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Legends, Icons, Rebels, and Robbie Robertson: A Rock and Soul Primer

'Legends, Icons and Rebels,' by Robbie Robertson and three other authors, aims to give kids a primer in classic soul, pop, and rock.

Legends, Icons and Rebels: Music That Changed the World (Tundra Books, 2013) is the kind of book that is an anomaly in the publishing world these days. Large, visually exquisite and carefully crafted as a musical journey for children by rock master Robbie Robertson, his son Sebastian, and record industry veterans Jim Guerinot and Jared Levine, it is the kind of undertaking that publishers frown upon these days. It is the kind of project that requires time, care and thoughtful approach that is rare in an industry desperately seeking blockbuster sequels, ebooks, movie rights and merchandising tie-ins.

Left to right: Robbie Robertson, Sebastian Robertson, Jared Levine, Jim Guerinot

But if anyone could pull off this remarkable Hail Mary by producing a hip, soulful and carefully considered compilation of the history and influence of rock and roll for children as its target audience, it would be the estimable Robertson. As a singer-songwriter, guitarist, composer and producer, he not only had a frontrow seat to the revolution in popular music of the 20th century, he has also influenced dozens of other artists during his 50 year career. Having achieved fame as the recognized leader and chief songwriter for The Band, which he started with lead singer Levon Helm in the 1960s, he is perhaps one of the few musicians alive today who actually knew, met or worked with many of the 27 artists featured in Legends.

In creating a work specifically geared toward children, Robertson and his co-authors hope to share their considerable knowledge and joy of music with a new generation who may never have heard of Hank Williams or Ella Fitzgerald, but whose musical influences can still be felt in today's pop and country landscape.

Musical Chairs

“Something struck me about the idea for this book—like there was something missing, something long overdue in developing the knowledge, understanding and greatness of this music,” says Robertson. “These artists lay a foundation for the rest of your life, which has nothing to do with a generational gap. It's timeless.”

The original idea for the book came from Sebastian, who is an accomplished musician and composer himself. He says the idea for the book germinated when he began thinking about how to introduce his eight-year-old son, Donovan, to the musical influences he grew up with in a way that was fun, interesting and inspiring.

“I started thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great for kids to hear this music?'” says Sebastian, who has written over 3,000 pieces of music for television and film. “And my dad and Jared thought it was a great idea, but we weren't sure how to approach it. We toyed with the idea of a compilation CD for kids, but considering what already exists in that market, to do a Kidz Bop-style compilation of all these legends seemed sacrilegious to us.”

Subsequently, the Robertsons and Levine were at dinner with Guerinot when the subject of doing a “musical project for kids” came up. Guerinot, who is the owner of Rebel Waltz and has managed Nine Inch Nails and No Doubt, immediately sat up and took notice. As the father of four children ranging in age from 15 to 6, Guerinot was in the same boat and wanted to hear more.

“It was an amazing concept, but it was tough to figure out how to do it so it doesn't come off as eating vegetables,” says Guerinot, laughing. “We originally thought of doing deluxe packages of CDs, but we realized that you have to give this music context – you can't throw it out there without writing about it and you can't write about it without the music. So we decided to do a book with music.”

But there was one small hitch: “We're music guys, not writers,” says Guerinot. “But we wanted to get the music out. We knew we had to do this book.”

With each rejection, the group became more determined to find a publisher. Even with the considerable credentials behind the project, says Robertson, “No one [in the publishing industry] would touch it! They would take our meetings and talk to us, but they just couldn't wrap their heads around what we were trying to do. It was frustrating.”

“They didn't understand the concept. They couldn't handle the idea that they would actually have to get permissions and pay royalties for the artists on the CDs that are included with the book,” concurs Guerinot. “On the flip side, it was not easy to get all these musicians or their rightsholders to agree to participate. Without the actual music you can talk yourself to death—but you can't do the book without the music.”

What Becomes a Legend

Having been dismissed by numerous publishing houses as too broad, too narrow, too esoteric, too adult, the package for Legends, Icons and Rebels also included not one, but two full-length compact discs to coincide with the written text. After a few scrapped incarnations and rejections by every major publisher in the U.S., the project finally took off after Tundra Books, a Toronto-based children's book publisher which is a division of Random House Canada, bought the entire concept, compact discs and all. Tundra, says Robertson, understood the value in producing a children's book based on rock music that included biographical sketches and coordinated songs to go with each artist.

