by Carol CaffinCopyright © 1992, 2000 Carol Caffin. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Since 1965, when he and his cohorts in The Band (then called The Hawks) conspired with Bob Dylan to "go electric," Rick Danko has been an integral part of the popular music landscape. As lead singer, bassist and acoustic guitar player for The Band, and as a solo artist, his contributions have been substantial.
Rick quit school at 14 to pursue music full-time and in 1960, when he was 17, he joined rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins’ group, The Hawks, initially as rhythm guitarist. He soon moved to bass, learning his instrument "one string at a time," and, with the help of the Hawks’ boogie-woogie piano player (and later, pianist for the late 1980s incarnation of The Band) Stan Szelest, whose left-hand techniques he memorized and adapted to his bass playing, began developing his trademark percussive but sliding style.
Under Ronnie Hawkins’ tutelage, Rick began a three-year tenure of non-stop gigging and rigorous rehearsals that fellow Band-mate Richard Manuel once likened to "boot camp." By the time he was 20, he was a seasoned pro, having spent most of his teenage years "playing in bars that you were supposed to be 21 to play in."
By the early 60s, Rick and the other Hawks had outgrown the limited roadhouse and honky-tonk circuit and left Hawkins to pursue greener pastures. Bob Dylan saw them perform in the mid-60s and was so impressed that he signed The Hawks to accompany him on his 1965-66 World Tour. The Band’s collaboration with Dylan, initially greeted with boos and catcalls around the globe, changed the course of popular music by spawning one of the most significant musical hybrids of the rock era, "Folk Rock."
Rick’s penchant for musical hybrids began germinating, literally, in his own backyard in Simcoe, a town heavily populated with displaced Southern tobacco farmers. The interesting mix of Northern and Southern cultures there was later reflected in his music and is partly responsible for the occasional Southern inflection that colored some of his words.
After the tumultuous world tours with Dylan (the European leg of which was documented in the obscure film Eat the Document), Rick moved from Manhattan to upstate New York, along with Dylan and the other members of the still-unnamed Band. He rented a big pink house in West Saugerties, near Woodstock, and with Dylan and The Band began recording songs which soon surfaced on bootlegs and were officially released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.
In 1968, after toying with a host of politically incorrect names, like the Crackers and the Honkies, The Band made its official debut with the release of its seminal and eclectic album, Music From Big Pink (Capitol), which became the fulcrum for the country rock and roots rock of the coming decades.
Big Pink catapulted The Band, if not to commercial superstardom, to the upper echelon of rock music. Many brows were furrowed, but accolades abounded, and even Eric Clapton cited them as a major influence and the impetus for leaving the electric power trio Cream behind to go solo.
A succession of albums and tours followed and The Band, now a firm fixture in the rock aristocracy, played virtually every major festival from Woodstock to Watkins Glen. In 1976, on Thanksgiving Day, The Band officially called it quits with a farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. The concert, which featured an unprecedented all-star lineup to which The Band graciously played back-up, was documented in Martin Scorsese’s much lauded film, The Last Waltz, regarded by many as the finest concert film of all time.
After The Last Waltz, Rick, who needed music as much as it needed him, continued to perform and record. His 1978 debut solo album, a self-titled gem which was initially overshadowed by the grandeur of The Last Waltz but has since garnered both critical and popular acclaim, marked the beginning of a very important period in Rick’s career.
His transition from ensemble player to frontman seemed an easy one. Rick Danko (Arista) was not a Band album in disguise. On the contrary, it showcased his individuality--his wonderful harmonies, his mature and sensitive songwriting, his sense of humor (evidenced on the tongue-in-cheek "Java Blues"), his "less is more" approach to playing and arranging, his affinity for odd collaborations (the pairing of Eric Clapton’s electric rock guitar with Band-mate Garth Hudson’s ethereal country accordion on the Danko-penned "New Mexico"), and the strongest vocal work of his career.
The end of the decade marked the beginning of one of the most productive phases in Rick’s life and career. In 1989, he and Band drummer/vocalist Levon Helm toured as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band (Rick’s rendition of Buddy Holly’s "Raining In My Heart," which appeared on the live album Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band (Rykodisc) and features Clarence Clemons on sax, became a highlight of his live solo shows). That same year, The Band was inducted at Canada’s Juno Awards into the Hall of Fame of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
In 1990, Rick, along with Helm, Hudson, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison and others, appeared in Roger Waters’ The Wall concert in Berlin. In October, 1992 Rick performed with The Band at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Tribute at Madison Square Garden and, in January, 1994, he and The Band were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The induction speech was made by long-time friend and fan, Eric Clapton.
In 1991, Rick began working on a project that would become near and dear to his heart, a collaboration with Folk legend Eric Andersen and Norwegian singer/songwriter Jonas Fjeld. The almost immediate result of the trio’s collaboration was an award-winning album, Danko Fjeld Andersen (Stageway), which was honored in Norway with a Spellemans Pris (the Norwegian Grammy) for Record of the Year and was released in late 1993 by Rykodisc. The Rykodisc release was honored by AFIM (formerly NAIRD) the following year. Danko Fjeld Andersen, which contains some of Rick’s finest work, received a four-star review in Rolling Stone.
In September 1999, Rick came back strong with an 11-song collection of inspired performances called Live On Breeze Hill. Rick was joined on this mostly live outing by some of the finest musicians in the business, including Band-mate Garth Hudson and long-time collaborator and Band co-producer Aaron Hurwitz. Eric Clapton said of Rick in 1999 "Rick’s singing has had a tremendous influence on me - it’s only my own humble opinion, but I think you have to be a great musician before you can sing like that." Rick’s voice indeed sounded better than ever, and he began actively promoting the CD, as well as laying down tracks for a new album (which would be released, posthumously, in August 2000 as Times Like These).
