March 4, 1986 – Richard George Manuel (The Band) was born on April 3rd 1943 in Stratford, Ontario. He was raised with three brothers, and the four sang in the church choir. Manuel took piano lessons beginning when he was nine, and enjoyed playing piano and rehearsing with friends at his home. Manuel received a diploma from the Ontario Conservatory of Music in lap steel guitar; this was his only formal music certification. Some of his childhood influences were Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reed and Otis Rush.
He and three friends started a band when he was fifteen, originally named the Rebels but later changed to the Revols, in deference to Duane Eddy and the Rebels. The group also included Ken Kalmusky, a founding member of Great Speckled Bird, and John Till, a founding member of the Full Tilt Boogie Band (Janis Joplin). Although primarily known as a naturally talented vocalist with a soulful rhythm and blues style and rich timbre (often compared to that of Ray Charles), Manuel also developed an intensely rhythmic style of piano unique in its usage of inverted chord structures. These talents were showcased in the Revols.
Manuel first became acquainted with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks when the Revols opened for them in Port Dover, Ontario. According to Levon Helm, Hawkins remarked to him about Manuel: “See that kid playing piano? He’s got more talent than Van Cliburn.” The two bands once again connected at the Stratford Coliseum in 1961, when the Revols ended a show featuring the Hawks as headliners. After hearing Manuel singing “Georgia on My Mind”, Hawkins hired the Revols’ pianist rather than competing with them. Manuel was eighteen when he joined Ronnie Hawkins’s backing group, the Hawks. At this time the band already consisted of 21-year-old Levon Helm on drums, 17-year-old Robbie Robertson on guitar and 18-year-old Rick Danko on bass; 24-year-old organist Garth Hudson joined that Christmas.
In 1965, Helm, Hudson and Robertson helped back American bluesman John Hammond on his album So Many Roads. Hammond recommended them to Bob Dylan, who tapped them to serve as his backing band while he switched to an electric sound. In 1966, they toured Europe and the U.S. with Dylan and were known for enduring the ire of Dylan’s folk fans, and were subjected to unpleasant hissing and booing. They gradually became called The Band.
Dylan opened doors for them in the music business by introducing them to his manager, Albert Grossman, and taught them by example about writing their own material.
In 1967, while Dylan recovered from a motorcycle accident in Woodstock, New York, the group moved there also, renting a pink house on 100 acres (0.40 km2) and were paid a retainer by Dylan. Not having to be constantly working and traveling allowed them to experiment with a new sound garnered from the country, soul, rhythm and blues, gospel and rockabilly music that they loved. During this time, while Helm was temporarily absent from the group, Manuel taught himself to play drums in a technically irreverent, “loosey-goosey” style, a little behind the beat, similar to jazz drumming. In the Band era he would frequently assume the drummer’s stool when Helm played mandolin or guitar. Examples of this are the songs “Rag Mama Rag” and “Evangeline”. Manuel’s drumming is prominent on the album Cahoots.
The early months in Woodstock also allowed Manuel and Robertson to develop as songwriters.
Richard’s 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. Music from Big Pink was released with the group name given as simply “The Band”. This would be their name for the rest of the group’s existence. While only reaching No. 30 on the Billboard charts, the album would have a profound influence on the nascent country rock movement; “Tears of Rage” and “The Weight” would rank among the most covered songs of the era.
In 1970, Manuel acted in the Warner Bros. film Eliza’s Horoscope, an independent Canadian drama written and directed by Gordon Sheppard. He portrayed “the bearded composer,” performing alongside Tommy Lee Jones, former Playboy Bunny Elizabeth Moorman, and Lila Kedrova.
Manuel’s “Blues for Breakfast” (an early Woodstock composition) was covered by Cass Elliot on Dream a Little Dream (1968).
He was credited to writing only three songs (“When You Awake,” “Whispering Pines,” and “Jawbone”) on The Band (1969) and two (“Sleeping” and “Just Another Whistle Stop”) on Stage Fright (1970); all of these compositions were credited as collaborations with Robertson, who had assumed dominance in the group’s affairs with Grossman.
According to Helm,
When The Band came out we were surprised by some of the songwriting credits. In those days we didn’t realize that song publishing–more than touring or selling records–was the secret source of the real money in the music business. We’re talking long term. We didn’t know enough to ask or demand song credits or anything like that. Back then we’d get a copy of the album when it came out and that’s when we’d learn who’d got the credit for which song. True story…. When the album [The Band] came out, I discovered I was credited with writing half of “Jemima Surrender” and that was it. Richard was a co-writer on three songs. Rick and Garth went uncredited. Robbie Robertson was credited on all 12 songs. Someone had pencil-whipped us.
It was an old tactic: divide and conquer. I went on to express [to Robertson] my belief in creating music with input from everyone and reminded him that all the hot ideas from basic song concepts to the mixing and sequencing of our record, were not always exclusively his. I complained that he and Albert had been making important business decisions without consulting the rest of us. And that far too much cash was coming down in his and Albert’s corner. Our publishing split was far from fair, I told him, and had to be fixed. I told him that he and Albert ought to try and write some music without us because they couldn’t possibly find the songs unless we were all searching together. I cautioned that most so-called business moves had fucked up a lot of great bands and killed off whatever music was left in them.
