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Rick Danko

From Academic Kids

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RDanko.jpg
Rick Danko on bass, December 1971

Richard Clare "Rick" Danko was a Canadian musician and singer, probably best known as a member of The Band.

Danko was born December 29, 1942 in Green's Corner, Ontario, a farming community outside of the small town of Simcoe, to a musical family of Ukrainian-Canadians. Growing up, as his future bandmates' also did, in front of the family radio, he was exposed to country and R&B music at an early age. At the age of fifteen, he dropped out of school and found a job as an apprentice butcher. At the age of seventeen, already a five-year veteran of playing music, he booked himself to be an opening act for Ronnie Hawkins, an American rockabilly singer whose group, The Hawks were considered to be one of the best in Canada. Among those already in the group were drummer Levon Helm, whom had joined Hawkins in 1957 (before Hawkins ventured north) and lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, whom had joined in 1960.

Hawkins, quite taken with Danko, asked the lad to join The Hawks as rhythm guitarist. Danko agreed, in spite of the fact he only knew four chords on the instrument. Around this time, Hawks bassist Rebel Paine was fired by Hawkins, who, wasting no time, had Danko learn the bass, and by September 1960, Danko was Hawkins' bassist, using the Fender VI six-string baritone guitar model, later graduating to a Fender Jazz Bass.

Soon joined by pianist Richard Manuel and organist/reedsman Garth Hudson, The Hawks played concerts with Hawkins through mid-1963, when an altercation between Danko and Hawkins led Danko, Helm, Robertson, Manuel and Hudson, as well as reedsman Jerry Penfound and occasional singer Bruce Bruno to hand in their two-week notices. Initially performing as the Levon Helm Sextet (as Helm had accumulated the most time with Hawkins), they later became The Canadian Squires before finally being called Levon and the Hawks.

Playing a circuit that stretched in an arc from Ontario to Arkansas, they became known as "the best damn bar band in the land". By 1965, with two singles under their belts and Penfound and Bruno long gone, they met the legendary blues harmonicist and vocalist Sonny Boy Williamson, and planned a collaboration with him, just as soon as he returned to Chicago. Unfortunately for the group, who went to play a four-month stand of gigs in New Jersey immediately afterward, Williamson died within days of their meeting, and the collaboration never happened.

At the same time, however, Bob Dylan, who had just abandoned folk music for rock and roll, contacted the group, who eventually all joined up with Dylan as his backing group (though it quickly became too much for Helm, who departed in November). Through May of 1966, Dylan and the remaining foursome with pick-up drummers, traveled across America, Australia and Europe, playing new versions of Dylan classics. After the final shows in England, Dylan retreated to his new home in Woodstock, New York, and the Hawks joined him shortly thereafter.

It was Danko whom had found the pink house on Parnassus Lane, just off of Stoll Road. He, Hudson and Manuel quickly moved in, with Robertson ensconsing himself nearby. The music that the group had been performing with Dylan at his house was moved to the basement of the hangout quickly dubbed "Big Pink". The sessions, which began about May 1967 ended about October 1967. At that point, Dylan and his backing group parted ways, with Dylan going off to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding and The Hawks started to record demo recordings for their first album. Songs like "Yazoo Street Scandal", "You Say You Love Me", "Ferdinand The Impostor", "Beautiful Thing" and "Bacon Fat" were completed by January 1968, when Danko contacted drummer Levon Helm, right at the time their manager, Albert Grossman, secured them a recording deal with Capitol Records- .

Working over the next few months, the five-piece churned out what would be their debut. Released with a childlike painting by their former boss, it single-handledly contributed to help rockers damaged by the excess of the Summer of Love to find the roots of popular music. Touring behind the album, however, was not to be, as Danko injured himself in a car accident, putting himself in traction for months. It would be April 1969 when the group finally debuted in concert as The Band, at Bill Graham's Winterland in San Francisco.

By this time, they were already hard at work on their eponymous second album, considered by many to be their opus. Danko, who had sung lead on all or parts of five of the eleven tracks on the first album only sang lead on two of the tracks for the second album. This would tend to be the standard on the albums, with Manuel or Helm handling the great majority of lead vocals on all but one of the Band's remaining studio albums recorded before 1978.

The Band's albums were defined by each member- Robertson's lyrics and guitar work, Helm's "bayou folk" drumming and Southern voice, Manuel's Ray Charlesesque vocals and rhythmic piano and Hudson's arranging and his genius behind whatever he fancied playing. However, the best selling point it was Danko's bass style that set the group apart from others. Jazzy, funky, countrified... trading in his Fender Jazz Bass for a Ampeg fretless model (and later a Gibson G-3), his bottom end was like no other.

Yet, by 1976, Danko wanted out. He needed to find his own voice, and with a contract from Arista Records, he had the chance to record at least one solo album. Issued in 1977, his self titled release featured each of his bandmates as well as a Rolling Stone and Eric Clapton. Primarily recorded at the Band's California Studio, Shangri-La, it is the best and most accessible example of a member of The Band's solo career. The dismal showing of the album, however, barely cracking the Billboard 200, destined it for rarity status, and Danko, though having recorded a follow-up, was dropped from Arista. The follow-up is presumed lost.

From 1983 to 1999, Danko alternated between a reformed version of The Band featuring Helm, Hudson, guitarist Jim Weider and from 1983 to 1986 Manuel, a solo career and occasional work with Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeld. Recording demos throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, it took him until 1997 to follow up his first album with a proper second album. Two years later, a third album featuring Hudson was released, and he was busy at work at a fourth, which he sadly left uncompleted. Meanwhile, The Band recorded three albums of their own and Danko teamed with Fjeld and Andersen for two trio albums, Danko/Fjeld/Andersen in 1991 and Ridin' on the Blinds in 1994.

By the end of 1999, a lifetime of pushing himself over the edge left Danko out of shape, barely recognizable. After a brief tour of the midwest, a day after his 56th birthday, on December 10, 1999, his heart finally gave out, and he died in his sleep. His drug use, which had earned him a harsh prison sentence in Japan for months in 1997 (commuted for Danko's activeness in environmental causes), had nothing to do with it.

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