Sunday, September 20, 2009

Poor Richard: Thoughts on the Life of Richard Manuel

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.


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.


  1. Well, nice rundown. I never got to see them at all, being too young and too far away. So, it's just whatever media i can find. Although i think i can understand your view about the pity of the later years, there is a video of a concert they did in canada in 1983 which is just great. Richard seems healthy and his performance is right on. Have you seen it ?

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  3. I saw them lots of times, from around 1973 to just months before Richard's death. And I can say it's a shame you didn't catch them after Robbie left. That was no oldies band I saw in Boston in 1984 and '85. They'd lost the sameness that Robbie foisted on them and they caught fire, digging into their roots and reinventing their own work. Thanks for the post.

  4. The night before the Last Waltz the Band played the Santa Cruz Civic and I was right in front of the stage. Robbie was the most visible but, as you said, musically it was all Richard. I can only echo what Dennis Hopper proclaims in Apocalypse Now: " . . .a voice . . . a voice." Cheers,

  5. Thank you. Much appreciated! I never met either Manuel or Danko, but when each passed it hurt like I did.

    Dull Tool Dim Bulb

  6. Levon's still rocking, kicking it as always...
    catch his two great CD's and his live show as soon as you can - the spirit is still there. Get to his Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, NY (check his website) and /or the free show he'll be giving at the Gill Farm Stand (!) on Rte.209 in Stone Ridge on Oct. 11.

  7. I may have been a little hard on the later live shows. I have heard tapes of the "Rock of Ages" shows and they were excellent. I also saw Rick Danko live at The Bijou Cafe in October of 1981. He put on an great show. There is a tape of it floating around and it is worth checking out.

    I am still hoping to get to a Ramble some time soon. Both of Levon's albums are very good as well.

  8. Ray Hunter,Bournemouth.September 21, 2009 at 11:35 AM

    I saw The Band in london at The Albert Hall and they had the best sound system i had ever heard in that great hall. it was beautiful, every vocal and instrument was cystal clear, a great band, a great sound from when rock music had something to say and THEY said IT so Well...

  9. The Band was and still is one of my all time favorite bands. So many memories of great shows including all four "Rock of Ages" shows. My favorite was 6/30/71 in Central Park. It must have been 100 degrees and The Band was equally hot! And while Robbie could never be replaced, it was worthwhile catching them regardless of the personnel of the moment. a/k/a/ tarantula

  10. Great post about a great band. Nice job.

  11. I saw the original Band only once--at Harvard Stadium in 1970 or 1971--a fabulous show--but I saw the reunited Band 2 or 3 times in the early 80s--and they were still fabulous. They did a version of "Willy and the Hand Jive" that I can still remember--in my bones--note for note and that is one of the best moments of rock 'n' roll I have ever heard.

    I also saw Rick Danko's last show--at the Ark in Ann Arbor in (in think) November 1997. He looked awful, but he sounded great. I love them all, but Rick was my favorite. The sweetest male voice I have ever heard.

  12. I saw the band a few times, from Helm with Ronnie Hawkins on the Alan Freed tv show in the 50's to Robertson and Helm backing Dylan at Forest Hills NY in '65,to the Band's debut at the Fillmore East, to the Rock of Ages Show. I don't know what it is about Richard (I'm still not even sure what Tears of Rage is about after all these years although it's one of my favorite Richard performances) but he was always the one that fascinated me the most. His death still affects me so much when I think about it.
    Rest in Peace Richard

  13. I found a great picture of Richard from aug. 65, backstage at Dylan's Forest Hill Stadium show.
    I'd be happy to send it to you if you gave me an address

  14. I was lucky to catch The Band at a warm-up show they did before their Last Waltz tour at the Commack Arena on Long Island. I was in high school and went because the arena was near where I lived. Absolutely great show - one of the best - the arena was less than half full and just a metal shell of a building but The Band rocked. I consider myself lucky to have seen them...