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Rick Danko

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Rick Danko
Danko performing with the Band in Hamburg, 1971
Danko performing with the Band in Hamburg, 1971
Background information
Birth nameRichard Clare Danko
Born(1943-12-29)December 29, 1943
Blayney, Ontario, Canada
DiedDecember 10, 1999(1999-12-10) (aged 55)
Marbletown, New York, U.S.
  • Musician
  • singer
  • songwriter
Years active1956–1999
Formerly of
Grace Seldner
(m. 1968; div. 1980)

Elizabeth Danko
(m. 1989)

Richard Clare Danko (December 29, 1943 – December 10, 1999)[1] was a Canadian musician, bassist, songwriter, and singer, best known as a founding member of the Band, for which he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

During the 1960s, Danko performed as a member of the Hawks, backing Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan. Then, between 1968 and 1977, Danko and the Hawks, now called the Band, released seven studio albums before breaking up. Beginning with the group's reformation in 1983 and up until his death, Danko participated in the Band's partial reunion.


Early years (1943–1960)[edit]

Danko was born on December 29, 1943 [2][3] in Blayney, Ontario, a farming community outside the town of Simcoe, the third of four sons in a musical family of Ukrainian descent. He grew up listening to live music at family gatherings and to country music, blues and R&B on the radio. He especially liked country music, and often his mother would let him stay up late to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.[4]

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.[citation needed]

He made his musical debut playing a four-string tenor banjo for his first-grade classmates,[5][6] and while various sources differ slightly, all suggest he was headed to a professional career early. One report has him forming his first "Rick Danko Band" at age 12 or 13,[7] another reference mentions that by age 14 he was putting on country & western shows with his brothers, Maurice Jr., Dennis and Terry, using various group names.[8] It is also written that he started a band at that age with his eldest brother, Maurice Junior and a local high school teacher on drums. This trio performed country music and R & B at local dance halls, sometimes rented themselves, weddings, and other events. The group, "The Starlights", expanded to included accordion, second guitar and "a girl singer", expanded their repertoire to include polkas for newer European immigrants.[9][10]

By age 17, already a five-year music veteran and having already left the Simcoe Composite School and working by day as a butcher, Danko booked his band The Starlights as the opening act for Ronnie Hawkins.[11]

The Hawks (1960–1964)[edit]

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 in the band. By September 1960, he was Hawkins's bassist.[citation needed]

In 1961, Danko with drummer Levon Helm backed guitarist Lenny Breau on several tracks recorded at Hallmark Studios in Toronto. These tracks are included on the 2003 release The Hallmark Sessions.[12]

Soon joined by pianist Richard Manuel and multi-instrumentalist 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.[13] The group had been planning to break with Hawkins and continue together as a band without a frontman, as a team of equal members.[14]

Pre-Band (1964–1968)[edit]

Danko and the former Hawks initially performed as the Levon Helm Sextet with saxophonist Jerry Penfound. After Penfound left, they changed their name to The Canadian Squires, and finally to Levon and the Hawks. Playing a circuit that stretched geographically from Ontario to Arkansas, they became known as "the best damn bar band in the land."[citation needed]

In August 1965, Mary Martin, an assistant to Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, heard Levon and the Hawks perform. Grossman introduced the band's music to Dylan, who was impressed. The band 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 Dylan.[15]

Helm was not happy to be backing a "strummer" but 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 the actor and musician Mickey Jones) traveled across the U.S., Australia, and Europe. After the final shows in Britain, Dylan retreated to his new home in Woodstock, New York, and the Hawks joined him there shortly thereafter.[16]

The Band (1968–1977)[edit]

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.[17]

From January to March 1968, the Band recorded their debut album, Music from Big Pink, in recording studios in New York and Los Angeles.[18] On this album, Danko sang lead vocal on three songs: "Caledonia Mission", "Long Black Veil" and "This Wheel's on Fire."

