In the three-part vocal mix that was The Band’s signature, Rick Danko was the quavering, charmingly uncertain voice between Richard Manuel’s soulful, more technically accomplished singing and Levon Helm’s robust backwoods bellow. Though he was well known as a party animal, Danko’s style made him perfect for the lead spot on the title song to Stage Fright. The clip up top shows a much older Danko singing “When You Awake,” one of The Band’s early classics, and that sense of uncertainty is still there.
For me, Danko was literally the voice of The Band: the first actual Band track I heard was “Katie’s Been Gone,” on the original vinyl release of The Basement Tapes. Though I later learned the track had no business being on the album, it sent me running to get Music From Big Pink and The Band during that Dylan-drenched year of 1975, which opened with Blood on the Tracks and closed (give or take a week or two) with Desire.
Though Michael Gray’s encyclopedia item on Danko certifies that he was almost as eager as Robbie Robertson to break up The Band, Danko seems downright wounded during the interviews in The Last Waltz, which is one of the reasons I’ve always pulled back from admiring that film.
Judging from this tribute site and remarks accumulated over the years, Rick Danko made a huge impact on others, fans and fellow musicians alike. Last week I made a brief mention of the 10th anniversary of his passing, but over the weekend I realized that Danko was part of many of the things I liked most about The Band. Fans who think of The Band as Robbie Robertson’s backup group forget that one of the greatest songs in its catalogue, “This Wheel’s On Fire,” was co-written by Danko, and that something crucial went out of the group’s sound when the one-for-all-all-for-one spirit went away after those first two albums.
Whether it was his distinctive, percussive bass style or the sense of humor that came through in his manner and his singing, Danko was a large part of the group’s collective soul, and he deserved a lot more than what he got after The Last Waltz sounded its final notes.