Rick Danko Biography
Richard Clare "Rick" Danko (December 29, 1942 – December 10, 1999) was a Canadian musician and singer, probably best known as a member of The Band.
The third of four sons, Danko was born at the tail end of 1942 in Green's Corners, a farming community outside of the town of Simcoe, Ontario, 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 14, Danko dropped out of school and found a job as an apprentice butcher. At 17, (and already a five-year music veteran), he booked himself as the 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, who had joined Hawkins in 1957 before Hawkins ventured north, and lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, who had joined in 1960.)
Hawkins, impressed by Danko, asked him to join The Hawks as rhythm guitarist. Danko agreed, despite 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 bass, and by September 1960 he was Hawkins' bassist, using the Fender VI six-string bass, then switching 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 give their two-weeks' notice. 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 as soon as he returned to Chicago. Unfortunately for the group (who on 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.
Around the same time, however, Bob Dylan contacted them, and they became his backing group, although the nature of the tour became too much for Helm, who departed in November.
Through May of 1966, Dylan and the remaining foursome, (together with pick-up drummers, which included actor/musician Mickey Jones), 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 who 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, was moved to the basement of the hangout quickly dubbed "Big Pink". The sessions, which began about May 1967, ended around October 1967.
Around the same time, Dylan and his backing group parted ways, with Dylan going to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding and The Hawks beginning demo recordings for their first album. Songs like "Yazoo Street Scandal", "You Don't Come Through", "Ferdinand The Impostor", "Beautiful Thing" and "Words And Numbers" were completed by January 1968 (with Helm returning to the fold sometime between August and November), and 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 become their debut album, Music From Big Pink. Touring behind the album, however, was not to be; Danko was severely injured in a car accident, breaking his neck and back in nine places, which put him in traction for months. (It would be April 1969 before 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 magnum 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 on the second. This would tend to be the standard on the albums, with Manuel or Helm handling the majority of lead vocals on all but one (see Cahoots) 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 arrangements and genius behind whatever he fancied playing. But Danko's active, bouncy bass-playing style was an integral part of the group's sound, and it fit with whatever The Band was doing, be it straight-ahead rock, country or R&B. He eventually moved from the Fender Jazz Bass to an Ampeg fretless model and later a Gibson Ripper.
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 a solo album. Issued in 1977, his self titled début featured each of his bandmates as well as a Ron Wood 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, (it barely cracked the Billboard 200), destined it for rarity status, and although he recorded a follow-up album, Danko was dropped from Arista. (The follow-up album, presumed lost for many years, was finally released as a part of 2005's Cryin' Heart Blues.)
From 1983 to 1999, Danko alternated between a reformed version of The Band featuring Helm, Hudson, and guitarist Jim Weider (and from 1983 to 1986 Manuel), and a solo career and occasional work with Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeld.
In 1989, Danko toured with Levon Helm as part of Ringo Starr's first All-Star Band.
Recording demos throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, it took him until 1997 to follow up his first album with a solid second (Rick Danko in Concert). Two years later, a third album (Live on Breeze Hill), featuring Hudson was released, and Danko was busy at work on a fourth (Times Like These), which sadly was uncompleted at the time of his death.
In the meantime, 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 had left Danko out of shape - physically huge - and barely recognizable. On December 10, 1999,  just before turning 57 and only days after the end of a brief tour of the Midwest that included two shows in the Chicago area and a final gig in Michigan, Danko's heart finally gave out, and he died in his sleep.
He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, stepson Justin, and daughter, Lisa, by his first marriage. (His son Eli, also from his first marriage, had died in 1989 at the age of 19, following a severe asthma attack).
Like Manuel, Danko was a long-time drug user; in 1997 he was found guilty of trying to smuggle heroin into Japan, and told the presiding judge that he had begun using the drug (together with prescription morphine) to fight life-long pain resulting from his 1968 auto accident. At the time of his death, however, he was clean.
It was widely reported in the press that Danko died the day after his fifty-sixth birthday, but this is incorrect as he actually died nineteen days before turning fifty-seven. The following sources give the correct date/age: