Born April 3 1943 Stratford, Ontario, Canada
Died March 4 1986 Winter Park, Florida

In relating the story of Richard Manuel, I do of necessity need to talk a goodly deal about The Band

In a group remembered for their vocal talent, the late Richard Manuel was often seen as the lead singer. His is the first voice you hear on The Band's legendary debut album, Music From Big Pink, a rich baritone so soulful and charged with pathos it's hard to believe it could come from the frail Canadian. His is also the last voice heard on that album, a lonesome, quavering falsetto on Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" that raises the hair on the back of the listener's neck. Sadly, Manuel hanged himself aged 42 in a motel room in Florida on March 4, 1986, so in a sense, he has his release

>From 1968 through 1975, the Band was one of the most popular and influential rock groups in the world, their music embraced by critics (and to a somewhat lesser degree, the public) as seriously as the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Their albums were analysed and reviewed as intensely as any records by their one-time employer and sometime mentor Bob Dylan. Billboard has them forming as The Band in Woodstock, NY in 1967

Throughout the legendary career of the Band, Manuel was troubled by drug and alcohol problems

Four of The Band were Canadian, while drummer/vocalist Levon Helm originated from Arkansas. Danko, Manuel and Hudson all hailed respectively from small Ontario towns, while Robertson was raised in Toronto

All had grown up fascinated with the music and consequently the people and traditions of the American South. Nashville's high-powered WLAC (with 50,000 watts WLAC could be heard clearly 1,000 miles north every evening) and Cleveland's WJW were the conduits. Late at night all of them independently grooved on the sounds and magic of the likes of Bobby "Blue" Bland and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, spun by DJs incl. Alan Freed Manuel, the son of a mechanic, developed his vocal ability as a youth in the Baptist church choir. He grew up listening to country music, eventually discovering R&B, which would become a huge influence. (His voice would garner frequent comparisons to Ray Charles)

SAO favourite Ronnie Hawkins led a band called The Hawks. For four years, from 1959 through 1963, Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks were one of the hottest rock & roll bands working, which was very special in a time when rock & roll had supposedly died. Hawkins himself was practically Toronto's answer to Elvis Presley and he remained true to the music even as Presley himself softened and broadened his sound. The mix of personalities within the group meshed well, better than they did with Hawkins who, unbeknownst to him, was soon the odd man out in his own group. As new members Danko, Manuel, and Hudson came aboard, Canadians replacing Hawkins' fellow southerners, Ronnie lost control of the group to some extent, as they began working together more closely

Richard Manuel had entered the picture in the summer of 1961, after graduating from the Rockin' Revols, a band of hardcore rockers from Stratford who had toured the American South. Originally a vocalist, Manuel played what he described as "rhythm piano", nothing too complicated but good enough when combined with his unearthly, ethereal voice to land him a job as a Hawk

Fast forward to the second to last 45 release from Ronnie and the boys (Roulette 4483 1963), pairing Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" and "Bo Diddley". It didn't chart (only Hawkins' first two singles "Forty Days" and "Mary Lou" had that kind of success) but on both tracks one hears four young bucks (everyone but Hudson), and Hawkin's screams curdling the blood. "Who Do You Love" especially, crackles and sizzles with a ferocity distinctly rare in the white rock 'n' roll of the early 60s

The five members of what was to be the Band plus a sax player and another singer collectively left Hawkins either the summer of 1963 or early in 1964. The Hawks had already been dissatisfied with the money Hawkins was paying them, especially considering that he often didn't show up for the first three or four nights of the week. That, combined with singer's at times overbearing personality and ego getting the better of the relationship, then an altercation between RH and Danko, was enough. The next night, according to Danko, "We collectively gave him two weeks notice"

On their own, the boys started out as the Levon Helm Sextet, making more money in the first two weeks than they made individually in two months with Hawkins. Levon and the Hawks (the name change was quick in coming - another moniker was The Canadian Squires) proceeded to traipse their way through familiar stomping grounds for the next year and a half, playing the Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas circuit of fraternity houses, college gigs and blood-letting bars in the spring and fall while working southern Ontario for the rest of the year

