Deceased Vocalist/Bassist Helped Change Rock ‘N’ Roll
Most people’s first encounter with the Band, and the voice of bassist Rick Danko, was hearing “The Weight.”
The deceptively simple song is a haunting parable (with the enigmatic chorus of “Take a load off, Fanny”) that draws on so many embedded cultural traditions: American folk tales, the supernatural legends surrounding the blues and biblical references. And it was Danko’s ringing tenor voice that sang the song’s most memorable verse about Crazy Chester: (See clip)
“Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog.
He said, ‘I will fix your rack, if you’ll take Jack, my dog.’
I said, ‘Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man.’
He said, ‘That’s OK, boy, won’t you feed him when you can?'”
Danko died in his sleep Dec. 10 at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. He was 56.
Though Danko’s and the Band’s fame have been mostly forgotten in recent years, their legacy and vital importance in rock music can’t be understated. They were, quite simply, one of rock’s best and most important groups. Their achievements, both as Bob Dylan’s backup group and on their own, altered the face and sound of rock music.
They drew on and merged many musical influences — country, R&B, the blues, rockabilly, folk, bluegrass, early rock ‘n’ roll and soul — and yet their music was a seamless amalgam. It was delicate and powerful and had a sense of timelessness to it. That music — featuring the group’s three distinct vocalists — and the inventive lyrics of guitarist and chief songwriter Robbie Robertson, came out sounding like it was drenched with an ‘American spirit.’ (It was ironic because the group was four-fifths Canadian.)
Both as bassist and singer, Danko was the lynch pin of their sound. As much as his bass playing supported the songs? arrangements, his voice tied together the Band’s three-part vocal harmony with drummer Levon Helm and pianist Richard Manuel (the group was rounded out by keyboardist Garth Hudson). The chemistry of the group being what it was, without Rick Danko, the group would not have achieved what they did.
Danko was born Dec. 29, 1942, in the heart of Canada’s “Tobacco Belt” in Simcoe, Ontario. The members of his family were as much musicians as they were farmers, and a young Rick often took part in get-togethers that turned into country jams.
But besides coming from a musical family, Danko’s music education, like many of his future bandmates in Canada, came from listening to radio stations from Nashville, Cleveland and Detroit.
As Danko got into his teens, he apprenticed himself to a meat cutter, but he was also performing locally.
It was during this time that Danko was first spotted by Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Rockabilly showman Hawkins and young drummer Levon Helm were Arkansas natives who began touring Canada when they realized that a hard-drivin’ rockabilly outfit was something of a novelty on the Ontario bar scene.
Over time, Hawkins would hire young Canadian musicians to replace those from Arkansas who got homesick. The Hawks would soon include all the future members of the Band.
“The Danko boys all have weird ears,” Hawkins said. “They hear harmonies that nobody else can.”
“He had this sound in his voice, this Tobacco-Belt sound,” Hawks guitarist Robbie Robertson said years later. “He was somewhere between the Tobacco Belt and Sam Cooke to us.”
Hawkins hired Danko to play bass. At the age of 17, he ran off in the night to play rock ‘n’ roll.
By this time, the road-hardened Hawks were earning a reputation as one of the best bar bands in North America, despite the fact that most of them were not yet 20.
By 1964, the group parted ways with Hawkins and began to play on their own. They toured bars and dance halls throughout Canada and the American South.
It was through mutual friends that the Hawks eventually hooked up with Bob Dylan. That summer, Dylan had strapped on an electric guitar and “gone electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He was anxious to move away from folk music and he was looking for a band to accompany him in his new direction.
At first, Dylan called on only Helm and Robertson to back him on two gigs in the early fall. Eventually, he hired the whole band for his 1965-1966 tour.
During the tour of the U.S., Australia and Europe, Dylan and the Hawks were almost consistently booed and jeered by the crowds. Many in the crowds were incensed that
Dylan had “abandoned” the purity of folk and protest music and embraced rock ‘n’ roll.
In an ’80s interview with a Woodstock radio station, Danko said the booing didn’t bother him much because he was a sideman. “I thought they were booing (Dylan),” he joked. The booing did prove too much for Helm, and he dropped out during the American leg of the tour.
By the time the tour reached Europe, Dylan and the Hawks had become a single unit and discovered their sound: though violent and dynamic and it was also majestic. With Dylan spitting and howling his lyrics, the Hawks were ferocious — answering his words, driving the songs forward and all but mauling the audiences. (See clip)
Dylan biographer Paul Williams noted that the group seemed to read Dylan’s mind. Author Greil Marcus called them the greatest band in the world.
Time magazine called it “the most decisive moment in rock history”: Dylan and the Hawks proved that rock could mean more than pop songs and hit records.
The climax of the tour is documented on “Live 1966: ‘The Royal Albert Hall’ Concert”.
The tour was scheduled to continue in the U.S., but a mysterious motorcycle accident sent Dylan into seclusion. He wouldn’t emerge for more than two years.
It was during that time that Dylan stayed in Woodstock, N.Y., and, with the Hawks, created the famous and often bootlegged “Basement Tapes.”
It marked a creative peak for Dylan and a musical awakening for the Hawks.
