Richard Manuel PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 19 October 2008 12:51

Richard Manuel performing on stage.

Richard George Manuel

Born: April 3, 1943, Stratford, Ontario, Canada

Died: March 4, 1986, Winter Park, Florida, U.S.

Age: 42

Cause of death: Suicide by hanging

Notable because: From the Bands keyboard chair had a grandstand view of many fabulous musical moments, before alcohol (Grand Marnier in particular) and cocaine upset his balance.


Richard George Manuel  was a Canadian composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist, best known for his contributions and membership in The Band.

Richard Manuel was born in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. His father Ed was a Chrysler mechanic and his mother was a schoolteacher. He grew up singing in the church choir with his three brothers, and took piano lessons starting at the age of nine. He grew up in a music friendly environment playing piano and rehearsing with his friends at his home. Some of his childhood influences were Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reed and Otis Rush. He was given the nickname "The Beak" by his friends because of his prominent nose. He and three friends started a band when he was fifteen that was originally named the Rebels but changed to The Revols in deference to Duane Eddy and the Rebels. He developed a rhythmic style of piano unique in its usage of inverted chord structures and was a naturally talented vocalist, with a soulful rhythm and blues style, and a rich timbre often compared to that of his idol Ray Charles. These talents were showcased in his band, The Rockin' Revols. His first meeting with The Hawks was when the Revols were the opening act for their show in Port Dover in Ontario Canada. According to Levon Helm, Ronnie 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", Ronnie Hawkins hired the Revols' pianist rather than competing with them.

Manuel was eighteen when he joined Ronnie Hawkins' 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 6-string bass. Garth Hudson, at 24 years old, joined that Christmas. After two years, Manuel left the Hawks and joined with Helm, Robertson, Danko, Hudson and saxophonist Jerry Penfound to form their own band. Singer Bruce Bruno also joined them occasionally. They initially were known as the Levon Helm Sextet (as Helm had accumulated the most time with Hawkins), then later changed their name to the Canadian Squires and then to Levon and the Hawks. With Helm serving as nominal leader due to his longevity with the Hawkins group, it was in fact Manuel who sang most of the songs in the group's repertoire. Manuel was easily the most accomplished vocalist from a technical standpoint. It was as Levon and the Hawks, after the departure of Penfound and Bruno, that they introduced themselves to their blues hero, Sonny Boy Williamson. They soon planned a collaboration with Williamson but it never happened due to Williamson's untimely death soon thereafter. In 1965 Helm, Hudson and Robertson helped back American bluesman John P. Hammond on his album "So Many Roads". Hammond recommended The Hawks 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 much unpleasant hissing and booing. While they continued to believe in their ultimate goal to play and record their own music, 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, NY, the group moved there also, renting a pink house on 100 acres 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 had been on a hiatus from the Dylan tour, 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. The best example of this is the song "Rag Mama Rag". Manuel's drumming is predominate on the album Cahoots.

The early months in Woodstock also allowed Manuel and Robertson to develop as songwriters. After recording numerous demos, and signing with Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, they secured a 10-album contract with Capitol Records in early 1968. They originally signed as "The Crackers" (although "The Honkies" had also been considered). Helm rejoined the fold, as sessions got under way for the recording of their debut album Music from Big Pink. The group proceeded to take what they had learned with Dylan and used one of his songs in the process. They combined it with their ideal of the perfect album, switching solos, and singing harmony modeled after the gospel sound of musical heroes, The Staple Singers. Manuel contributed four songs, including the oft-covered "Tears of Rage" which he co-wrote with Dylan. Robertson contributed the same number of his own songs. A cover of "Long Black Veil" and a Danko-Dylan collaboration ("This Wheel's on Fire") rounded out the bunch. The album was released with the group name as simply The Band, and this would be their name for the rest of the group's existence. While only reaching #30 on the Billboard charts, the album would be profoundly influential upon the nascent country-rock movement; "Tears of Rage" and Robertson's "The Weight" would rank among the most covered songs of the epoch. Shortly after the release of the album, the newly financially secure Manuel married his girlfriend, a young model from Toronto named Jane Kristiansen, whom he had dated intermittently since the Hawks days. They would become the parents of two children.

Throughout his career with The Band, Manuel was troubled with alcohol-related problems, and by the late sixties, he was already considered by many to be a chronic substance abuser. With the group's gradual reemergence into the glamor of late 1960s American rock scene, the shy and insecure musician also experimented with other drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, as did several others in the group.

While Manuel's alcohol and drug abuse did not yet adversely affect his performance or reliability on stage, it was not beneficial to his creativity. The Band, released in 1969, featured just three tracks by Manuel, all co-written with Robertson (who was credited with writing or co-writing all of the album's 12 tracks). Stage Fright in 1970 featured two, again, both credited as being written with Robertson. Thereafter, Manuel gave up writing, citing lyrical difficulties. The group's creations were almost always credited to Robertson, whether fairly (in keeping in line with the group's "official history") or unfairly (in keeping with the "unofficial history" given by Helm in his autobiography). To this day, Robertson claims that he continued to offer to collaborate with Manuel — who even before his downward spiral was more adept at composing than at writing lyrics — but these overtures were declined.