In their five years backing Hawkins, the group had played R&B-based rock & roll, heavily influenced by the sound of Chess Records in Chicago and Sun Records in Memphis. Upon leaving Ronnie, the Hawks' repertoire had progressively become more and more black-influenced. Summer of 1965, a secretary from Toronto named Mary Martin, who was working for Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, suggested to Dylan that the Hawks might be the appropriate ensemble to accompany him on his first electric tour

The Hawks were then engaged in a four-month stand in Somers Point, New Jersey, setting a thousand or more patrons on fire nightly with their heady brew of blues and R&B. With Robertson and Helm paving the way, from September 1965, Dylan and the whole of The Band took to the road

All five moved to New York, where every week they would fly out on Dylan's private Lodestar airplane, play two or three night before an audience of "folkie purists" who were engrossed in a ritual booing, viewing an electric Dylan as a sell-out to the values of folk music rather than listening to music that was years ahead of its time

Danko, Manuel and Hudson shortly moved into the Big Pink House, while Robertson ensconced himself nearby. Everyone remembers the period very fondly. It was the first time since they were kids that they hadn't been on the road. It was the first occasion that they had space, room to breathe, time to think about what they were doing

Danko said "It was sure nice to have that time where we weren't under the pressures of the public, to be able to afford the time and place to do our homework, to reflect and push forward. It was a great time in life. It was just us getting together every day and playing homemade music"

Playing with Dylan for nearly four years could not help but influence the members of the Band, especially with regard to songwriting. Robertson (probably summing up for all the group) did however add "But, from my background, I came in on a rock 'n' roll train, blues and country music mixed together where the music played a part of it. There was a sound, there was an effect to this whole thing and it all added up. That's what made rock 'n' roll to me. You mix this and you mix that and a little bit of this and a little bit of that and you get something and God knows what it is. It's just magical when you put it all together. I wasn't getting that out of [Dylan's] music"

Additionally, they'd learned to play tightly and precisely and were accustomed to performing in front of audiences that were interested primarily in having a good time and dancing. Dylan had them playing electric adaptations of folk music, with lots of strumming and lacking the kind of edge they were accustomed to putting on their work. His sound was traceable to the music of Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White, while they'd spent years playing the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. As it happens, all of those influences are related, but not directly, and not in ways that were obvious to the players in 1964

Over time, the music made by the Band became very different. They no longer sounded even remotely as they had behind Hawkins and Dylan, or on their own as Levon and the Hawks

On the debut album Music From Big Pink [68], the group played and sang like five distinct individuals working toward the same goal, not mixing together smoothly. They didn't want their voices to blend because that is what everyone else was doing: a lot of their harmony singing was deliberately ragged: together but not together. They wanted their piano to sound like a funky old upright, not like a spanking new Yamaha grand. There was a collective sound to "the band," but it made up five distinct individual voices and instruments mixing folk, blues, gospel, R&B, classical, and rock & roll

The opening track 'Tears of Rage' (written by Manuel with Dylan) has an absolutely emotion-filled vocal by Richard Manuel that describes a parent's heartbreak in a most deeply anguished way. Robertson said: "It's one of his finest moments - it's the most heartbreaking performance he ever sung in his life". The album opened with a ballad and there is not a guitar solo on it at a time when Hendrix and Clapton ruled the world

A second album, simply titled 'The Band' [69] was every bit as good as the first. Following the release of the second album, things changed somewhat within the group. Partly owing to the pressures of touring and the public's expectations of "genius," and also to the growing press fixation on Robbie Robertson at the expense of the rest of the group. The other group members did however remain familiar enough that their names and personalities were well-known to the public

