Rick Danko’s 70th Birthday: A Voice for the Ages
Today, Rick Danko, a key member of The Band, arguably the best American group of the last 50 years, would have been 70 years old. He died in his sleep in 1999. According to legend and fact, reality and lore, Danko was everything a rock and roll musician should be; wild, free, funny, excessive, childlike and wise as an owl. Unfortunately, that meant an early death as well. He was part of the trio of vocals( including Richard Manuel and Levon Helm) that helped to give The Band it’s soulful distinction.
It’s not an overstatement to say, no one has ever sang harmony or lead vocals like Rick Danko. Most who knew him and those who have spent hours and years listening to him would agree. His voice was sweet, soulful and penetrating. As good as any soul singer, he gave every song over to his core and when it hit the receptive listener, the result was magic.
“It Makes No Difference,” captured on film in Martin Scorsese’s classic concert documentary, The Last Waltz, is the quintessential Danko performance. His vocal is unmatched. On film and in the studio version, he delievers the song with ease and grace.
In tribute, a few days after his death, singer-songwriter, Eric Andersen wrote, “You were born with a voice of a free beautiful bird. It was pure charm from a deep soul and it touched and moved everyone who ever heard it.”
But, it wasn’t only his voice, it was also his instrumental ability, especially on his Fender jazz bass he played as though the instrument was a part of his genetic make up. When he played and sang, he couldn’t stand still. He rocked, sway and danced as his hands ran over the strings and fret board. It was a sight to see. And when the time was right, on stage, depending on the song, he could pick up the fiddle and the mandolin with equal craftsman-like skill. Of the five members of The Band, it was hardest to tear your eyes away from Rick as he played and sang in concert.
The Band had two distinct eras. The first was with lead guitarist, Robbie Robertson, who gave the words and structure to many of the groups classic songs, in collaboration with his mates. But, it was to Danko’s credit that even after Robertson left the band, when they reunited in the early 80’s with a new lead guitar player, Jim Weider; as long as Danko, Manual, Helm and Hudson were on board, they didn’t miss a step. The music continued through some of the best live performances of their career. Three more albums, that held up the legacy they had built with Robertson, were released during this time as well. Their last album, Jubilation, includes some of Danko’s best bass and vocal performances on record with songs like “Book Faded Brown”, “High Cotton” and “If I Should Fail.” The peak of his live work with The Band came on their 1983 triumphant tour of Japan. Those who saw the group during this time recall they were at their finest. It’s also a testament to his artistry and talent that, when he died, The Band decided to hang up their rock and roll shoes one last time. They just couldn’t be The Band anymore without Rick Danko.
But, whenever I hear The Band today, or when someone mentions the rising genre we call Americana, it’s Rick Danko’s voice that comes across most clearly in the interior of my heart. It’s his lonely, iconic howl and his solid danceable bass lines that seem to flow through to those deeply felt and remembered places within my most treasured memories. My great-grandmother once said to my mother when she was a child, “Honey, life is just a veil of tears.” If so, it’s a thin one. I know, if the tears we shed for those who have crossed through that veil, could stop for a while, we may just clearly see them all at their best. And, then we would know, as the memorial card published at his funeral read, “On the day Rick Danko was born, the angels sang. Rick was singing harmony.” And if the music continues forever, so does Rick Danko’s harmony.
Special thanks to Carol Caffin for the assistance and for her work in keeping Rick Danko’s legacy alive.