“We couldn't have had a better publisher,” says Robertson of Tundra. “They were very collaborative and we knew they could really feel our vision. And that they also knew this needed to be done.”

From concept to completion, Legends took a staggering six years to assemble. During that time, the four authors and their publishing team, which included editor, Mary Beth Leatherdale, two designers and 15 illustrators, collaborated, edited and re-edited chapters, working on the design and gathering rights and permissions to use the songs and images that accompany the book.

“We worked on this a long time,” says Robertson. “But when we finally got to the core of what this book was, you could feel it. There was a feeling amongst us that this was special, which was such a lovely thing. Sebastian grew up in a house where he heard all these artists. And when you listen to their best work, it's a knockout.”

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“It was kind of like being in a band, in that everyone contributed something,” says Sebastian. “We didn't have a cut-and-dried method, so whoever had the most information or passion took the lead on a given artist. And these are all pretty musically savvy guys, so we all learned from each other.”

“The whole first year, this is what we did: We had lunch and sat around listening to music in Robbie's studio,” laughs Guerinot. “It was an amazing experience. And as we were selecting the artists and working on the book, everyone was equal. Robbie couldn't have been more gracious or polite and he was interested in what each of us had experienced. But honestly, we worked hard because here's a man who has been there, done that and he has a lot of stories. We wanted to impress him.”

In spite of the joie de vivre that inspired the group, however, they did have one important disagreement.

“Robbie didn't want to include The Band,” says Guerinot flatly. “I couldn't believe it! That was the only argument we ever had during the entire six years in working on this book. But he's such a sweet guy that in the end, I understood. But still. I mean, The Band!”

Robertson, however, was resolute that the book was not meant as a vehicle for self-promotion.

“I came into the studio one day, and I said, 'Guys, I'm gonna have to pull rank here,'” recalls Robertson. “And I told them that I did not want to include The Band. Look, I didn't want it to be about that. That's not why I did this. And there are so many people that didn't get included this time around that we're really hoping for a second volume. There are so many more that we want to share.”

As a result of their combined efforts, Legends, Icons and Rebels: Music that changed the world is a polished gem, a mini-master class on American music of the 20th Century, and includes 27 artists ranging from Louis Jordan and Billie Holiday, to Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, to Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell. Each of their biographies include facts about their lives, their musical influences and why their music is important, as well as their challenges and pain. The book does not shy away from the difficulties faced by the artists who struggled with drug addiction or died too early.

“That's what makes this book so unique and so special. There are many joyful stories, but there are also tragic stories—just like life,” says Robertson, a member of the Mohawk Nation who was born in Toronto. “I have five grandkids, and I absolutely thought of them when we were making decisions. I would think, what would [Sebastian's son] Donovan think? The book is for 9- to 12-year-olds, but I always say 9 to 99. Anyone can enjoy this book.”

In My Room

From the first rollicking chapter featuring Chuck Berry, “The Father of Rock and Roll” and his floor-rattling, guitar classic, Johnny B. Goode, the book exudes the pure joy and musical passion of four friends who simply love music for music's sake and want to share that enthusiasm with others. Robertson credits his mother and his summers spent at Six Nations as his earliest musical influence.

“She told me that at a very early age, I was drawn to big band and 'boogie woogie,'” says Robertson, who started touring and playing guitar professionally at the age of 16. “I would go over to the radio and listen to people like Fats Waller and Tommy Dorsey. I was also drawn to the Ink Spots and other vocal groups. But all of that led to rock and roll 10 years later.”

For Sebastian, who grew up around some of the greatest musicians in the world and eventually played drums for his father's band on Music for Native Americans before carving out his own career as a composer, Legends is an opportunity to celebrate his passion for music with his own son.

“There's plenty of pop out there,” says Sebastian. “And it's well-crafted and exciting. But we wanted to give kids an understanding of where that music comes from. It's the history of music first-hand, exposing young ears to really amazing stuff, like the Beatles and Bob Marley. My son Donovan just eats it up.”

“When I was young, I listened to Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues in my room and I would listen to pirate radio and later, it was the Beatles and Lucy in the Sky,” says Guerinot. “We didn't want to do a Time-Life book, but something with soul and meaning. So this was truly a labor of love.”

But for Robertson, it's also the circling back to where he began: Honoring the musicians who truly made a difference.

“It was a reward in the doing. It was the culmination of all these different elements that came together and made it work,” he reflects. “What a wonderful gift. It's a giving back, of sorts.”