The press was now treating them as gods. Rolling Stone has probably never before or since lavished such contiguous unqualified praise. Greil Marcus was to devote a large portion of his Mystery Train book to the group. His essay to some degree, has legendary status all its own. What did the Band think of it? Robertson again, "No idea. I think that it's very cleverly written but I have no idea what he is talking about. It's kind of beautiful but he's telling me what I mean - that's dangerous work"

The group found that people started treating them differently .. placing them on a pedestal. All of this took its toll on the group's five members. One of the unfortunate results was that Richard Manuel virtually ceased writing. The reason remains a mystery

The Band was still a great working ensemble, as represented on their brilliant third album, 'Stage Fright' [70] but gradually exhaustion and personal pressures took their toll. Additionally, the huge amounts of money that the members started collecting, against hundreds of thousands and ultimately millions of record sales, led to instances of irresponsible behaviour by individual members and their spouses and raised the pressure on the group to perform. The members had always engaged in a certain amount of casual drug use, mostly involving marijuana but now they had access to more serious and expensive chemical diversions. Some private resentments also began manifesting themselves about Robertson's dominance of the songwriting (some reality of which was questioned openly in Levon Helm's autobiography years later). The writing abilities of Manuel and Danko weren't being given enough chance to shine through

>From this album "The Shape I'm In" and "Stage Fright" were to remain staples of the Band's repertoire right up until their last gig in 1976. The two songs combined say plenty about the state of the Band at this point. The former is a stomp, sung by Manuel who as a general point, played drums when required - which basically was when Helm went out front

>From 1971 time, with the fourth album, 'Cahoots', some of the glow of experimentation and easygoing camaraderie was gone. There were further albums and other projects and although they were making a pile of money, the group marked the end of their days as an active unit with the release of the film (and accompanying soundtrack LP set) The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese. This was their farewell concert from Thanksgiving Day 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco

An all-star performing affair pulling together the talents of Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Van Morrison and a dozen other luminaries drawn from the ranks of old friends, admirers, and idols of theirs

In 1983, four members of the Band regrouped (Robertson was replaced by Earl Cate of the Cate Brothers on guitar) and reunited for a tour that yielded a full-length concert video and a healthy audience response although they seemed to embark on seemingly endless tours of much smaller clubs than the group was accustomed to

The post break-up story of Richard Manuel is the most tragic. After touring with others in the reunited group for three years, Manuel was found dead in a Florida motel room on March 4, 1986. Reportedly suffering from depression, Manuel hanged himself following a gig. His fellow musicians reported that he had shown no signs that evening of anything bothering him.

The death of Manuel cast a dark pall on any future reunions, of which there were several

Whilst Robertson was the group's major songwriter and principal guitarist and thereby their most famous member, he almost never sang significant vocal parts on their recordings (indeed, it is said that one reason their set from Woodstock was never issued was because his mic. was live and his voice too prominent) and the rest of the group had made significant contributions to virtually every song they ever did

>From the 1977 album 'Islands' Manuel performs an aching and impassioned cover of Hoagland Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind". No other singer in the group was as admired. Even musical giants such as Eric Clapton (who has made no secret of his fascination with Manuel) were in awe of his vocal ability. Clapton would go on to record a tribute to Manuel, "Holy Mother," on his 1986 album August. Ex-bandmate Robbie Robertson would also eulogise Manuel on his 1987 solo debut with "Fallen Angel." Richard Manuel's grave is at the Avondale cemetery in Stratford, Ontario.


Highly Recommended DVD Collector's Edition of The Last Waltz incl. 2 Audio Commentaries With The Director & Musicians, Remastered Stereo Surround, Behind-The-Scenes Featurette, Collectible 8-Page Booklet Written By Robbie Robertson, Rare Unseen Footage. Incls. a corking 'Mystery Train' with Paul Butterfield, 'Who Do You Love' with The Hawk, a super 'Such A Night' with Dr. John and 'Mannish Boy' with The Mudster

Man those 'Band' cats could play - maybe a better act to see than to just listen to??

Colin Kilgour: Compiled from various sources/websites incl. All Music Guide

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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