January 25, 2012 – Richard Lawrence Dick Kniss was born on April 24, 1937 in Portland, Oregon. His father left the family when he was very young. Reared by his mother, Bernice, he was a bit of a drifter into his late teens, never graduating from high school and focusing on his future only when he found music. His first instrument was the guitar, though, as his wife tells the story, he was lousy at it. “Someone suggested he play the bass because it didn’t have so many strings,” Ms. Kniss said. “And he just became passionate about it.”
He began an itinerant music career in San Francisco, then moved to Troy, N.Y., to play in the short-lived trio Dick, Dick and Nick before landing in New York City. Active in the 1960s civil rights movement, Kniss performed at benefits for a range of causes and played during the first celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.
An upright bass sideman with Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams, Zoot Sims, Don Friedman, Teddy Charles, Sal Salvador and Woody Herman early in his career, he was hired by Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers to be their bass player in 1964, not long after they recorded their early hits “Puff the Magic Dragon” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He was playing in a band led by the clarinetist and saxophonist Woody Herman when he heard that Peter, Paul and Mary were looking for a bassist. He accompanied them throughout the 1960s as they became, with their sweet harmonies, earnest activism and flower-power message, one of the decade’s signature musical groups. Except for an 8 year hiatus that he spent with John Denver’s back up band the self-taught musician stayed for more than 40 years behind Peter, Paul and Mary, becoming a veritable fourth member of the folk-singing trio. Peter, Paul and Mary broke up as the sixties decade ended, and Kniss went to work with Denver, who was another popular, sweet-tempered folk-singing activist. But when the trio reunited in 1978, Kniss once again became their bassist and appeared with them until Ms. Travers’s death in 2009. He made his final appearance with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey in December that year.
Kniss (as in knish, the k is not silent) also had an eight-year association with the singer-songwriter John Denver and helped write one of his biggest hits, “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, as well as and “The Season Suite”.
Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow said in a statement that Kniss was “our intrepid bass player for almost as long as we performed together. “He was a dear and beloved part of our closest family circle and his bass playing was always a great fourth voice in our music as well as, conceptually, an original and delightfully surprising new statement added to our vocal arrangements,” Yarrow said.
He was considered as much an improvisationalist as he was a timekeeper. “Basically he was a jazz bassist who didn’t think in terms of the pop point of view,” Mr. Yarrow said in a telephone interview on Friday, “and he really would develop melodic lines to complement our voices.”
In a separate interview, Mr. Stookey said Mr. Kniss was not an ideal studio player because he found repeating riffs or phrases laborious; onstage, however, he said, Mr. Kniss was inventive, especially when a singer was soloing. “He had this capacity to weave countermelodies,” Mr. Stookey said. “He was the master of when to answer. In folk music, we’re telling a story. The guitars would begin it, but Dick was an orchestrator, and his entry often signified a particular turning point in a song.”
Mr. Kniss played with Denver from 1970 to 1978, was featured on many of his recordings and wrote “Sunshine on My Shoulders” with him and Mike Taylor. But he joined the band simply because he needed the work. In 1970, Denver had not yet become the clear-voiced crooner of popular, sentimental ballads like “Annie’s Song” and “Rocky Mountain High,” though he had written “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which Peter, Paul and Mary turned into a No. 1 hit in 1969.
Denver asked him to play electric bass, which he did for the only time in his career.
“Back then when you flew, the bass was carried in its own seat in the plane, like a child, and John Denver couldn’t afford it,” Diane Kniss recalled. Denver asked Mr. Kniss to set the stand-up instrument aside and play the electric. “Denver said, ‘When we get some money, the first thing we’ll do is bring it back,’ ” she said. “And that’s what he did.”
Dick Kniss died from pulmonary disease at age 74 on January 25, 2012.