In 1970, Manuel acted in Warner Bros. Eliza's Horoscope, an independent Canadian drama film written and directed by Gordon Sheppard. He portrayed "the Bearded composer", performing with stars Tommy Lee Jones, former Playboy bunny Elizabeth Moorman and Lila Kedrova.

By mid-1973, the group had once again followed the lead of Dylan who had relocated to Malibu. They commenced work on an album of vintage rock and roll covers entitled Moondog Matinee, in homage to Alan Freed's radio show. While he was initially reluctant to perform, the album managed to elicit some of Manuel's finest vocal performances, including a rendition of the Bobby Blue Bland R&B standard "Share Your Love With Me". Another highlight was his clearly tongue-in-cheek version of the obscure Leiber and Stoller song "Saved". Levon Helm had this to say about Manuel during this period: "...he was drinking pretty hard, but once he got started, man: drums, piano, play it all, sing, do a lead in one of them high, hard-assed keys to sing in. Richard just knew how a song was supposed to go. Structure, melody; he understood it." 

The Band played to receptive audiences in the summer of 1973 at the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen and on a double bill with the Grateful Dead at Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium. That fall the group backed up Dylan on his first proper release in three years, Planet Waves and were tapped to serve as his backup group once more on his first tour in eight years.

The concerts of the Bob Dylan and The Band 1974 Tour, lasting from January 3 to February 14, 1974, were meandering musical marathons featuring two sets of Dylan backed by The Band, two Band sets, and a Dylan acoustic set. The ensuing live album from the tour, Before the Flood, reveals that Manuel was still capable of reaching the breathtaking falsetto on "I Shall Be Released."

The Band continued touring throughout 1974, supporting CSNY alongside Joni Mitchell and the Beach Boys on a grueling summer stadium tour. By 1975, Robertson had expressed his dissatisfaction with touring and 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 Levon Helm, Manuel was now consuming eight bottles of Grand Marnier every day on top of a prodigious cocaine addiction. After a brief reconciliation that resulted in the birth of a son, the Manuels divorced 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 1976 release No Reason To Cry (recorded at The Band's new Shangri-La Studios).a1tfnuhdfll_sl600_

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 in the Austin area 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. The quality of shows was frequently contingent upon Manuel's relative sobriety (or lack thereof), as he was more often than not too drunk to play effectively. As he was unable to 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" and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", propelled by his hoarse (though still very expressive) voice.

The Band played its final show at Winterland Arena in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 with several guests; it was filmed in 35mm by Robertson cohort and longtime Band fan Martin Scorsese for the documentary, The Last Waltz. 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 intended to end live performances as The Band, but each member was kept on a $2,500 a week retainer by a prospective record company. 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 a rehabilitation program, became sober for the first time in years and eventually remarried. Along with Hudson and Robertson, he contributed to the soundtrack of Raging Bull and 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.

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". All of that changed when former Band manager Albert Grossman - a father figure and confidante to the singer, not to mention an instrumental figure in any possible solo career - suddenly died in late January 1986. 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, 1986, after a gig at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge outside Orlando, in Winter Park, Florida, Manuel seemed 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, film, etc., 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 - asleep at the time - discovered his body along with the depleted bottle and a small amount of cocaine the following morning. He was buried a week later in his hometown of Stratford, Ontario.

Manuel's sole solo release, Whispering Pines: Live at the Getaway.
Manuel's sole solo release, Whispering Pines: Live at the Getaway.

In 2003, the Japanese company Dreamsville Records released selections from a solo concert recorded in Saugerties, New York in October 1985, in a compilation entitled Whispering Pines: Live at the Getaway.

Eric Clapton recorded his tribute to Richard Manuel, "Holy Mother", on his 1986 release August.

San Francisco-area group The Call, who had collaborated with former Band members Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson, dedicated the video for their 1986 single, "Everywhere I Go" to Manuel. The dedication appears at the end of the video.

Robbie Robertson's self-titled solo album from 1987 opens with "Fallen Angel", a song dedicated to his former bandmate.

In 2002, Counting Crows released Hard Candy, which contained the song "If I Could Give All My Love -or- Richard Manuel Is Dead", inspired by the late musician.

In 2004, The Drive-By Truckers released The Dirty South, which contained the song "Danko/Manuel". The lyrics contain the phrase "Richard Manuel Is Dead" and also refers to other members of The Band.

Head of Femur recorded a song called "Song for Richard Manuel".

In 2008, Steppin' In It, a Michigan based roots quartet, released the album "Simple Tunes for Troubled Times" which contains the song "The Ghost of Richard Manuel."


Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 April 2009 18:48

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