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Rick Danko: He Made a Difference

An Appreciation of a Life in Music

[photo] by Mark T. Gould

This article first appeared as the cover story of Sound Waves magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4, January 2000. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2000 Sound Waves, Mark T. Gould. You are not allowed to reprint or redistribute this article for commercial purposes.

The photos of Rick Danko were taken by David L. Pottie All photos are copyrighted and must be credited with photographer's name when used in non-commercial use. For commercial use contact Sound Waves Magazine.

[Rick Danko]
Photo by David L. Pottie

Now, deep in the heart of a lonely kid, suffering so much for what he did
Gave that poor boy his fortune and fame
Since that day he ainít been the same

Itís been said enough that, sometimes, the sum is greater than the parts, but for The Band, and particularly for bass player Rick Danko, the parts - his part - added up to an incredible sum.

Danko, who died in the early morning hours of December 10, was one of three singers who, along with the late pianist Richard Manuel and drummer Levon Helm, gave voices to the wondrous characters created in the songs celebrating Americana by Band songwriter/guitarist Robbie Robertson. And, as such, they brought Danko, the Canadian son of a farmer, and his three Northern brethren-along with the Southern bred Helm-fame, fortune and riches far beyond any of them could have dreamed when they met and plied their trade in Canadian honky tonks in the late 1950s.

While many rock and roll fans date the popularity of the music to the advent of the Beatles music hitting our shores in 1963-64, the members of the Band-those four, along with multi-talented keyboardist Garth Hudson-had been playing together with Ronnie Hawkins in Canada since about 1957.

[Rick Danko]
Photo by David L. Pottie
Danko, who was born and raised in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada. He left high school at the age of 14, determined to set a course for himself in what was then the rockabilly precursor of what became rock and roll. Three years later, at the ripe age of 17, he was hired by Hawkins-an American expatriate who was becoming a rockabilly legend in Canada-initially as a rhythm guitarist, but later was moved to replace the bass player in Hawkinsí backup group, naturally called the Hawks. It was then that Danko teamed up with Helm, who had come north with Hawkins from Arkansas, Hudson, Robertson, and Manuel. Danko, along with the other group members, paid his dues with a grueling three years of one-night stands and rehearsals, which, by the ripe age of 20, left him with an undeniable musical education.

After several years with Hawkins, the quintet grew rest less, reportedly tiring of Hawkinsí bawdy combination of rigid rules and bad pay. Starting in 1963, just about as the Beatles were breaking in England, the group members began touring on their own, calling themselves Levon & the Hawks, the Crackers and the Canadian Squires. Two years later, in 1965, they were recruited by Bob Dylan, who wanted an electric group to back him on his foray out of acoustic folk music and into the still emerging area of rock and roll.

A tour of the United States in late 1965 and Europe in 1966 met with critical scorn, resulting in Helm temporarily leaving the group. Two years later, after Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident, the group joined him in Woodstock, New York, a quiet upstate hamlet populated by artists and musicians who wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City. The mythic stature of the group began at a house cryptically dubbed Big Pink, which began as a rental property for Danko in the small enclave of West Saugerties, near Woodstock.

By the end of 1969, the group, dubbed "The Band" by neighbors and friends in Woodstock, had recorded over 100 songs with Dylan, many of which were officially and non-officially released as the "Basement Tapes," and had recorded itís first two albums, "Music From Big Pink," and "The Band" (most of which was recorded at Sammy Davis, Jrís house in Los Angeles), which rank at the top of almost everyoneís list of the seminal recordings in the history of rock and roll. Ironically, at a time where hard rock jamming was becoming ever popular, the Band pioneered the use of acoustic instruments like mandolins, standup bass and other instruments into their music, many of which were expertly played by Danko, in a wide ranging musical spectrum.

[Rick Danko]
Photo by David L. Pottie
In addition to his instrumental prowess, however, most fans will remember Danko for his heartfelt rendering, on those first two albums of Robertsonís classics like "The Weight," "Caledonia Mission," "This Wheelís on Fire (which Danko co-wrote with Dylan)," and the standard "Long Black Veil." Interestingly enough, as the Bandís creative output lessened in the ensuing years, it was Dankoís voice, along with Helm and Manuel, that continued to define their style, with his emotional readings of "Stage Fright," "Twilight," and especially the gripping "Acadian Driftwood" and "It Makes No Difference."

After the original Bandís final concert, celebrated as "The Last Waltz" on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at Winterland in San Francisco-where they performed their first show as the Band in 1969-Danko continued to play, record and perform in a number of musical combinations right up to the time of his death.

In 1978, his debut solo album, the self titled "Rick Danko," was hailed by fans and critics as a strong continuation of the Bandís sound. What may have gotten slightly buried in all the comparisons to the Bandís work was the emergence of Dankoís songwriting and arranging, which had not surfaced since early in the Bandís career. The songs, from the catty "Java Blues" to "Small Town Talk" and "Sip the Wine," showed a side of Dankoís deep talent that had been missing for sometime.

In the early 1980s, Danko toured with Helm as an acoustic duet, playing standards, blues and occasional Band classics in small, quiet settings. That pairing led to the reformation of the Band, minus Robertson, in 1983. At that time, as he did with Helm, Danko played acoustic guitar, as well as bass, on the shows. As the Bandís "second career" grew, Danko also found time to tour as a duet or trio in groups with Manuel and Helm, as well as harmonica player Paul Butterfield, a longtime friend who also had migrated to Woodstock, and Jorma Kaukonen, the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist. All of the good times were tempered by the suicide, in 1986, of Manuel in a Florida hotel room.

The past decade was a further sign of Dankoís, as well as the Band at times, rebirth and rededication to music. In 1989, Danko and Helm toured with Ringo Starrís All-Starr Band, with a highlight of many shows being his heartfelt rendition of Buddy Hollyís "Raining In My Heart." As the reformed Band, now with new members Randy Ciarlante, Richard Bell and others, released "Jericho" and "High on the Hog," the original quintet, Helm, Danko, Hudson, Robertson, and Manuel, were inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

In the early part of the decade, Danko joined forces with American folksinger Eric Anderson and Norwegian artist Jonas Fjeld, a collaboration that produced two well received albums, "Danko, Fjeld & Anderson," in 1993, and "Ridiní On the Blinds," in 1997. Following some personal problems that resulting in his arrest in Japan, Danko returned to the states and made a surprise appearance with Dylan at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Connecticut in August 1997, performing three songs with his longtime friend and mentor. The following year, the Band released its third album with the new lineup, "Jubilation," perhaps the strongest of the three with Danko showcasing arguably his most powerful singing, playing and performing on record in years.

While the Band performed only sporadically in the latter part of the decade, Danko continued to take his act on the road, frequently playing with various Band members such as Hudson, Ciarlante and longtime cohort Aaron Hurwitz.

Earlier this year, he released "Live on Breeze Hill," a solo record with lively new arrangements-with horns-of Band and solo classics. It was after playing a series of dates to promote "Breeze Hill" that Danko returned to Woodstock to celebrate his birthday. He was found dead at his home in Marbletown, New York the following morning.

Danko is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and two grown children. A private funeral was held on December 15, followed by a musical celebration of his life at the Bearsville Theatre in Woodstock.

[Rick Danko]

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