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 at the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ-on-the-Mount in Woodstock, Danko was still in a neck brace.[19] Rick and Grace divorced in October 1980.[20]

The Band finally made their concert debut at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in April 1969.[citation needed] 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: "When You Awake" and "Unfaithful Servant." Both songs exemplified Danko's talents as a lead singer and demonstrated his naturally plaintive voice.[citation needed]

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.[21]

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.[22]

Later years (1977–1999)[edit]

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.[citation needed]

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.[23]

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. On July 21, 1990, in Roger Waters's stage production of The Wall Concert in Berlin, 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. 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

In 1994, Danko was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Band.[1]

Danko struggled with heroin addiction.[24][25][26] On May 6, 1997, he was arrested in Japan for drug smuggling after his wife sent him heroin.[27] Danko pleaded not guilty, but acknowledged having used heroin and stated that he would seek help if he were allowed to return to the United States.[27] After spending ten and a half weeks in prison, Danko was released and given a suspended sentence.[24]


Danko's grave at the Woodstock Cemetery, April 19, 2015

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 of heart failure in his sleep at his home in Marbletown, New York. He was 55.[28][29][1]

He was survived by his second wife, Elizabeth (died 2013), whom he had married in 1989,[30][31] a stepson, Justin, and a daughter, Lisa, from his first marriage.[32] His son Eli, from Danko's first marriage, died in 1989, at age 18, from asphyxiation after heavy drinking while attending the State University of New York at Albany.[33] Danko was buried next to Eli at Woodstock Cemetery, Woodstock, New York.


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".[34]

In the Irish Times, Laurence Mackin wrote:

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.[35]

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 Just Like There's Nothin' To It in 2004.[36] Martin Hagfors honored Danko on the Home Groan song You Made a Difference in 2000.[37]

A number of musical artists have cited Danko as an influence, including Elvis Costello,[38] John Doe,[39] Mumford & Sons,[40] Lucinda Williams,[41] Jay Farrar,[42] Neko Case,[43] Robbie Fulks,[44] Cindy Cashdollar,[45] Craig Finn of The Hold Steady,[46] Chris Tomson of Vampire Weekend,[47] Mike Watt,[48] and Eric Clapton who said "Rick's singing has had a tremendous influence on me ... you have to be a great musician before you can sing like that."[49]

Rick Danko memorial plaque May 30, 2020. Blayney, Ontario

Notable instruments[edit]

Danko used various basses throughout his career. He played a mid-sixties sunburst Fender Jazz Bass on the 1966 World Tour with Bob Dylan, and on the recording of Music from Big Pink and The Band, as well as early live shows by the Band, including Woodstock and the 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, modified with a Precision Bass pickup (see picture above, of Danko performing with the Band in Hamburg, 1971), 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 the film Festival Express also in video footage included in the Live at the Academy of Music 1971 release. This fretless bass was sold on eBay from a private collection in early 2012 for US$35,000.00.[50] He was also seen performing with Fender Precision Basses and he also owned four Gibson Rippers,[51][52] and would change out the pickups to experiment with different tones.[53] Photos and video show him often playing a blonde one[54] and also a sunburst, which was featured in The Last Waltz.[citation needed]

Throughout the 1990s, Danko played a custom-built hollow-body electric bass by luthier Mark Dan, with Alembic pickups,[55] which he referred to as "One of the greatest basses that I've ever had".[51] His other main bass throughout the 1990s was a red electric hollowbody bass from the Norwegian Workshop Guitar Company with two types of Alembic Pickups.[51] His amp of choice was a blueline Ampeg SVT,[53] and he also used a 1959 Fender Bassman.[51]


Studio albums[edit]


With Danko/Fjeld/Andersen

Other appearance

Live and compilation[edit]

Live albums

Compilation albums

Archival releases

  • At Dylan's Cafe (2007)
  • Live at the Tin Angel, 1999 (2011)
  • Live at Uncle Willy's, 1989 (2011)
  • Live at the Iron Horse, Northampton 1995 with Blondie Chaplin and Ed Kaercher (2011)

