Remembering Richard Manuel: Just Outside the Spotlight
Some losses in the culture of music are immeasurable simply by the silence that falls in the aftermath of their absence. For Richard Manuel, who lost his struggle with addiction and depression on March 4, 1986, the silence was all too real and too loud.
All five members of The Band were major forces in popular music giving a distinctive voice to an indefinable collaboration of music, which today many call Americana. Richard was equally adept at soul singing as he was with a mando-driven folk song, a country ballad or a dancing boogie bit of rock and roll. During his days on the road and in the studio, he sometimes filled in on drums while Levon Helm picked and sang with his mando in hand. But, Richard Manuel was most at home and familiar to audiences behind his piano, with his grizzly beard, behind wild eyes, singing songs that only his voice could fill with distinctive character, soul and authority that runs way down deep into the roots of the music so many have come to love.
It’s to his credit that despite his struggle with addiction and the emotional stress of being on the road, he remained a professional and an ambassador of the music he brought to the light of day from those early Woodstock basement days. During the in between years of The Last Waltz and the welcome re-formed Band of 1983, Manuel and his constant friend and band mate, Rick Danko, toured with ex-Byrd, Gene Clark and a rotating roster of veteran musicians including John York of The Byrds circa 1968. When remembering those touring days with Richard, York often speaks of the constant drug abuse on the road, but he is quick to add that both Richard and Rick were always professionals on stage.
As can be heard today on Band songs like “Across The Great Divide,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Whispering Pines” and “The Shape I’m In,” his vocal had range and character. There is still no mistaking the fullness and rich quality of his voice. When he joined with Rick Danko and Levon Helm a unique vocal force was formed that had a near ethereal high lonesome gospel quality to it. The three of them were undefinable, original and without peers as vocalists as they interchanged lead and vocal harmonies in a way that was seamless and haunting. When Levon Helm passed away last year, the third voice of that soulful trio was reunited in heaven and no doubt have given the angels something more holy to hear than can be found in any church today.
Richard Manuel was a rare artist who was content to be a contributor; one part of a greater sound. On stage, he sometimes seemed to come just out of the shadows peering through weary eyes into the spotlight; but he was always ready to lean back into the darkness and let the music speak for itself.
He finally did drift out of sight twenty-seven years ago. Even so, we can still hear him. In the darkness, as the silence breaks, Richard Manuel’s voice still comes through as clear as the day he first sang with an egoless grace that is rare in music today. Today it is good to remember his legacy grounded in his love of music over glory and fame. He was always willing to be simply one with the moment presented in a song. He still lives there, thank God. Today, if it were possible to listen in to heaven’s radio, we would hear Richard Manuel singing out of the darkness one more time, just on the outer edge of the spotlight….whispering in pines or in the halls of a station.