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One of Canada’s rock royalty, he discovered his Jewish roots in his teens

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Let me take you back, to November 25, 1976. It was American Thanksgiving. In San Francisco, patrons were gathering outside the Winterland Ballroom. Inside the famed concert venue, The Band were preparing for their Last Waltz, an event billed as the last for this Canadian-American rock group.

The concert itself featured many special guests, including former employers Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, and literally a who’s who of the music scene of the time, and also friends of The Band. Together The Band and their guests performed songs from The Band’s canon, as well as songs that their guests had brought to the table. The events of that night are well documented in Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name, released in 1978. The Last Waltz remains one of the best documentary concert films ever produced, and in 2019 the film was selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved by the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Even if you’ve never seen The Last Waltz, which I encourage you to do, you are likely familiar with the group’s work. Songs like The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Shape I’m In, Up on Cripple Creek, were all hits for the band, and remain in heavy rotation on rock stations around the world.

The events that led to the original incarnation of The Band dis-banding, and setting the stage for The Last Waltz, have always left fans questioning why a band in their prime would suddenly dissolve.

The band, as The Band, were only together for nine years, but in that time left an indelible mark on the musical landscape with their very unique blend of roots rock. Many credit them for what is currently termed as Americana music. A blend of rock, country and folk. Sure they had backed Ronnie Hawkins as The Hawks from 1958-1963 (playing in bars on the Yonge Street Strip, in Toronto), and were Bob Dylan’s backing band when the folk musician went electric in 1965, and for a few years after, but The Band only existed for nine short years.

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Fans weren’t the only ones questioning the motivation behind The Band’s final concert. It has been well documented that only Robbie Robertson wanted things to end, in order to pursue his solo career, and other artistic endeavours. It was even Robertson himself who suggested that the band end touring and concentrate their efforts on being a studio-only band, who would still make records, but not tour, thereby freeing him up for other pursuits. The other members of the band, particularly Levon Helm, didn’t want things to end, and would eventually reform in 1983 without Robertson.

Robertson did go on to quite a career as solo musician, exploring his native roots, and putting out music that he found inspiring. You may be familiar with songs like Somewhere Down the Lazy River, Showdown at Big Sky, What About Now, Fallen Angel, and his work more recently scoring the theme for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. And while The Band did re-unite, there was always something off in the relationships between Robertson and his former “brothers”.

Many of these stories have come to light more recently, with the release of Once Were BrothersRobbie Robertson and The Band, a documentary that goes back into the history of The Band, and the years that preceded the formation of that outfit, the years of tumult that lead to The Band 1.0’s demise, and ultimately the sad tale of what had become of not only The Band itself, but of many of its members, including Levon Helm, who was a like a brother to Robertson, but also the counterpoint to many of his decisions. In the film, Robertson remarks that he made peace with Helm in his final years. 

Once Were Brothers - Robbie Robertson and The Band delves into the history of the legendary rock band, including a look into Robertson’s Jewish lineage | Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The film, based primarily based on Robertson’s accounts of the events, takes time to document a great deal of his own history, and that of the band. In fact, one poignant moment comes when we learn of Robertson’s lineage as the son of a Jewish gangster, a card counter, Alexander David Klegerman, who died in a hit and run accident.

His mother, Rosie Marie Chrysler, a Native Canadian who grew up on a reserve outside of Toronto, only told Robertson of his lineage in his bar mitzvah age, while his mother was struggling in an abusive relationship with her then-husband, who Robbie thought was his biological father. A funny part in recounting of the story comes when Arkansas-born rockabilly icon Ronnie Hawkins explains that “Robbie’s real dad was a Hebrew gangster.”

Following the revelation, Robbie’s mother acquainted him with two uncles, Natie and Morrie Klegerman, who like their brother, were part of the Toronto Jewish underworld. Another funny part in the film, that is infinitely relatable, comes when Robertson as a youth explained to his uncles that he wanted to pursue a career in music. They were initially aghast that he didn’t want to pursue a career as a furrier or jeweler. They would, as the tale goes, eventually help him book gigs at nightclubs around Toronto.

The film, Once Were Brothers – Robbie Robertson and The Band is available on Crave TV, and you can hear first-hand of all these details, and indeed all the others.

I can tell you, having met Robbie in recent years, he was an absolute mensch in every sense of the word.

Ira Haberman is a music journalist, curator, and host of the Sound Podcast

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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