Rick Danko

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Rick Danko
Rick Danko 79.jpg
Rick Danko, performing at Woodstock Reunion, September 7, 1979
Background information
Birth name Richard Clare Danko
Born (1943-12-29)December 29, 1943
Green's Corners, Ontario, Canada
Died December 10, 1999(1999-12-10) (aged 55)
Marbletown, New York, United States
Genres Rock, blues, country rock, folk rock, folk
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter, producer
Instruments Vocals, bass, double bass, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, accordion, trombone, piano, banjo, cello
Years active 1956–1999
Labels Capitol, Arista, Rykodisc, Woodstock, Breeze Hill
Associated acts The Band, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, Danko/Fjeld/Andersen
Notable instruments
Fender Bass VI
Fender Jazz Bass
Ampeg AUB-1
Gibson Ripper
custom semi-hollow 5-string bass

Richard Clare "Rick" Danko (December 29, 1943 – December 10, 1999) was a Canadian musician, bassist, songwriter and singer, best known as a member of the Band.


Early years (1943–1960)

Rick Danko was born on December 29, 1943. in Blayney, Ontario, a farming community outside of the town of Simcoe, to a musical family of Ukrainian descent. He was the third of four sons. Rick grew up listening to live music at family get-togethers, and to country, blues and, later, R&B on the radio. He was especially fascinated with country music, and often his mother would let him stay up late to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.[1] His musical influences included Hank Williams, the Carter Family and, later, Sam Cooke. He also drew inspiration from the music of his eldest brother, Junior. Danko's second-eldest brother, Dennis, was an accomplished songwriter, and his younger brother, Terry, also became a musician.

Rick made his musical debut in front of his first-grade classmates on a four-string tenor banjo[2][3]

Danko formed the Rick Danko Band at the age of 12 or 13,[4] and at 14, he left school to pursue music. At 17, already a five-year music veteran, he booked himself as the opening act for Ronnie Hawkins,[5] an American rockabilly singer whose group, the Hawks, was considered to be one of the best in Canada.[citation needed] Danko also played acoustic bass (along with Levon Helm on drums) on jazz guitarist Lenny Breau's Hallmark Sessions, recorded in 1961.

For years, it was erroneously reported that Danko was born on December 29, 1942. "It was a mistake and it just kept being reprinted," Danko said. "Nobody ever corrected it."[6][full citation needed] Though he was born on December 29, the actual year of his birth is 1943. According to His eldest brother, Maurice, Jr. (Junior), Rick was born at home, and his parents did not file for a birth certificate right away. When they did get the certificate, it had the wrong year, 1942. The family did not get around to changing it, and young Rick used this earlier date to his benefit: It meant that he could get a driver's license earlier, get into bars earlier, etc. Because the birth certificate was never changed, Rick's driver's license also contained the same date. And since those two official IDs contained the erroneous year, his headstone was marked with the same date, since there was no other official confirmation of the real date. Rick’s brother Terry also confirmed that Rick was born in 1943.[7][8]

The Hawks (1960–1964)

Hawkins invited Danko to join the Hawks as rhythm guitarist. Around this time, Hawks bassist Rebel Paine was fired by Hawkins, who, wasting no time, ordered Danko to learn to play the bass, with help from other members of the band. By September 1960, he was Hawkins's bassist, using a Fender VI six-string bass, then switching to a Fender Jazz Bass.[citation needed]

Soon joined by pianist Richard Manuel and organist and reedsman Garth Hudson, the Hawks played with Hawkins through mid-1963. An altercation that year between Danko and Hawkins led Danko, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Manuel, and Hudson to give two-weeks' notice in early 1964, and they parted ways with Hawkins on reasonably amicable terms.[9] The group had been planning to leave Hawkins and strike out together as a band without a frontman, as a team of equal members.[10]

Pre-Band (1964–1968)

Danko and the former Hawks initially performed as the Levon Helm Sextet, with saxophonist Jerry Penfound, later became the Canadian Squires, after Penfound left, and finally were billed as 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 belt, recorded as the Canadian Squires, they met the legendary blues harmonicist and vocalist Sonny Boy Williamson and planned a collaboration with him as soon as he returned to Chicago.[citation needed] Unfortunately for the group (who went on to play a four-month stand of gigs in New Jersey immediately afterward), Williamson died two months after their meeting, and the collaboration never happened.