Session work[edit]

Bob Dylan

Indigo Girls

Richard Manuel

Robbie Robertson

  • Robbie Robertson - background vocals on "Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight" (1987)
  • Storyville - background vocals on "Hold Back the Dawn" (1991)

Todd Rundgren

  • Runt - bass on "Once Burned" (1970)

Ringo Starr

  • Ringo - fiddle on "Sunshine Life for Me (Sail Away Raymond)" (1973)

Neil Young


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "The Band Biography". Rockhall.com. Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  2. ^ 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."(Rick Danko recorded interview by Carol Caffin, 1989)[full citation needed] Although he was born on December 29, the year of his birth was 1943. According to Rick's eldest brother, Maurice, 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 never got around to changing it, and young Rick used this earlier date to his benefit: It meant that he could get a driver's licence earlier, get into bars at a younger age, etc. Since the birth certificate was never changed, Rick's driver's licence 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. Another brother, Terry, also confirmed that Rick was born in 1943."Rick Danko: Rick's Real Birthdate: The Hardest Proof ..." Sipthewine.blogspot.com.
  3. ^ "Carol Caffin: A Chat with Terry Danko". hiof.no. Retrieved February 15, 2016.
  4. ^ Rick Danko, recorded interview with Carol Caffin, 1989.
  5. ^ "Rick Danko Authorized Biography". Theband.hiof.no. December 10, 1999. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
  6. ^ "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.
  7. ^ Rising Sun Sage
  8. ^ see Chapter two "Who Do You Love: Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks" in Jason Schneider's book "Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music... From Hank Snow to The Band" ECW Press Toronto ISBN 9781550228748 2009 First Edition hardcover, and also Gary Alexander. July 5, 2003. Hudson Valley Music.
  9. ^ Pp 16-18, Part 1 (Nighthawking), Chapter 1 (Promised Lands) - Across The Great Divide: The Band And America, by Barney Hoskyns; Viking, London; 1993 ISBN 0-670-84144-7
  10. ^ "Still waltzing, 40 years on". Norfolk News. November 24, 2016.
  11. ^ Robert L. Doerschuk."Rick Danko – The Last Interview", Theband.hiof.no, December 7, 1999.
  12. ^ "Lenny Breau: The Hallmark Sessions". Theband.hiof.no. Retrieved January 25, 2019.
  13. ^ Life Is A Carnival. Rob Bowman. July 26, 1991. Goldmine.
  14. ^ This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. Levon Helm and Stephen Davis. October 20, 1993. Harper-Collins Canada.
  15. ^ "Memory Lane 1965 Tony Marts Somers Point NJ". tonymart.com. Retrieved February 15, 2016.
  16. ^ Sounes 2001, p. 221
  17. ^ Hoskyns 1993, p. 143
  18. ^ Hoskyns, Barney. "Liner Notes for The Band 2000 remasters". theband.hiof. Retrieved August 4, 2010.
  19. ^ Grace Seldner interview with Carol Caffin, 2007
  20. ^ California Divorce Index 1966-1984, (October 16, 1980)
  21. ^ Alex Nesic (January 15, 2014), Rick Danko, Janis, Marmaduke, Jerry and Bobby - Ain't No More Cane (Live 1970), retrieved February 2, 2017[dead YouTube link]
  22. ^ Steve Caraway (December 1976). "Rick Danko – Robbie Robertson". Guitar Player. Vol. 10, no. 12. theband.hiof.no. Archived from the original on June 9, 2018. Retrieved June 6, 2019.
  23. ^ "News – Obituaries – Rick Danko", The Guardian, December 17, 1999.
  24. ^ a b Bendersky, Ari (July 26, 1997). "Danko Gets Suspended Sentence". Rolling Stone.
  25. ^ "The Band's Danko Struggled To Improve Health, Friends Say". MTV News. Archived from the original on March 27, 2018.
