December 29, 1943 - December 10, 1999
by Ronnie HawkinsThis article about Rick Danko is from the Toronto Life. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
The obituaries marking Ricky's death talked mostly about his days as a musician with The Band and Dylan. But in 1960, when he walked into Le Coq d'Or on Yonge Street, he was all of 17, and he was green - a slim kid from tobacco country with long legs and short hair, a sweet kid with bashful eyes.
My bass player, Rebel Payne, had fallen for a girl, and he was taking off with her for the States, so we were holding audience that day for a replacement. Levon Helm was there, on drums, and Robbie Robertson was on rhythm guitar. We saw a bunch of guys before Ricky came along. He'd played lead guitar in a small band, but no bass. And as he stood up with us, he fumbled along for a few chords. Truth is, afterward Levon and Robbie voted not to let him in. But I overruled them. I was looking for a certain type. And I knew this kid could harmonize like anything.
Ricky didn't play with us right away, but practised for six months or so. I had four different members of my band practising an hour a day with him. He practised and practised and practised the old songs. He practised so much, his arms swoll up. He was hurting. Top dogs in the band got $300 a week, but Ricky got $50 plus room and board until he got better.
Those days, when we weren't jamming at the Coq d'Or, we would travel across the country, staying for a week in every small town along the way. Three months to get to Vancouver. Most places were smoky honky-tonks that had rooms up above where we'd bunk down at night. I had Ricky sing several songs by Sam Cooke. He was a good-looking cat, and the girls loved him, swooning when he came on stage. He sang as if he was still playing lead guitar, the phrasing choppy, as if he were getting ready to lay down a lick. He kept that style long after, even when he was with The Band.
Years later, I went down to see him in Woodstock with the Partland Brothers. Ricky pulled out the guitar and sang songs that you wouldn't believe. He didn't record many of them. To me, that's the saddest thing. We'll never get a chance to hear those songs. That's that saddest thing of all.