Aristocrat of rock who helped create deluge of sound behind Dylan

 

Of all the rock groups from the 1960s, few can match the regard in which The Band have been held. The loss of their bass player and songwriter Rick Danko, who died on December 10th, 1999, aged 56, may finally draw the line under their illustrious career.

Rick Danko was born in Simcoe, Ontario. Both his parents and his three brothers were keen musicians, and he grew up steeped in country music and rhythm & blues. He left school at 14 to become a musician, and at 17 joined the Hawks, the backing band of journeyman rock 'n' roller Ronnie Hawkins. He started off on rhythm guitar, then switched to bass.

For three years, he and the Hawks learned their trade in roadhouses and honky-tonks across Canada. Their 1963 recording of Bo Diddley's Who Do You Love? remains a minor rock 'n' roll milestone.

By then, the Hawks were developing ambitions of their own. They split from Hawkins, and began working as Levon Helm & The Hawks, Helm being their Arkansas-born drummer. The otherwise all-Canadian lineup was completed by guitarist Robbie Robertson, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson. In 1965, Bob Dylan, now on the brink of turning from folk to rock, needed a backing band. He saw the Hawks in Toronto, and invited them to join him.

The music the group made with Dylan on his 1965-1966 tour still stands as some of the most extraordinary ever made, a panoramic and theatrical deluge of sound built around Dylan's freewheeling imagery.

The music they made with Dylan eventually emerged as The Basement Tapes (including This Wheel's On Fire, co-written by Rick Danko and Dylan), a phantasmagorical mix of folklore, country, blues and rockabilly. The mood of reassessment and retracing historical roots strongly coloured the group - by then known simply as The Band. Their 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink, a quietly revolutionary collection which marked a drastic change of course from the prevailing mood of underground rock and social confrontation.

Their second album, The Band, is the one that cemented the group firmly into rock aristocracy. They played at the 1969 Woodstock festival, and backed Dylan at the Isle of Wight the same year. However, The Band were never at their most enthralling as a live attraction, a point acknowledged in the 1970 album Stage Fright, where Rick Danko sang the title tune like a man running for his life.

Subsequent recordings never matched the first two, but they achieved commercial success with the live Rock Of Ages, while their 1974 reunion tour with Dylan was one of the events of the decade. Two years later, The Band's Thanksgiving Day farewell concert at the Winterland ballroom, San Francisco, featured Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters, and resulted in the triple album, The Last Waltz, together with Martin Scorsese's live concert movie.

The Band members' subsequent solo careers inevitably lost momentum though Rick Danko, like the other members, continued to make solo records.

They occasionally reformed, minus Robertson, but the suicide of pianist Richard Manuel in 1986 was a major blow.

Rick Danko struggled with heroin addiction in his later years, having received a suspended sentence for smuggling the drug into Japan in 1997.

He is survived by wife Elizabeth and a son and daughter.

Rick Danko: born 1943; died December, 1999