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|The Band's Rick Danko
by John Cardiff
"Rick Danko, bassist and singer with The Band ... one of the most naturally gifted and quietly influential musicians in North American rock 'n roll, died in his sleep at his home near Woodstock, N.Y. yesterday..."
-- Toronto Star obituary, 11 December 1999 issue
"Rick was one of the
greatest and most soulful singers I've ever heard. Definitely, the most
original bass player I've ever heard, and one of the kindest hearts to
have ever graced this planet."
Richard Clare Danko was born 29 Dec 1942 in Norfolk County. In his mid-teens, he worked at Stan Makepeace's Meat Market [butcher shop] next to my father's drug store at 56 Robinson Street in Simcoe. This was back in the late 1950s, pre-Beatles, when Elvis Presley was every rock musician's role model.
Rick, Tony Zdriluk, Norm Timpson, and Mike Scheel from the Meat Market were always dropping into Cardiff Pharmacy for cigarettes, notepads, pencils, band-aids, to tease the girls who worked there, browse the magazine rack, or pursue any other excuse which allowed them to stretch their legs for a minute when business was slow. Rick's parents were tobacco farmers just west of Simcoe and regularly shopped at Dad's store.
One day, just at store closing, Rick asked Dad if they could talk. Rick, who was forever working music into every conversation, had a chance to join a rock and roll band, and wanted to bounce the idea off Dad. To this day I suspect what Rick really wanted was a chance to practice telling his folks that farming and butchering weren't for him; that he was off to the big city (Toronto) to seek his fame and fortune as a musician.
What happened next has been well-documented over the years, on million-selling records, in movies, several books, and countless newspaper and magazine articles. Here's a Rolling Stone summary.
For those not into rock, Rick joined Ronnie Hawkins' backup group, The Hawks. The Hawks (Simcoe's Rick Danko, Stratford's Richard Manuel, London's Garth Hudson, Toronto's Robbie Robertson and Arkansas' Levon Helm) left Hawkins in 1963, were Bob Dylan's back up band when Dylan "went electric" (1965-1966), then went on to sell "a record or two" on their own, primarily between 1968 and 1978, under the name The Band.
The Band performed at Woodstock in 1969. One of their early hits, "The Weight," was featured in the Easy Rider soundtrack. Band songs have since soundtracked dozens of movies.
The Band, Rolling Stone magazine's "Band of the Decade," was, to quote Toronto Star's Greg Quill, "the seminal American folk-rock troupe of the late 1960s and early 1970s."
Another critic called The Band: "The Smithsonian of American rock and roll." To quote record producer John Simon: "It's simple: The Band changed popular music. It was never the same." Today what they started is called Folk Rock.
The Band was one of the most bootlegged groups of its time. Several illegal recordings of concerts found their way into stores and were readily available. Today they are prized by collectors. Fans claimed the group sounded even better live. Beatle George Harrison called them "the best damn rock 'n roll band on the planet."
As a member of The Band, Rick became the only Norfolk County native ever featured on the cover of Time magazine (1970). Ditto the cover of Rolling Stone (1968).
The Band was "arguably the best rock band in the world" after the Beatles broke up (the other contender being the Rolling Stones) until The Band retired in style in 1976.
Martin Scorsese's movie of their farewell concert, The Last Waltz, remains "the best film of its type ever made" and has been re-released several times, most recently in 2003 on DVD with bonus footage.
The Band was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and Canada's Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
Rick continued to play and record, as a solo artist, and with various combinations of friends. He was a member of Ringo Starr's All-Stars in 1989. The Band regrouped without Robertson in 1983 and toured and recorded as "The Band" in the 1980s and 1990s. As one-third of Danko/Fjeld/Andersen he won the 1993 Norwegian Grammy for that group's self-titled Record of the Year.
He appeared in The Who's 1979 movie The Kids Are Alright, played the father of a kidnapped boy in the 1986 movie Man Outside, and appeared with Band-mates Garth Hudson and Levon Helm in Pink Floyd's The Wall. He also appeared in Bob Dylan's Eat the Document and 2004's finally released Festival Express (the earliest recorded look at The Band in 1967 as a solo act sans Dylan).
Rick broke his neck and back in seven places in a near fatal 1968 car accident. It put him in traction for weeks and forced him to re-learn most motor skills including walking.
That accident also prevented The Band from touring in support of their first album, Music from Big Pink. Not touring underscored their Dylan-like quest for privacy, "to let the record speak for itself," which in turn boosted the group's reputation as a super-group. On subsequent albums, vocals were more evenly distributed among the groups three lead singers to prevent dependency on one vocalist.
The medications that kept Rick still in traction were addictive and forced Rick to choose between addictive drugs of various types and severe pain for the next 30 years. Beating the drugs in the late 1990s, Rick gained over 100 unhealthy pounds.
Rick, 56, died of natural causes 10 Dec 1999, having last performed at a benefit concert with Band-mate Garth Hudson and others, 28 Nov 1999.
Predeceased by son Eli in 1989 (who would have been 29 when Rick died), his father Maurice Danko Sr. in 1983 and his mother, Leola in 1987, Rick was survived by his second wife Elizabeth, children Lisa, 30, and Justin, 28, and brothers Maurice Jr. of Walsh, Ontario, Terry of Pefferlaw, Ontario, and Dennis of Hamilton, Ontario.
Over 500 of the Woodstock generation, including former Band-mate Jamie "Robbie" Robertson and Lovin' Spoonful leader John Sebastian attended Rick's music and tribute filled funeral at The Bearsville Theatre (just west of Woodstock, NY) 16 Dec 1999.
Rick's Rolling Stone obituary