  26. ^ "Aristocrat of rock who helped create deluge of sound behind Dylan". The Irish Times.
  27. ^ a b "Musician pleads innocent to heroin smuggling". AP NEWS.
  28. ^ "Rick Danko, 56, a Groundbreaker With the Band, Dies", The New York Times; accessed February 15, 2016.
  29. ^ Bruce Eder. "Rick Danko | biography". AllMusic. Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  30. ^ "Need We Say More?". Jambands.com. August 7, 2013. Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  31. ^ "Facebook". Facebook.com. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
  32. ^ "Mourners Gather in Memory of a Free Spirit of Woodstock", The New York Times, December 16, 1999.
  33. ^ "Dead Student Was Son Of Bassist", Schenectady Gazette, March 6, 1989.
  34. ^ "How to Danko: A Lesson in the Style of Rick Danko by Rob Collier". Bass Musician Magazine. April 1, 2012. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  35. ^ "Levon Helm: An appreciation". Irishtimes.com. April 20, 2012. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  36. ^ "Carol Caffin: Steve Forbert Talks about "Wild as the Wind"". Theband.hiof.no. March 15, 2007. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  37. ^ Rønsen // 21.01.00, Av Arild. "En hyldest til Rick Danko". www.puls.no.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  38. ^ "Elvis Costello: The Face Interview by Paul Rambali". The Face Magazine. August 1983.
  39. ^ Murphy, Tom (January 17, 2014). "John Doe on X: "We thought that punk rock was a return to what rock and roll should be"". Westword.com. Retrieved January 25, 2019.
  40. ^ "Mumford & Sons and the Simcoe Connection by Graham Rockingham". Hamilton Spectator. August 22, 2013.
  41. ^ "Lucinda Williams' Artists Choice". Theband.hiof.no. 2002.
  42. ^ Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs: Portraits from a Musical Life by Jay Farrar. Counterpoint Press. 2013. ISBN 9781593765125.
  43. ^ "Neko Case on Twitter: "@JasonIsbell JEALOUS!!!! He's my Ukrainian rock hero! (There's only one)"". Twitter. May 22, 2015. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
  44. ^ "Robbie Fulks Reflects on Rick Danko Collaboration". Tomorrowsverse.com. July 12, 2016.
  45. ^ "Cindy Cashdollar: Slide On The Roots by Michalis Limnios". BLUES GREECE. January 16, 2015.
  46. ^ "Craig Finn and the Art of Going Solo by Jessica Hopper". GQ magazine. January 26, 2012.
  47. ^ "Vampire Weekend's Ezra, Baio, CT & Rostam backstage at Big Day Out '13 by Shahlin Graves". Coup De Main Magazine. March 20, 2013.
  48. ^ "Mike Watt on Twitter: "bassbrother rick danko never forget this man!"". Twitter. May 15, 2019. Retrieved May 15, 2019.
  49. ^ "Authorized Biography: Rick Danko by Carol Caffin". Theband.hiof.no. 1992. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
  50. ^ "Rick Danko's Black Fretless Ampeg AUB-1 Scroll Bass | eBay". www.ebay.co.uk. Archived from the original on January 27, 2014. Retrieved February 3, 2022.
  51. ^ a b c d "I'll Bring Over My Fender" in Living Legends: Rick Danko on The Band - New Albums, Old Wounds, by Bill Flanagan. from Musician magazine, December 1993, Issue No. 182
  52. ^ "Bill Flanagan: Rick Danko on The Band". Theband.hiof.no. Retrieved September 27, 2019.
  53. ^ a b "Rick's Basses and Guitars: Some of His Instruments Through the Years". Sipthewine.blogspot.com.
  54. ^ "Rick Danko: One More for the Ripper". Sipthewine.blogspot.com.
  55. ^ "Alembic Club: Rick Danko". Alembic.com.
  56. ^ Various Artists - American Children Album Reviews, Songs & More | AllMusic, retrieved April 22, 2023