For the better part of 1967, Dylan would gather daily with the Hawks in their communal house, “Big Pink.” While the music world was basking in the psychedelic glory of the “Summer of Love,” Dylan and the Hawks ran through hundreds of familiar country, folk and blues standards, jamming and formulating original songs. Both Dylan and the Hawks inspired and influenced each other. (Later that year, Helm returned.)(See clip)
It was also during this time that the members began trying their hand at writing (Danko would co-author “This Wheel’s On Fire” with Dylan). What was remarkable was the depth of the group’s new music. It was as if the Big Pink experience had roused the group to write music in the spirit of songs they’d grown up with. In the era of the crunching guitar heroics, endless free-form jams and “Sgt. Pepper” sound-a-likes, the Band, as they were now known, created soulful yet restrained songs with dazzling harmonies.
Eventually, the group’s first two albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band,” would become rock classics. Songs like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up On Cripple Creek” — the group’s only Top 40 hit — were celebrated as part of traditional American culture.
Though they shared vocal duties, Helm’s Southern-tinged roar and the heart-wrenching soul of Manuel’s falsetto clearly defined the group. As a result, Danko proved himself the most versatile. In
addition to singing many of the groups’ country-folk numbers, he was willing to take on the proto-reggae “Twilight,” or the heartbreaking ballad “It Makes No Difference,” as well as taking lead on many of the group’s excellent covers of Motown classics.
Motown would also prove a powerful influence on Danko as bass player. Over the years, he would cite Motown bassist James Jameson as his primary influence. His bass playing was sparse, yet it inflated the Band’s rhythm section. It hung in the air, propelling the music’s melody. (In countless interviews, Robertson often spoke of his admiration for Danko’s bass playing. He pointed out that Danko was playing a fretless electric bass long before bass god Jaco Pastorius made the instrument famous.)
In his singing and playing, Danko showed himself to be an exceptional and selfless accompanist. His voice often supplied wonderful, unique harmonies to whoever sang lead. It was not by accident that Danko was the Band vocalist to whom Dylan often turned for backup vocals.
During the period up until the early ’70s — both with and without Dylan, with whom they would play intermittently until 1977 — the Band was the only group that could compare to the Beatles in the expanse and precision of their musical vision and lyrical excellence.
This fact was not lost on the Beatles. It has often been speculated that the sessions for “Let It Be” were an attempt to replicate Big Pink. In addition, the group ran through a number of Band tunes during those sessions. You can hear their influence especially in
the resurgence of vocal harmonies in the Beatles’ later music and particularly in the songwriting of George Harrison.
And it wasn’t the Beatles alone who felt their impact. As he was to say during the Band’s
1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Eric Clapton spent almost a decade trying to recreate the Band’s music. When he first heard “Big Pink,” Clapton said, it inspired him to break up Cream.
As the ’70s progressed, however, things began to change within the group. Rampant drug abuse, Manuel’s alcoholism and, according to Helm, lopsided songwriting credits that favored Robertson took their toll on the Band. As time went on, Robertson effectively took over the group.
Despite the hard times, there were still flashes of brilliance: their live double album “Rock of Ages,” the Band’s 1974 reunion tour with Dylan (still the
highest-grossing tour in history) and certain songs on their subsequent albums.
In 1977, the group planned a star-filled Thanksgiving concert in San Francisco as a farewell to touring. “The Last Waltz” would include guests like Neil Young, Van Morrison, Jon Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins and Dylan. With Martin Scorsese directing, it would become one of rock’s greatest concert films.
Though the show was not originally meant to be the end of the group, it effectively was.
In the years since, Danko and the other members would pursue a solo careers but would receive
little popular acclaim.
The original members of the Band never played together on the stage after “The Last Waltz,” except for the group’s 1994 induction into the Hall of Fame. Even then, Helm refused to attend because of his long-standing anger toward Robertson.
By 1983, the group decided to reform, minus Robertson. With the burden of being labeled a “nostalgia act” lingering over their heads, the Band soldiered on, playing small clubs and local dives.
But the continued public indifference — as well as his struggle with alcohol and drugs — was too much for Manuel. After a gig in Winter Park, Fla., in 1986, Manuel went back to his hotel and hanged himself.
In the early ’90s, the Band would re-emerge yet again, with new players and their first album of new material. Though the group toured and released subsequent albums (their latest, last year’s “Jubilation,” featured Clapton guesting on a track), the Band and the albums were mostly ignored by the public and anathematized by critics.
But despite the lack of public or critical reaction for the Band, Danko did earn high marks for his collaboration with Jonas Fjeld and Eric Andersen. The trio released two acclaimed albums that flirted with folk traditionalism.
Danko also released several live solo albums on his own indie label throughout the ’90s.
In 1997, Danko was playing solo shows in Japan when he was busted for possession of heroin. Although he was given probation, he spent several weeks in jail. At summer’s end, he would grace the stage again with Bob Dylan at a show in Connecticut.
In recent months, Danko was performing both solo shows and concerts with an ensemble. He was playing mostly along the northern East Coast and in Chicago. In fact, in the days before he died, he had just completed a swing through Chicago.
As was reported by newspapers in Woodstock and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a public memorial service reunited Robertson with his former Band-mates Helm and Hudson.
For more info:
- The Band’s quasi-offical site. Run by Jan Hoiberg of Norway, the site is a comprehensive listing of info on the group.
- Woodstock Records is the independent record company that Danko co-founded.
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 1999 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.