Richard Clare "Rick" Danko (December 29, 1942 - December 10, 1999) was a Canadian musician and singer, best known as a member of The Band.
Early years (1943-1960):
The third of four sons, Danko was born in Blayney, Ontario, a farming community outside of the town of Simcoe, to a musical family of Ukrainian descent. Growing up in front of the family radio (as his future bandmates also did), he was exposed to country and R&B music at an early age. His musical heroes included Hank Williams and, later, Sam Cooke. He also drew inspiration from the music of his oldest brother, Maurice "Junior" Danko. Danko's younger brother, Terry, also became a musician. After entering the first grade in school, he performed on a four string tenor banjo.
Danko formed the Rick Danko Band at the age of 12 or 13, and at 14, he left school to pursue music. At 17, already a five-year music veteran, he booked himself as the opening act for Ronnie Hawkins, an American rockabilly singer whose group, The Hawks, were considered to be one of the best in Canada. Danko also played acoustic bass (along with Levon Helm on drums) on jazz guitarist Lenny Breau's The Hallmark Sessions Art of Life release in 1961.
The Hawks (1960-1964):
Hawkins invited Danko to join The Hawks as rhythm guitarist. Around this time, Hawks bassist Rebel Paine was fired by Hawkins, who, wasting no time, had Danko learn bass, given help by other members of the band. By September 1960, he was Hawkins's bassist, using the Fender VI six-string bass, then switching to a Fender Jazz Bass.
Soon joined by pianist Richard Manuel and organist/reedsman Garth Hudson, The Hawks played with Hawkins through mid-1963. An altercation that year between Danko and Hawkins led Danko, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Manuel, and Hudson to give two-weeks' notice in early 1964 and parted ways with Hawkins on reasonably amicable terms. The group had been planning to leave Hawkins and strike out together as a band without a frontman, as a team of equal members.
Pre-The Band (1964-1968):
Danko and the former Hawks initially performed as the Levon Helm Sextet, with saxophonist Jerry Penfound, later became The Canadian Squires, after Penfound left, and finally being called Levon and the Hawks. Playing a circuit that stretched in an arc from Ontario to Arkansas, they became known as "the best damn bar band in the land."
By 1965, with two singles under their belt, recorded as the Canadian Squires, they met the legendary blues harmonicist and vocalist Sonny Boy Williamson and planned a collaboration with him as soon as he returned to Chicago. Unfortunately for the group (who went on to play a four-month stand of gigs in New Jersey immediately afterward), Williamson died two months after their meeting, and the collaboration never happened.
Around that same time, Bob Dylan contacted them, and they became his backing group. The nature of Dylan's tour, however, became too much for Helm, who departed in November. Through May 1966, Dylan and the remaining foursome (together with pick-up drummers, including actor/musician Mickey Jones) traveled across America, Australia, and Europe, playing new versions of Dylan classics. After the final shows in England, Dylan retreated to his new home in Woodstock, New York, and the Hawks joined him shortly thereafter.
The Band (1968-1977):
It was Danko who found the pink house on Parnassus Lane in Saugerties, New York, which became known as "Big Pink". Danko, Hudson, and Manuel moved in, with Robertson ensconcing himself nearby. The Band's musical sessions with Dylan took place in the basement of Big Pink, between June-October 1967, generating recordings that were officially released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes album. In October, The Hawks began their demo recordings for their first album, with Helm re-joining the group in that month. Their manager, Albert Grossman, secured them a recording deal with Capitol Records in late 1967.
From January to March 1968, The Band recorded their debut album, Music From Big Pink, in recording studios in New York and Los Angeles. On this album, Danko sang lead vocal on three songs: "Caledonia Mission", "Long Black Veil" and "This Wheel's on Fire," which Danko had co-written with Dylan. Before The Band could promote the album by touring, Danko was severely injured in a car accident, breaking his neck and back in six places, which put him in traction for months. The Band finally made their concert debut at Bill Graham's Winterland in San Francisco April 1969.
By this time, they were already hard at work on their eponymous second album. On that record, sometimes known as "The Brown Album," Danko sang what would become two of his signature songs--and two of the group's best-loved classics: the reflective yet whimsical story-song "When You Awake" and the achingly poignant "The Unfaithful Servant." Both songs exemplified Danko's talents as a lead singer and demonstrated his naturally plaintive voice. Rick Danko was also known to play concerts and hang around Coconut Grove in Miami, Florida.
The Band's albums were defined by each member--Robertson's lyrics and guitar work, Helm's "bayou folk" drumming and Southern voice, Manuel's Ray Charles-like vocals and complex keyboard rhythms, and Hudson's arrangements on an assortment of instruments and Danko's iconic tenor, his on-top-of-the-melody harmonies, and his percussive, melodic bass-playing style were an integral part of the group's sound. In an interview with Guitar Player, Danko cited bassists James Jamerson, Ron Carter, Edgar Willis, and Chuck Rainey as his musical influences. He eventually moved from the Fender Jazz Bass to an Ampeg fretless model and later a Gibson Ripper for The Last Waltz.