I told Robbie that The Band was supposed to be partners. Since we were teenagers, we banded against everything and anyone that got in our way. Nothing else–pride, friends, even money–mattered to the rest of us as much as the band did. Even our families had taken second place when the need arose. I said “Robbie, a band has to stick together, protect each other support and encourage each other and grow the music the way a farmer grows his crops.”
Robbie basically told me not to worry because the rumors were true: Albert was going to build a state-of-the-art recording studio in Bearsville and wanted us to be partners in it with him. So any imbalance in song royalties would work out a hundred fold within the grand scheme of things. We would always be a band of brothers with our own place. No more nights in some company’s sterile studio…All we needed to do was play our music and follow our hearts. Well, it never quite worked out that way. We stayed in the divide and conquer mode, a process that no one ever seems to be able to stop to this day.
By Cahoots (1971), producer John Simon felt that “Robbie didn’t… consciously intimidate him… but when you met Robbie he was so smooth and urbane and witty, whereas Richard was such a gee-golly-gosh kind of guy”; the influence of Manuel’s increasingly harmful abuse of heroin may have also contributed to the diminution of his songwriting abilities.
The Band continued touring throughout 1974, supporting Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young alongside Joni Mitchell and the Beach Boys on a grueling summer stadium tour. By 1975, Robertson had expressed his dissatisfaction with touring and was acting in an increasingly parental capacity, as the move to Malibu had seen him take the managerial reins on a de facto basis from an increasingly diffident Grossman. According to Helm, Manuel was now consuming eight bottles of Grand Marnier every day on top of a prodigious cocaine addiction, factors that ultimately precipitated his divorce from Jane Manuel in 1976. During that period, he developed a kinship with the similarly despondent Eric Clapton and was a driving force behind the boozy sessions that make up the guitarist’s No Reason to Cry (1976). Recorded at the Band’s new Shangri-La Studios, Manuel gave Clapton the song “Beautiful Thing” (a Band demo that Danko helped him finish) and provided vocals for “Last Night”.
On the group’s final full-fledged tour, Manuel was still recovering from a car accident earlier in the year; several tour dates were scrapped after a power-boating accident near Austin, Texas, that summer, which necessitated the hiring of Tibetan healers, in a scenario reminiscent of Robertson’s pre-show hypnosis before their first concert as the Band at the Winterland Ballroom in April 1968. The quality of the shows was frequently contingent upon Manuel’s relative sobriety. As he could no longer sustain the high vocal register of “Tears of Rage” or “In a Station”, his most notable contributions were confined to impassioned, raging versions of the prophetic “The Shape I’m In”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”, propelled by his hoarse (though still very expressive) voice.
The Band played its final show as its original configuration at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day of 1976. The concert was filmed in 35 mm by Robertson cohort and longtime Band fan Martin Scorsese for the documentary The Last Waltz. Manuel can be heard, but barely seen, singing “I Shall Be Released,” surrounded by various guest stars. While Manuel’s famed sense of humor and warm, congenial nature emerged in the interview segments, so did his shyness, deferential attitude – and inebriation. Initially the group only intended to end live performances as the Band, and each member was initially kept on a retainer of $2,500 per week by Warner Brothers. However, by 1978, the group had drifted apart.
Taking advantage of this new solace, Manuel moved to Garth Hudson’s ranch outside Malibu. He entered an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program, became sober for the first time in years and eventually remarried. During this time he played little-publicized gigs in L.A.-area clubs as leader of the Pencils (with Terry Danko on lead guitar). By 1980, Rick Danko and Manuel had begun to tour regularly as an acoustic duo; along with Hudson, Manuel played on several instrumental cues composed by Robertson for the soundtrack of Raging Bull (1980).
The Band reformed in 1983 with the Cate Brothers and Jim Weider augmenting the four returning members of the group – Manuel, Helm, Hudson, and Danko. Freed from his addictions, Manuel was initially in his best shape since the “Big Pink” era. Having reclaimed some of his vocal range lost in the years of drug abuse, Manuel performed old hits such as “The Shape I’m In”, “Chest Fever”, and “I Shall Be Released” alongside favorites such as Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” and “She Knows”. During this time, Manuel co-wrote a song with Gerry Goffin and Carole King called “Breaking New Ground”.
In January 1986, Albert Grossman died of a heart attack. Grossman had been a father figure and confidant to Manuel, and an instrumental figure in any possible solo career. Depressed by Grossman’s death, dwindling access to prestigious concert venues and the perception that the Band had stagnated and had become a traveling jukebox, Manuel returned to his alcohol and cocaine addictions. On March 4, after a gig at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge, in Winter Park, Florida (outside Orlando), Manuel committed suicide. He had appeared to be in relatively good spirits but ominously thanked Hudson for “twenty-five years of incredible music”. The Band returned to the Quality Inn, down the block from the Cheek to Cheek Lounge, and Manuel talked with Levon Helm about music and film in Helm’s room. According to Helm, at around 2:30 Manuel said he needed to get something from his room. Upon returning to his motel room, it is believed that he finished one last bottle of Grand Marnier before hanging himself. Manuel’s wife Arlie—also intoxicated at the time—discovered his body along with the depleted bottle and a small amount of cocaine the following morning.
He was 42 at the time.
Canadian singer, piano, keyboards, drums, and lap slide guitarist,