Obituary: Rick Danko

Chris Welch
Monday 13 December 1999 01:02 GMT

ROCK MUSIC has lost one of its seminal characters and a significant musician with the death of Rick Danko, a founder member of The Band. A deft, melodic bass player and a soulful singer, Danko was a key figure in the group which had the honour of backing Bob Dylan when the singer was at the height of his powers.

The Band came to represent the comradely spirit of the Woodstock Generation of North American rock musicians, a mood celebrated in Martin Scorsese's 1978 film The Last Waltz. Danko was the pool- playing, laconic and world-weary veteran of the road seen in the acclaimed "rockumentary" based on The Band's farewell concert in 1976.

Within the group Danko found an ideal setting for his rich variety of musical influences, from Blue Grass to folk, country and rock'n'roll. Although they were dubbed "austere" by some critics and certainly more serious than the average Sixties pop group, it was The Band's eclectic approach which endeared them to singer/ songwriters in particular. Their symbiotic relationship with other artists was indicative of their intelligent, sympathetic and apparently ego-less style of accompaniment.

Rick Danko was born into a musical family in Simcoe, Ontario, and left school at the age of 14 to play with rock bands. When he was 17 he joined Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, one of the top bands in Toronto during the late Fifties. The group toured Canada and recorded such R&B classics as "Who Do You Love?" The group eventually left Hawkins and began touring as the Canadian Squires or Levon and the Hawks. On arriving in New York they worked with John Hammond Jnr and subsequently met Bob Dylan, who invited them to back him during his move from acoustic folk to into electric rock.

Now dubbed "The Band", the highly versatile line-up included Rick Danko (bass), Levon Helm (drums), Robbie Robertson (guitar), Garth Hudson (organ), and Richard Manuel (piano). All were Canadian except for Helm, who was from Arkansas. They teamed up at Woodstock and set about adding a powerful beat to Dylan's music. This introduced the concept of "rock folk", notably during Dylan's controversial 1966 tour, which included a memorable concert in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

It was during the Dylan years that Rick Danko rented a pink painted house in West Saugerties, near Woodstock, where the band began recording their debut album as The Band. Dubbed Music From Big Pink, the 1968 album caused a sensation, particularly among fellow musicians. One of the earliest champions of The Band was Eric Clapton, who was thrilled by the album and the natural, co-operative style of music-making it represented. It came at a time when Clapton was being pressurised within Cream, whose highly competitive approach had hitherto dominated the cutting edge of rock.

Rick Danko's vocal style contributed greatly to the sound of The Band and he was featured on their signature tunes "The Weight", "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", the latter tunes featured on the group's eponymous second album. The group's biggest chart success came when "Up on Cripple Creek" got to Number 25 in the US Billboard Top Forty in November 1969. The group's third album, Stage Fright, yielded a powerful title song on which Danko sang lead. It epitomised the feelings of an artist of Bob Dylan's ilk when confronted by demanding audiences.

In 1969 The Band performed at Woodstock Festival and Danko recently recalled his feelings on that historic day. "I remember landing - I had never flown in a helicopter before - and seeing 500,000 people sitting in the field."

The Band split up on Thanksgiving Day 1976 following its famous "Last Waltz" concert, which included guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. In Scorsese's film Danko and other members of the band were interviewed backstage, revealing their philosophy and attitudes, which were steeped in the prevailing sense of American disillusionment during the Nixon-Vietnam years. However the joy of music-making sustained them and their search for human values and roots were expressed in their shared love of traditional music in all its forms. The kind of reflective maturity that The Band expressed and the ideas they cherished were destined to be superseded by the more impatient, thrill-hungry values of succeeding generations who largely rejected the hippie philosophy as tired and inward-looking.

In the aftermath Danko launched a solo career but with little success and The Band remained retired until 1983 when the original members began touring again with the exception of Robbie Robertson. It seemed that enough time had elapsed for their kind of music to become re-evaluated. However three years later their keyboard player Richard Manuel was found hanged in a hotel room in Winter Park, Florida, having committed suicide at the age of 42.

During the early Nineties Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson reformed The Band for selected tours and recorded the album Jericho in 1993. In 1994 Danko along with the original members of The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1997 he was found guilt of smuggling heroin into Japan but received a suspended sentence.

Rick Danko was found dead in bed by his wife, at his home in Marbletown, upstate New York, the day after he had celebrated his 56th birthday. The county Medical Examiner pronounced that the cause of death was unknown but was not considered suspicious. His friend Ike Phillips, the general manager of Woodstock radio station WDST-FM, said that Danko had died in his sleep.

At the end of The Last Waltz Robbie Robertson talks about the pressures of life on the road for a touring rock musician. "You are pushing your luck. The road has taken a lot of the great ones - Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis, Elvis. It's a goddamn impossible way of life."

Rick Danko, singer, bass player and violinist: born Simcoe, Ontario 9 December 1942; died Marbletown, New York 10 December 1999.

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