In August 1965, Mary Martin, an assistant to Bob Dylan's (and later the Band's) manager, Albert Grossman, heard the music of the group that was now known as Levon and the Hawks. Grossman told Dylan, who was knocked out by their music. The group was performing at Tony Mart's, a popular club in Somers Point, New Jersey, and Grossman's office called the club to speak with Levon and the group about touring with Bob Dylan.[11] Helm, who was none too happy about backing a "strummer," reluctantly agreed, and the band became Dylan's backup group for a tour beginning in September. The tour, however, became too much for Helm, who departed in November. Through May 1966, Dylan and the remaining foursome (together with pick-up drummers, including actor and musician Mickey Jones) traveled across America, Australia, and Europe. After the final shows in England, Dylan retreated to his new home in Woodstock, New York, and the Hawks joined him shortly thereafter.[12]

The Band (1968–1977)

Danko performing with the Band in Hamburg, 1971

It was Danko who found the pink house on Parnassus Lane in Saugerties, New York, which became known as Big Pink. Danko, Hudson, and Manuel moved in, and Robertson lived nearby. The Band's musical sessions with Dylan took place in the basement of Big Pink, between June and October 1967, generating recordings that were officially released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. In October, the Hawks began demo recordings for their first album, with Helm rejoining the group in that month. Their manager, Albert Grossman, secured them a recording deal with Capitol Records in late 1967.[13]

From January to March 1968, the Band recorded their debut album, Music from Big Pink, in recording studios in New York and Los Angeles.[14] On this album, Danko sang lead vocal on three songs: "Caledonia Mission", "Long Black Veil" and "This Wheel's on Fire", the last of which he wrote with Dylan.[14] Before the Band could promote the album by touring, Danko was severely injured in a car accident, breaking his neck and back in six places, which put him in traction for months. While he was in traction, Danko's girlfriend, Grace Seldner, informed him that she was pregnant, and he proposed from his hospital bed. When they married, Danko was still in a neck brace.[15] The Band finally made their concert debut at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in April 1969.

By this time, they were already hard at work on their eponymous second album. On that record, sometimes known as the Brown Album, Danko sang what would become two of his signature songs—and two of the group's best-loved classics: the reflective yet whimsical story-song "When You Awake" and the achingly poignant "Unfaithful Servant." Both songs exemplified Danko's talents as a lead singer and demonstrated his naturally plaintive voice.

Danko is featured in the documentary film Festival Express, about an all-star tour by train across Canada in 1970. On the train, he sings an impromptu version of "Ain't No More Cane" with Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin.

The Band's sound was defined by each member—Robertson's lyrics and guitar work, Helm's "bayou folk" drumming and Southern voice, Manuel's Ray Charles–like vocals and complex keyboard rhythms, Hudson's arrangements on an assortment of instruments and Danko's distinctive tenor voice, his on-top-of-the-melody harmonies, and his percussive, melodic bass-playing style were an integral part of the group's sound. In an interview published in Guitar Player, Danko cited bassists James Jamerson, Ron Carter, Edgar Willis, and Chuck Rainey as his musical influences. He eventually moved from the Fender Jazz Bass to an Ampeg fretless model and later a Gibson Ripper for the Last Waltz.

Later years (1977–1999)

After the Band performed its farewell concert (the Last Waltz) at Winterland in November 1976, Danko was offered a contract with Arista Records by Clive Davis, making him the first Band member to record a solo album. Issued in 1977, his self-titled début featured each of his former bandmates in addition to Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Doug Sahm, Blondie Chaplin, and Danko's brother, Terry. The album was primarily recorded at the Band's California studio, Shangri-La. The poor sales of the album destined it for rarity status. After he recorded an unreleased follow-up album, Danko was dropped from Arista. The follow-up album was finally released as a part of Cryin' Heart Blues in 2005.