Later years (1977-1999):
After The Band performed its farewell concert ("The Last Waltz") at Winterland in November 1976, Danko was offered a contract with Arista Records by Clive Davis, making him the first Band member to record a solo album. Issued in 1977, his self titled début featured each of his former bandmates in addition to Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Doug Sahm and Danko's brother, Terry. The album was primarily recorded at The Band's California Studio, Shangri-La. The poor sales of the album destined it for rarity status. After he recorded an unreleased follow-up album, Danko was dropped from Arista. The follow-up album was finally released as a part of 2005's Cryin' Heart Blues.
In early 1979 Danko opened shows for Boz Scaggs. Also in 1979, Danko and Paul Butterfield toured together as the Danko/Butterfield Band. Among the songs they covered was "Sail On, Sailor", originally recorded by The Beach Boys, with Blondie Chaplin, who toured with Danko/Butterfield, on guitar and vocals.
From 1983 to 1999, Danko alternated between a reformed version of The Band featuring Helm, Hudson, and guitarist Jim Weider (and, from 1983 to 1986, Manuel); a solo career; and collaborations including award-winning work with singer/songwriter Eric Andersen and Norway's Jonas Fjeld as Danko/Fjeld/Andersen.
In 1984, Danko joined members of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and others in a touring company called "The Byrds Twenty-Year Celebration." Several members of the band performed solo songs to start the show including Danko, who performed "Mystery Train". In 1989, he toured with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson as part of Ringo Starr's first All-Starr Band.
Danko sang on the Pink Floyd songs "Comfortably Numb" and "Mother", the former with Van Morrison, Roger Waters, and Levon Helm, and the latter with Helm and Sinéad O'Connor on July 21, 1990, in Roger Waters' stage production of The Wall Concert in Berlin. He recorded demos and made a number of appearances on albums by other artists throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and, in 1997, released Rick Danko in Concert. Two years later, a third solo album (Live on Breeze Hill) was released, and Danko was at work on a fourth (Times Like These) at the time of his death.
In the meantime, The Band, (without Robbie Robertson/Richard Manuel) , recorded three more albums, and Danko teamed with Fjeld and Andersen for two trio albums, Danko/Fjeld/Andersen in 1991 and Ridin' on the Blinds in 1994.
In 1994, Rick Danko was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Band.
On December 10, 1999, days after the end of a brief tour of the Midwest that included two shows in the Chicago area and a final gig at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Danko died in his sleep at his home in Marbletown, New York, near Woodstock due to a heart failure.
He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth (died in August 2013), stepson, Justin; and daughter, Lisa, by his first marriage. His son Eli, also from his first marriage, died in 1989 at the age of 18 from asphyxiation after heavy drinking.
Rick was buried next to Eli in the Woodstock Cemetery in Woodstock, New York.
The Drive-By Truckers' song "Danko/Manuel" was released on their album The Dirty South in 2004. "Originally guitarist/vocalist Jason Isbell tried to tell the story of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and The Band's demise, but found the scope of the concept too difficult to actually do justice to their story, and instead shifted the concept to a telling of life of a musician through the eyes and actions of Danko and Manuel. Isbell stated that the horn parts for the song came to him in a dream."
Steve Forbert released "Wild as the Wind (A Tribute to Rick Danko)," on his album Just Like There's Nothin' To It in 2004.
For the April 2012 edition of BASS MUSICIAN: Bass Magazine For Bass Players & the Bass Industry, Rob Collier wrote an article titled "How to Danko: A Lesson in the Style of Rick Danko".
On IrishTimes.com Laurence Mackin wrote that ". . .Together with bass player Rick Danko, Levon Helm formed one of the finest rhythm sections to ever put a groove to a beat, and a partnership that formed the backbone of The Band. In Danko, he had the perfect complementary player, one of the finest bassists and one of the gentlest souls. His music was subtle, his instinct for just the right note unwavering - he could play one beat in four bars, but lord could he make it count. Their subtle, intense rhythmic conversation brought shape and distinction to the Band's music - it gave it heart and soul. . ."
Canadian artist Luke Doucet wrote the song, "The Day Rick Danko Died", describing where he was and what he was doing that day. The song was released on his album Blood's Too Rich released in 2008.
Danko used a variety of basses throughout his career. Starting on a white 1962 Fender Bass VI in his days with Ronnie Hawkins, he changed over to a mid sixties sunburst Fender Jazz Bass which he used on the 1966 World Tour with Bob Dylan, and on the recording of the Music from Big Pink and the The Band albums of The Band, as well as on the earlier shows of The Band like on Woodstock and Isle of Wight Festival. In late 1969, The Band was given some equipment by Ampeg, which included a fretted Ampeg AEB, a fretless Ampeg AMUB and an Ampeg "Baby Bass", a fiberglass-made electric upright bass. The fretless AMUB was his bass of choice for the next years to come, and can be heard prominently on Stage Fright and Cahoots, and was used live as can be seen on Festival Express and the "Academy of Music". This fretless bass was sold on ebay from a private collection in early 2012 for $35,000.00 USD In the last years leading up to The Last Waltz, he started using a sunburst Gibson Ripper bass. His amp of choice was a blueline Ampeg SVT.