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Robbie Robertson’s 12 favourite songs of all time

@TomTaylorFO

From life on the road as a touring musician to finally sharing the spotlight when The Band emerged from the shadows, Robbie Robertson’s journey in music has been a rather more winding one than most. At 78, you could forgive him for finally putting his feet up and basking in the harvest of his toil. However, if The Band were anything, it was a culmination and, thus, it simply wouldn’t be Robbie Robertson if he didn’t remain at the forefront of his own musical gathering momentum. 

In 2019, he crafted the critically lauded album Sinematic, and unlike a lot of artists in their autumn years, it was still fresh enough to celebrate without any hint of glossy-eyed nostalgia. While the legendary musician was promoting the album, Robertson caught up with the Los Angeles Times to discuss his life in music via twelve of his favourite songs of all time. 

Going right back to the days before he was a travelling musician working with the likes of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, John P. Hammond and others, he was, like so many of his generation, spellbound by the emerging sound of rock ‘n’ roll. One song, in particular, caught his attention, Chuck Berry’s 1956 rocking anthem ‘Brown Eyes Handsome Man’. “At the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ stopped me in my tracks,” Robertson told the Randy Lewis. “There is a particular guitar sound on these early Chuck Berry records, and I thought, ‘What is that? How do you do that?’”

From then on, his fate was sealed, he seemed almost destined to be a musician having taken up summer jobs at a Carnival when he was only 14 and learning the ways of entertainment for pay. Eventually, he wrote tracks for Ronnie Hawkins when he was a teenager and one he is particularly proud of is, ‘Hey Boba Lou’. “Early on, we were all learning other people’s music, and when I tried to learn to play the guitar part that Buddy Holly played on ‘Not Fade Away’ — a lot of people play it, but they don’t play it right — it was an instance where I thought, ‘Well, rather than learning somebody else’s song, it might be easier just to write a new one.”

It is rare that you can describe a song as an obvious addition to someone’s favourite tracks of all time list, but when you have been part of a bonafide top 100 classic like Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, omission would be more surprising than involvement. “When Bob recorded the studio version of the song, I accidentally went with John Hammond Jr. to the studio. He said, ‘Oh God, I forgot, I promised my friend I would stop in, he’s recording,’ and I was like, ‘OK, whatever.’ We went in and they were recording ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and I thought, ‘Whoa, this guy’s pulling a rabbit out of the hat — I haven’t heard anything like this before.”

Robbie Robertson would tour with Dylan on the infamous electric ‘Judas’ concerts that followed, but ‘Like A Rolling Stones’ was a rallying cry of defiance, as he adds: “When I started playing with Bob, I didn’t know how so much vocal power could come out of this frail man. He was so thin. He was singing louder and stronger than James Brown. We were in a battlefield on that tour, and you had to fight back.”

A far less obvious involvement, however, was Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’. Perhaps this finger-to-the-pulse approach to music is what makes his sound still so fresh on recent albums, as he says of modern music, “I’m curious, yeah. But I like her more than many of the others.” Adding, “I went to the season opener this year of ‘Saturday Night Live.’ She was performing. I really like her, and I think this thing that she and her brother do is pretty magical.”

Another inclusion that Robertson was able to work on was Joni Mitchell’s ‘Raised on Robbery’ from her 1974 record Court and Spark. “[They recently remixed the record] and when they did, Joni said to me, ‘I listened to the whole song, and just listened to your guitar in it. The rhythm is incredible. And so when we remixed it, we turned it up.’ She and I have dinner every once in a while.”

Robbie Robertson’s 12 favourite songs:

  • ‘Brown Eyes Handsome Man’ by Chuck Berry
  • ‘Hey Boba Lou’ by Ronnie Hawkins
  • ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ by Johnny Cash
  • ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ by Bob Dylan
  • ‘Tears of Rage’ by Bob Dylan & The Band
  • ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Roy Buchanan
  • ‘Raised on Robbery’ by Joni Mitchell
  • ‘If You Know What I Mean’ by Neil Diamond
  • ‘The Best of Everything’ by Tom Petty 
  • ‘Country Boy’ by The Band
  • ‘Bad Guy’ by Billie Eilish
  • ‘Once Were Brothers’ by Robbie Robertson 

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