Rick Danko with Paul Butterfield Woodstock Reunion, 1979

In early 1979 Danko opened shows for Boz Scaggs. Also in 1979, Danko and Paul Butterfield toured together as the Danko/Butterfield Band. Among the songs they covered was "Sail On, Sailor", originally recorded by the Beach Boys, with Blondie Chaplin, who toured with Danko/Butterfield, on guitar and vocals.

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); a solo career; and collaborations including award-winning work with singer-songwriter Eric Andersen and Norway's Jonas Fjeld as Danko/Fjeld/Andersen.[16]

In 1984, Danko joined members of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and others in a touring company called "The Byrds Twenty-Year Celebration." Several members of this band performed solo songs to start the show including Danko, who performed "Mystery Train". In 1989, he toured with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson as part of Ringo Starr's first All-Starr Band.

Danko sang on the Pink Floyd songs "Comfortably Numb" and "Mother", the former with Van Morrison, Roger Waters, and Levon Helm, and the latter with Helm and Sinéad O'Connor on July 21, 1990, in Roger Waters's stage production of The Wall Concert in Berlin. He recorded demos and made a number of appearances on albums by other artists throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and, in 1997, released Rick Danko in Concert. Two years later, a third solo album (Live on Breeze Hill) was released, and Danko was at work on a fourth (Times Like These) at the time of his death.

In the meantime, the Band (without Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel) recorded three more albums, and Danko teamed with Fjeld and Andersen for two trio albums, Danko/Fjeld/Andersen in 1991 and Ridin' on the Blinds in 1994. By this time, Danko had gained a lot of weight, and his alcohol and drug addictions intensified. In 1996, Danko was found guilty of receiving a package of heroin mailed to him in Japan. He received a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence.[17]

In 1994, Danko was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Band.


Rick Danko's grave at the Woodstock (NY) Cemetery, April 19, 2015. Note that the birth year is incorrect.

On December 10, 1999, days after the end of a brief tour of the Midwest that included two shows in the Chicago area and a final gig at the Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Danko died in his sleep at his home in Marbletown, New York, near Woodstock. The cause of death was heart failure, arising from years of alcoholism, drug addiction and weight gain.[18][19][20]

He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth (who died in August 2013);[21] stepson, Justin; and daughter, Lisa, by his first marriage.[22] His son Eli, also from his first marriage, died in 1989 at the age of 17 from asphyxiation after heavy drinking.[23]

Rick Danko was buried next to Eli in the Woodstock Cemetery in Woodstock, New York. Elizabeth Danko was subsequently buried adjacent to Rick's grave.


For the April 2012 edition of Bass Musician: Bass Magazine for Bass Players and the Bass Industry, Rob Collier wrote an article titled "How to Danko: A Lesson in the Style of Rick Danko".[24]

On IrishTimes.com Laurence Mackin wrote that

Together with bass player Rick Danko, [Levon] Helm formed one of the finest rhythm sections to ever put a groove to a beat, and a partnership that formed the backbone of The Band. In Danko, he had the perfect complementary player, one of the finest bassists and one of the gentlest souls. His music was subtle, his instinct for just the right note unwavering – he could play one beat in four bars, but lord could he make it count. Their subtle, intense rhythmic conversation brought shape and distinction to the Band's music – it gave it heart and soul.[25]

The Drive-By Truckers' song "Danko/Manuel," written by Jason Isbell, was released on their album The Dirty South in 2004. Steve Forbert released "Wild as the Wind (A Tribute to Rick Danko)," on his album Just Like There's Nothin' To It in 2004.[26] Canadian artist Luke Doucet wrote the song, "The Day Rick Danko Died", describing where he was and what he was doing that day. The song was released on his album Blood's Too Rich released in 2008.