On December 10, 1999, Rick Danko died as he had lived - simply, without fanfare, pomp or pretense. If the tears, prayers and tributes that followed are any indication, this country boy whose goal was to "help the neighborhood" certainly succeeded. The world is a much better place because of Rick Danko, and a much sadder one without him.
A personal noteThe day I met Rick was the last day of normalcy in my life. It was the last day that I was willing to accept the mundane, to go with the flow, or to do what was expected of me, just because it was expected. It was the last day that I wore a suit to work, the last day I was even on time for work! My "enviable" music business job with one of the top entertainment attorneys on the east coast suddenly seemed like a joke to me.
The day after I met Rick, I came to work two hours late in jeans and moccasins. My boss promptly summoned me into his office and asked me, in no uncertain terms, what the hell happened to me. I told him that I’d met Rick Danko and The Band, as if that should explain everything. His perplexed expression would become a familiar response in the weeks and months ahead.
I got through that day in a slow-motion haze - not on Cloud 9, just unsettled. As corny as it sounds, something was just different, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. After all, I’d met many rock stars - I worked in music, and we often had famous musicians and producers in the office. And I wasn’t the "star-struck" type.
But this was different. I knew instinctively that this one meeting would change the course of my life forever. And it did. And I never looked back.
I spent the next few months working at my job, and freelancing as a writer and publicist. I’d had several articles published about The Band, including a feature story on Rick , which a friend of mine sent to him.
One day, as I was at my desk, the phone rang. "Hi, is this Carol?" I didn’t know whether to faint, puke or fall off the chair, because I recognized that voice immediately. "Carol, this is Rick Danko... sorry to bother you at work... got a minute?"
Rick told me that he’d "been reading" some of my stuff, and was very impressed with my writing. "You know more about me than I do, my dear!," he said with that Danko Chuckle. He invited me to the next Band show and, after the show, he asked me if I would like to work with him in a "formal capacity," (which, as anyone who’s worked with The Band knows, doesn’t really exist!) and I agreed. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rick became an important part of my life and career. From the beginning, I had an overwhelming desire to help him. Rick just had a way of bringing out the nurturing side of everyone who knew him - men, women, young and old. Why else would anyone who’d ever driven with him lend him their car? The people who really cared about him wanted to somehow protect him. And he cared about people in return. Rick had a hard time hurting anyone’s feelings, even the hangers-on who just wanted to be part of "the scene." At times, to those who really didn’t know him personally, he could come off as naïve or even gullible. Perhaps it was the puppy dog eyes. Or perhaps it was the trembling tenor. Or maybe it was that Eternal Grin. But, as Elliott Landy has said, Rick liked to play the "country cousin." He was much wiser than any of us really knew.
I began doing tour publicity for him and ended up working with him on a day-to-day basis for several years. He introduced me to Eric Andersen, and I became Eric’s publicist as well. One night in 1991, he called me just after returning from Norway. He played a beautiful song over the phone that he’d recorded called "Driftin’ Away," and asked me what I thought. I told him I loved it, made some tapes and started sending them around to radio stations across the country. Rick was real proud of our "grass roots operation!" Before long, there was a buzz on the "trio album," and soon there was a record deal with Ryko.
I did press for the Danko-Fjeld-Andersen album, which was released just a few weeks before Jericho. It was a true labor of love. The media was excited by the "comeback" of Rick Danko, and the press was positive all over the world. 1993 was a great year - Woodstock again seemed to be the dreamy place it once was. Rick was doing what he loved more than anything else in life - playing. Solo shows, trio shows, Band shows. He did them all, and he loved them all. He could certainly hold his own as a frontman, but he was also a happy and willing sideman, never had to be the star of the show, even when it was his own show. As long as he was on stage, he was in a safe place.
He was more than a phenomenal musician, and much more than The Band’s "class clown," though he was probably the funniest person I’ve ever met. And there is just no describing how funny. You simply had to know Rick to know what I mean. He was, and always will be, one of a kind. You could not be in his company without smiling. Because he was always smiling. But as happy-go-lucky as he was - and he really, really was--you could tell that he’d been hurt. You just can’t sing like he did unless you’ve been wounded.
Rick was childlike, in the purest way. William Blake made the important distinction in his poetry between "childish" and "childlike" - Rick was the personification of that distinction. He was a seasoned road warrior who’d seen it all and done it all a million times, yet he still saw the world in a truly innocent way. He’d shared the stage with legends, played to millions of adoring fans, spawned a whole new school of bass players. But he’d blush if a compliment went much beyond "great show, Rick."
At 56, Rick was still a boy. A boy who was genuinely thrilled at the concept of email. Who marveled at fax technology. Who loved vanilla milkshakes and Dunkin’ Donuts.
I spoke to Rick on December 9. I told him I would be calling him the next day with some interviews, at Danko Standard Time - 2:00 pm.
The next morning, as I was in the midst of arranging an interview for him, I picked up a call-waiting message. It was a New York-area DJ wanting to know how I could sound so chipper. "Whatdaya mean?" I asked. "It’s not true then, about Rick?" My heart pounded "What about Rick?!" He told me that his station had received a call from someone saying that Rick Danko had died.
Just then, Elizabeth Danko called to tell me what I already knew. The rest is a blur of sobs and wails.
Life hasn’t been the same since.