by Carol Caffin
Copyright © 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.
Hailing from Green's Corners, about a mile and a half from
the tiny rural town of Simcoe, Ontario, Rick was born into a musical family. Both of his parents and his three brothers played instruments and/or sang, and music was a way of life for him from the beginning. He listened to Hank Williams and Sam Cooke as a small child, and was "ready to go to Nashville" by the age of seven. With his oldest brother, Maurice ("Junior"), Rick sang and performed at family get-togethers and made his public debut on four-string tenor banjo before an audience of his first-grade classmates.
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.
The music of The Band was at once traditional and contemporary, and the combination made it timeless. In the eye of the psychedelic hurricane, The Band virtually pioneered the use of traditional instruments like mandolins, accordions and fiddles in rock & roll, and Rick Danko was one of the first non-rockabilly players to use stand-up acoustic bass on a rock record. In the midst of political unrest and the peace movement, The Band’s lyrics celebrated real life - beauty, tranquillity, nature, good sex, good friends, small town America, Southern culture - a series of themes whose influences would be felt in another musical hybrid, Americana, 25 years later.
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.
During the early 1980s, Rick maintained a low profile and, in 1983, reunited with The Band (minus Robbie Robertson, who pursued a solo career). During that period, he began playing acoustic guitar as well as bass onstage, and his unique style of tuning and playing (revealing the bass player in his soul) became another of his signature sounds. Throughout the 80s, never one to "sit at home," Rick continued to play solo, with The Band, in pairings with Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Paul Butterfield, Jorma Kaukonen and others. In 1985, he appeared (with Manuel, Helm and Hudson) in a feature film,
Man Outside, and in 1987, he released an instructional video, Rick Danko’s Electric Bass Techniques (Homespun).
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.
1993 proved to be a banner year for Rick. In addition to the "Trio Album," Rick and The Band recorded their first studio album in 17 years, the acclaimed
Jericho (Pyramid), which featured a rootsy rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s "Atlantic City," and several original compositions. In early 1996, The Band released
High On The Hog (Pyramid) and in February, 1997, Rykodisc released
Ridin’ On The Blinds, the follow-up to Danko Fjeld Andersen, which was recorded in Norway in 1994.
Jubilation, The Band’s third album in five years, was released on River North Records in September, 1998.
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.
[Postscript - a personal note]