persons on the show, because I want to share my own discovery, however I came across the person.

Robertson: Right, yeah.

Tavis: Because this person is at least doing something that’s original, even if it ain’t selling 10 million copies.

Robertson: Right.

Tavis: So it’s not just that I’m a stuffy traditionalist. I want to celebrate new stuff.

Robertson: Right. One of the things that’s happened over the years is when a lot of these artists were at their height, there was great songwriters writing the songs.

Tavis: And melody. (Laughter) That’s another conversation. Go ahead.

Robertson: It is, it is. I don’t disagree with you on any of these things. I think the standard is not in that same place as what it was with these artists.

But there were songwriters, and then people came along like The Beatles and like Bob Dylan and like Buddy Holly and they wrote their own songs. It was financially beneficial too, so other artists said, “Well God, that’s what I’m going to do as well.”

Nowadays a lot of people write their own songs, and they’re not great songwriters.

Tavis: My friend Cornel West calls them 7-Eleven songs.” I said, “7-Eleven?” He said, “Yeah, seven words that they repeat 11 times.” (Laughter) That’s it. There’s no real verse, there’s no real melody – it’s just seven words, eleven times – 7-Eleven songs.

Robertson: Some of it’s like that, yeah.

Tavis: Some of it’s like that. Not all of it. Here’s my exit question. I got a minute to go here. So what this book does initially is expose this generation, exposes young people to legends, icons, and rebels, to music that changed the world, that they need to be aware of.

Once they are aware of it, if they want to be an artist, what’s your next piece of advice for them?

Robertson: Well, to go deeper than this. This is just opening the door. There is a lot of artists too that we very much wanted to be a part of this but that aren’t in here. Hopefully this is opening the door.

Hopefully there’s going to be a volume two on this, and a volume three, because there’s a lot more depth here, and – the Stones aren’t in this book. The Band isn’t in this book. I wouldn’t allow that to happen.

It was already written in there and I pulled it. I just didn’t want the distraction of me tooting my own horn in that. But this book is as a connection between parents and kids and grandparents and family, and a universe of music that needs to be shared.

Tavis: Well, you can toot your own horn with this. First, “The Band: Live at the Academy of Music, 1971,” over four very special nights these live performances come to life in this new project.

Then the book we were just discussing: “Legends, Icons, & Rebels: Music that Changed the World.” Robbie Robertson is still a very, very busy man, and I’m honored you took time to come on the show, Robbie.

Robertson: Always a pleasure.

Tavis: Always a pleasure for me to have you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 17, 2013 at 11:15 pm