Rick Danko; Canadian Musician and Key Member of Rock Group the Band
Rick Danko, a Canadian musician who helped forge a rich musical panorama of American history and myth as a member of the influential rock group the Band, died in his sleep Thursday night at his home near Woodstock, N.Y.
He was 56 and the cause of death, while not immediately known, was not considered suspicious, said Walter Dobushak, the medical examiner for Ulster County, N.Y.
The bassist and singer participated in the Band’s highest-profile moments, backing Bob Dylan on tour at the peak of the singer’s celebrity in the mid-1960s, and performing in the star-studded 1976 farewell concert that director Martin Scorsese filmed for his movie “The Last Waltz.” Danko and the rest of the Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
“He’d been really positive lately,” said Butch Dener, who worked as Danko’s road manager for 10 years. “He’s been singing better than he has in years, and he was out there working. It’s just that he was always tired. . . . He just wasn’t in good health. He was heavy, and everyone was worried about it.”
Danko grew up on a farm near the small town of Simcoe in southwest Ontario, Canada. He took to music early, participating in weekend-long musical gatherings at his family home. Initially influenced by the bluegrass and gospel music brought to the area by southerners who came to work the tobacco fields, he later discovered Sam Cooke and other singers who helped shape his soulful vocal style.
He formed a group and played at local halls and at weddings, and at 17 his band opened for Arkansas rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who had relocated to Toronto. Danko, playing guitar then, sat in with Hawkins’ group, the Hawks, which included Arkansas-bred drummer Levon Helm and Canadian guitarist Robbie Robertson. He never left.
The group, which eventually included keyboardists Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, developed into a sharp unit through tireless tours of the bar circuit. In 1963 they decided to strike out on their own and split from Hawkins. Two years later they hooked up with Dylan, who was looking for a band to back him on the road after making his breakthrough from folk to rock.
Their 1965 and 1966 tours were a high point of ‘60s rock, and they collaborated again a few years later when Dylan was recuperating from a motorcycle accident, recording the famous “Basement Tapes” in Woodstock.
It was there that the Band started recording a series of albums that profoundly influenced rock music. With their blend of country, rhythm & blues and rock and their ambitious, sometimes elliptical narratives, 1968’s “Music From Big Pink” and 1969’s “The Band"--highlighted by such classic songs as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"--helped shift rock toward its traditional roots, a legacy that has endured since then.
Though he did not write many of the group’s songs, Danko contributed to their communal arrangements and distinctive harmonies, and he sang lead vocals on such tracks as “This Wheel’s on Fire,” which he co-wrote with Dylan, “Long Black Veil,” “Unfaithful Servant” and “Stage Fright.”
After another tour with Dylan in 1974 and the 1976 “Last Waltz” finale, Danko released a self-titled solo album in 1978 that included an appearance by Band fan Eric Clapton. In 1983 the Band reunited, without Robertson, and Danko also played on projects with other musicians for several years.
The Band--Danko, Helm and Hudson with three new musicians after Manuel’s suicide in 1986--recorded their first new album in 17 years in 1993, followed by another in 1996 and “Jubilation” last year.
The considerable drug use within the group has been well documented, and Danko received a suspended sentence in Japan in 1997 for smuggling heroin into the country. Associates say Danko had left that life behind.
“He talked about how it was very important to be clean, it was something that made him look at a lot of things in a fresh light,” said Tom Leavens, general counsel and senior executive vice president of Platinum Entertainment, whose River North label released the “Jubilation” album.
“He’d obviously been through an awful lot in his life, but there was such an enthusiasm that he had for staying with it. He worked very hard in promoting this record. . . . He was still out there on the road and I think he had really gotten his life back together after what happened in Japan. . . . That was the thing that I think helped straighten him out.”
Danko released a live album in 1997 and another last September. According to Dener, Danko recently toured the Midwest and had completed recording several songs for a new studio album.
Danko is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Grafton Danko, a daughter and a stepson.