In rock and roll there is always an origin story, because whether in one’s own perceptions or in the world at large, there is always a time when there was no rock and roll and a time when there was. For Jaime Royal Robertson, born in Toronto in 1943, it was
at the end of the summer of 1956 that—wham!—the world had changed overnight…. I would go on to learn that this new music had been seeping under the door for years with artists like Fats Domino, but to me it felt like it happened in the blink of an eye.
Testimony, Robertson’s account of his life as a teenage member of the rockabilly band Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, and as the guitarist and a songwriter for the Band, a group that in the late 1960s rewrote the American story as surely as Mark Twain, Mae West, Uncle Dave Macon, or Robert Johnson had done before them, is a book about the revelation of such moments. It presents itself as a conventional memoir of family and professional life, from Robertson’s boyhood to Thanksgiving night 1976, when the five founding members of the Band played their last show, which they called “The Last Waltz.” They were the drummer Levon Helm (who, like Ronnie Hawkins, was from Arkansas), the pianist Richard Manuel, the bassist Rick Danko, the organist Garth Hudson (each, like Robertson, from Ontario), and Robertson, all of whom, from 1960 to 1963, joined Helm in Hawkins’s band. But in fact it is a book of shocks.
Sometimes the shocks come as stories, so perfectly described they might be tall tales. Bob Dylan once recounted how, four days before the plane crash that would take the Texas singer Buddy Holly’s life, he sat in the Duluth Armory in Minnesota and “Buddy Holly looked right at me”—a moment when a secret, if not the torch of rock and roll itself, was passed from the twenty-two-year-old Holly to the seventeen-year-old Robert Zimmerman. But in 1957, when Holly came through Toronto as part of one of the disc jockey Alan Freed’s barnstorming rock-and-roll package tours, Robertson—by then Robbie to school friends, a name that stuck—got closer:
After the show, as the musicians packed up their equipment, I slipped up to the security railing by the stage and caught a glimpse of Buddy Holly putting away his guitar.
“Excuse me, sir,” I called out. “I gotta know, how do you get that huge sound out of your amp?”
He looked over at me and smiled, then closed the latches on his guitar case and walked toward the railing. His black horn-rimmed glasses looked much bigger offstage and he dressed more like a university student than a rock ’n’ roll star.
“You a guitar player?” Buddy asked.
“Yes sir, I’m trying.”
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