During their heydey, few bands drew such intrigue and admiration from fans and fellow musicians alike as The Band. Their legacy is that of a group that was far greater than the sum of its parts, with a cornerstone of their sound being its stable of strong singers in drummer Levon Helm, keyboardist Richard Manuel, and bassist Rick Danko.
Born on December 29th, 1943 in Blayney, Ontario, Danko grew up in a musical household of Ukrainian immigrants. At night his mother would let him stay up late to listen to the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts out of Nashville, where he developed a musical palette consisting of Hank Williams, the Carter Family, and, later, Sam Cooke.
Though he wasn’t the face of the operation like Robbie Robertson or Helm, Danko’s bass and vocal work laid the foundation for The Band’s success. Today, for what would have been Richard Clare Danko’s 78th birthday, take a look back at his contribution to The Band’s celebrated American rock and roll songbook.
Like the rest of the musicians who would make up The Band, Danko got his start as part of The Hawks who served as the backing band for singer Ronnie Hawkins. Danko, however, was originally hired as a rhythm guitarist in 1960 before then-bassist Rebel Paine was fired by Hawkins who then ordered Danko to learn the bass. Over the next few years, Danko saw pianist Richard Manuel and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson join The Hawks.
Following Helm, Danko, Robertson, Manuel, and Hudson’s departure from The Hawks—and their well-documented tour with Bob Dylan in the mid-60s—it was time for them all to be the stars of the show, Danko included.
While he may not have emerged as The Band’s key songwriter, Danko’s vocal and instrumental contributions were the foundation of some of the group’s biggest hits. Following the dissolution of The Band after The Last Waltz at Winterland Arena on November 25th, 1976, Danko mounted a solo career and released his self-titled, debut album in 1977 which was the only solo album by a member of The Band to feature each musician from the group.
Danko went on to release two more solo albums—both of them live—before his death on December 10th, 1999 of heart failure at the age of 56. The live album Times Like These arrived the following year as a posthumous release and captured, in part, Danko’s final concert which he played in Ann Arbor, MI just four days before his death.
Take a look back at the life and many memorable performances of Rick Danko on what would have been his 78th birthday.
The Band – “It Makes No Difference” – The Last Waltz
The Band – “Stage Fright” – The Last Waltz
The Band – “This Wheel’s On Fire” – Pittsburgh, PA – 11/1/70
The Band – “Look Out Cleveland” – Los Angeles, CA – 7/10/70
[Video: John Philbin]
Bob Dylan, Rick Danko – “This Wheel’s On Fire”/”I Shall Be Released” – Wallingford, CT – 8/18/97
[Video: Georgia Sam]
Rick Danko – “Ripple” (Grateful Dead) – Times Like These