Danko used various basses throughout his career. Starting on a white 1962 Fender Bass VI in his days with Ronnie Hawkins, he changed over to a mid-sixties sunburst Fender Jazz Bass, which he used on the 1966 World Tour with Bob Dylan, and on the recording of the Music from Big Pink and the The Band albums of the Band, as well as on the earlier shows of the Band like on Woodstock and Isle of Wight Festival. In late 1969, the Band was given some equipment by Ampeg, which included a fretted Ampeg AEB, a fretless Ampeg AMUB and an Ampeg "Baby Bass", a fiberglass-made electric upright bass. The fretless AMUB was his bass of choice for the next years to come, and can be heard prominently on Stage Fright and Cahoots, and was used live, as can be seen in Festival Express and the "Academy of Music". This fretless bass was sold on eBay from a private collection in early 2012 for $35,000.00 USD[27] In the last years leading up to the Last Waltz, he started using a sunburst Gibson Ripper bass. His amp of choice was a blueline Ampeg SVT.[28][29]


with Danko/Fjeld/Andersen
with Richard Manuel


See also


  1. Rick Danko recorded interview with Carol Caffin, 1989
  2. http://theband.hiof.no/articles/rick_danko_bio_carole_caffin.html.
  3. "Fuller Up The Dead Musician Directory". The Dead Musician Directory. Copied from an article posted in the newsgroup rec.music.dylan by Mike Fink. Retrieved July 12, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Rising Sun Sage. Gary Alexander. July 5, 2003. Hudson Valley Music.
  5. Rick Danko – The Last Interview. Robert L. Doerschuk. December 7, 1999. All-music Guide.
  6. Rick Danko recorded interview by Carol Caffin, 1989
  7. "Rick Danko: Rick's Real Birthdate: The Hardest Proof..." sipthewine.blogspot.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Carol Caffin: A Chat with Terry Danko". hiof.no.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Life Is A Carnival. Rob Bowman. July 26, 1991. Goldmine.
  10. This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. Levon Helm and Stephen Davis. October 20, 1993. Harper-Collins Canada.
  11. "Memory Lane 1965 Tony Marts Somers Point NJ". tonymart.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Sounes 2001, p. 221
  13. Hoskyns 1993, p. 143
  14. 14.0 14.1 Hoskyns, Barney. "Liner Notes for The Band 2000 remasters". theband.hiof. Retrieved August 4, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Grace Seldner interview with Carol Caffin, 2007
  16. "News – Obituaries – Rick Danko". The Guardian, November 17, 1999
  17. Neil Strauss (December 12, 1999). "Rick Danko, 56, a Groundbreaker With the Band, Dies – New York Times". Nytimes.com. Retrieved July 14, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Rick Danko, 56, a Groundbreaker With the Band, Dies"The New York Times
  19. Bruce Eder. "Rick Danko | Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved July 14, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "The Band Biography | The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum". Rockhall.com. Retrieved July 14, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Need We Say More? > News > Robbie Robertson Comments on the Passing of Elizabeth Danko". Jambands.com. August 7, 2013. Retrieved July 14, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Mourners Gather in Memory Of a Free Spirit of Woodstock"The New York Times, December 16, 1999
  23. "Dead Student Was Son Of Bassist"Schenectady Gazette, March 6, 1989
  24. "How to Danko: A Lesson in the Style of Rick Danko by Rob Collier". Bass Musician Magazine. April 1, 2012. Retrieved August 7, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Pursued by a Bear " Levon Helm: An appreciation". Irishtimes.com. April 20, 2012. Retrieved August 7, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "Carol Caffin: Steve Forbert Talks about "Wild as the Wind"". Theband.hiof.no. March 15, 2007. Retrieved August 7, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "Rick Danko's Black Fretless Ampeg AUB-1 Scroll Bass". eBay. Retrieved July 14, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Hoskyns 1993
  29. Hoskyns 1993, p. 308


  • Hoskyns, Barney (1993), Across The Great Divide: The Band and America, Viking, ISBN 0-670-84144-7<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Sounes, Howard (2001), Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Grove Press, ISBN 0-8021-1686-8<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Shelton, Robert (1986), No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (hardback ed.), New English Library, ISBN 0-450-04843-8<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Helm, Levon (1993), This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm & The Story of The Band (hardback ed.), Chicago Review Press, ISBN 9781556524059<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>