The first time I saw The Band live in May of 1969, I was mesmerized by Richard Manuel. At the time, part of the uniqueness of The Band was that there was no lead singer. Although that was true on their records where everyone contributed on vocals except for Garth, when The Band played live it was a different story. Richard was definitely the lead singer.
At the live show, there was a lot to like visually about The Band. My eye keep jumping between Levon looking like a cracker with a scruffy beard behind his vintage drum kit; Robbie with his conservative look and flashy guitar work; Danko rocking forward with the bass blowing out his cheeks; Garth looking like a big old bear behind his Lowrey Festival organ and Richard. For me, the sight of Richard on his piano was the focal point. Some combination of his wild hair, the hawk-like nose, and that wonderful high piercing voice made him the highlight of the stage show. He also sang lead on the two best songs from the show that night: Tears of Rage and I Shall Be Released.
Richard's contribution to the music of The Band was never more evident than on Music From Big Pink. The album opens with Tears of Rage, which he co-wrote with Bob Dylan. Richard's plaintive, soaring vocals on this song were the world's first hint of the distinctive sound of The Band. Never ones to follow convention, The Band choose this mournful ballad to open their first album. It wasn't a song for AM radio.
Three other Manuel songs were included on the record. On We Can Talk, the group's ensemble vocals are on display as the singers take turns and Richard sings: One voice for all/Echoing around the hall. In A Station, which begins with beautiful keyboards, showcases Richard's dreamy lyrics and his falsetto. Lonesome Suzie, a haunting portrait of loneliness, fits Richard's falsetto like a glove. You can feel his own pain in the vocals backed by Robbie's subtle guitar licks and the organ. The album closes with the Dylan classic from the Basement, I Shall Be Released, which Richard makes his own. It is still one of my favorite songs of all time.
Although his songwriting talent was drying up, Richard again played a key role in the music of the next album. Once again, his lead vocals open the album on Across the Great Divide. He also handles the lead on Rockin' Chair, Whispering Pines, and Jawbone, which he co-wrote with Robbie. Each of these songs is well suited to his voice. His unique and wonderful drumming can also be heard on Rag Mama Rag and Jemima Surrender
He also sings lead on the masterpiece of the album King Harvest (Has Surely Come). Richard's vocals combine with Robbie's beautiful guitar to tell this moving story of the American farmer. A wonderful song and perhaps The Band's finest moment on record.
As The Band's fame grew from the success of first two albums, Richard's appetite for booze and drugs was growing as well. The combination of fame and the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle in Woodstock, began having a major effect on the harmony of the band. By the time The Band started recording Stage Fright, the guys were going in different directions and there was much less of an ensemble feel to the record.
Although Stage Fright was not of the same impossibly high quality as the first two records, it does contain some great music. Richard's contribution of the beautiful Sleeping is certainly one of the high spots of the album. He also sings Whistle Stop and the very appropriate The Shape I'm In, which probably said a lot about his condition at the time. His singing on the ensemble vocals on The Rumor is excellent as well.
Although The Band would continue to make albums and tour until The Last Waltz in November of 1976, Richard's health and fragile mental state began to be more and more of a problem. By 1975, he was reportedly drinking eight bottles of Grand Marnier a day as well as using an assortment of dangerous drugs. He also was involved in a car accident and later a boating accident in Austin, Texas, which forced the cancellation of several dates on their last tour.
Listen to these tracks from a show at the Carter Baron Amphitheatre recorded on July 17, 1976. This show was recorded 4 months before The Last Waltz. Although the music is excellent, it sounds like the weight of the world is on Richard's shoulders when it is his time to sing. It is almost painful to hear his voice strain to hit the notes in these classic Band songs.
TEARS OF RAGE
I never saw The Band live after the 1974 tour with Dylan. Although they played many great shows through the mid-70's, I'm just as glad I never saw them again. After attending two shows when they were in their prime (The Electric Factory in May 1969 and Tufts University in November 1970), it might have been better for me to stop with those memories. I can still remember vividly sitting on the floor in Cousens Gymnasium as The Band played their hearts out a few feet in front of me. What a night.
The idea of seeing the reconstituted Band playing their greatest hits at down market venues never sat well with me. It just seemed so sad that musicians of this caliber would be reduced to playing that kind of a tour.
Richard's suicide in 1986 at the Winter Park Quality Inn after a show at the Cheek To Cheek Lounge brought this all home to me. It is hard to imagine that this wonderfully talented musician could have fallen to such a low and lonely place. I was shocked when I heard the news.
As The Band's music continues to be enjoyed and analyzed, I think that the appreciation of the contribution of Richard Manuel will only continue to grow. He played a key role in the creation of some of the best music of a generation.
If you do not have the albums mentioned above, you have a hole in your iPod. All are available in remastered format from iTunes and Amazon.