Best Of '99: The Band's Rick Danko Dies At 56

Singer/bassist's voice heard on such classic roots-rock tracks as 'The Weight' and 'Stage Fright.'

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Saturday, Dec. 11.]

Rick Danko, whose high voice marked such roots-rock classics by The Band as "The Weight" and "Stage Fright," was found dead Friday morning (Dec. 10) at his Woodstock, N.Y., home.

"I'm absolutely shocked and truly saddened," said drummer Mickey Jones, who joined Danko and other future members of The Band in backing Bob Dylan on his legendary electric tours of 1965 and 1966.

Danko's publicist, Carol Caffin, said Danko, who was 56, died in his sleep. A cause of death has not been determined.

(For a full report on Danko's death, click here)

Danko, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with The Band in 1994, was born Dec. 29, 1942, in rural Simcoe, Ontario. His parents and three brothers were musicians. Danko grew up listening to country singer Hank Williams and soul and gospel singer Sam Cooke. By age 7, he knew he wanted to be a performer.

Danko quit school at 14 to pursue music full time. Meanwhile, The Band had begun life in Toronto as the Hawks, a backing band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Danko joined the Hawks, replacing rhythm guitarist Rebel Paine, after opening for Hawkins in 1961.

He soon moved to bass, learning his instrument with the help of Hawks piano player Stan Szelest, who would also play piano in the late-'80s version of The Band. Danko adapted Szelest's left-hand techniques and developed a trademark percussive but sliding style.

The Hawks also included guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm. Pianist Richard Manuel joined shortly after Danko, and organist Garth Hudson came on board in December 1961.

The Hawks broke away from Hawkins in 1963 and worked under other names, such as Levon and the Hawks and the Canadian Squires. Dylan discovered the group in New York and enlisted Robertson and Helm for a gig, but he had a disagreement with Helm. Thus, the Hawks, minus Helm, toured with Dylan in 1965 and 1966.

Dylan's shows with the Hawks shocked fans of the singer/songwriter, who had made a name as an acoustic folk performer. With the Hawks, he became an electric rock 'n' roller.

"They didn't throw anything at us, which was nice," Danko said last year of the infamous May 17, 1966, concert captured on Bob Dylan Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert — The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (1998). "Bob certainly has a way of making people react, one way or another."

"Rick was a great player, a very nice guy and nice to be around," Jones, who drummed at that show, said.

Jones, 58, who has acted in such films as "Sling Blade" and "Tin Cup," said the press hated the Hawks for helping Dylan go electric and began referring to the group derisively as "the band."

After Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident, the Hawks, with Helm, relocated to the Woodstock, N.Y., area, where Dylan was living. They began collaborating with Dylan on songs that were widely bootlegged before their belated release in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. The album is considered a seminal combination of irreverent rock, folk and country.

The Hawks also recorded their own songs at Danko's rented house, Big Pink, in West Saugerties, N.Y. Calling themselves The Band, they released Music From Big Pink in 1968.

The album, which included "The Weight" (RealAudio excerpt), "This Wheel's on Fire" and Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," was a landmark in the development of country-rock, though it was never a big seller; its highest position on the Billboard albums chart was #30. The Band's embrace of American folklore — even though everyone in the band except Helm was Canadian — and powerful, earthy musical arrangements influenced hordes of rock groups and singer/songwriters.

The Band's eponymous second album (1969) yielded two of the group's signature songs, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek," and was The Band's commercial breakthrough. The group played the original Woodstock festival in 1969.

The following year's Stage Fright dealt with chief songwriter Robertson's views on touring. Danko sang the title song (RealAudio excerpt).

In 1973, The Band played the giant Watkins Glen (N.Y.) concert (released on 1995's Live at Watkins Glen) and backed Dylan on his Planet Waves. The Band's 1974 tour with Dylan was documented on the double album Before the Flood.

The Band threw a lavish retirement party for themselves on Thanksgiving 1976, which was recorded for the live album The Last Waltz (1978) and filmed by Martin Scorsese for the movie of the same name. The Band, Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters and others played.

Danko's self-titled 1977 solo album featured such acclaimed guitarists as Eric Clapton, Doug Sahm and Ron Wood.

In 1983, the Band regrouped without chief songwriter Robertson, who was replaced by Jimmy Weider. Manuel hanged himself following a 1986 concert in Florida.

Danko and Hudson then appeared on Robertson's self-titled 1987 solo debut, with Danko supplying background vocals on "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight."

"If you listen to Danko on that album, you can hear that he could still sing in just as heartfelt a way as during [the Band's heyday]," said SonicNet editorial director Michael Goldberg, who covered that recording session for Rolling Stone magazine.

"Ten years later, he hadn't lost his ability," Goldberg said. "It's unfortunate that someone in their 20s today probably doesn't know who The Band was and that they were one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands ever."

Danko and Hudson also performed with Robertson at The Band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Helm, who aired his bitterness toward Robertson in his 1993 autobiography, did not join them.

Danko also toured with Ringo Starr's All-Star Band and in a trio with Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeld, with whom he recorded Danko/Fjeld/Andersen (1991).

The Band issued High on the Hog in 1996 and Jubilation in 1998. "We made this record more or less for ourselves, as opposed to making it for some company, with some kind of deadline," Danko said about Jubilation last year. "We were able to take our time, and just produce it at our own speed. It's just a nice way to work. The community, that rural feeling, the way we live our lives, is what I was trying to express."

Danko issued the solo album Ridin' on the Blinds in 1997 and Live on Breeze Hill in September.

He and Hudson played on several tracks on folk-pop duo the Indigo Girls' Come On Now Social (1999).

In 1997, Danko was arrested on charges of smuggling heroin into Japan while on tour there. He was found guilty and received a suspended sentence, according to wire-service reports.

Danko is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and two children, Lisa, 30, and Justin, 28. Danko's third child, Eli, died in 1989.

Information on funeral arrangements was not immediately available.

(SonicNet Staff Writer Chris Nelson contributed to this report.)

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