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Richard Manuel

The Band rock Canadian indie folk

Richard Manuel (April 3, 1943 - March 4, 1986) was a Canadian pianist, keyboardist, drummer, singer and songwriter best known for his membership in The Band.

Manuel was born in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. As a teenager, he developed a rhythmic style of piano unique in its usage of inverted chord structures and was a naturally talented vocalist, with a timbre often compared to that of Ray Charles. These talents were showcased in his band, The Rockin' Revols.

In the summer of 1961, at the age of eighteen, he joined Ronnie Hawkins' backing group, The Hawks, which 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, aged 24, joined that Christmas). After two years, Manuel departed the Hawks along with Helm, Robertson, Danko, Hudson and saxophonist Jerry Penfound (occasionally joined by singer Bruce Bruno), initially as the Levon Helm Sextet (as Helm had accumulated the most time with Hawkins), later changed 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 (easily the most accomplished vocalist from a technical standpoint) who led the group on stage, singing most of the songs in the group's repertoire and serving as de facto frontman. It was as Levon and the Hawks, after the departure of Penfound and Bruno, that they came to the attention of Sonny Boy Williamson (with whom they planned a collaboration, one which never happened due to Williamson's death soon thereafter) and Bob Dylan (who would use the group as his backing group through the summer of 1966). During this time, Manuel taught himself to play drums in a technically irreverant, "loosey-goosey" style; in the Band era he would frequently assume the drummer's stool when Helm played mandolin or guitar, the best example of this being the song "Rag Mama Rag".

1967 saw the group break away from Dylan, and saw Manuel and Robertson develop as songwriters. After recording numerous demo recordings, and signing with Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, they secured a contract for a 10-LP deal with Capitol Records in early 1968, signing as "The Crackers" (another choice was "The Honkies"). With Helm rejoining the fold (he had left in late 1965) as sessions got underway for the recording of their first album, the group proceeded to take what they had learned with Dylan (using one of his songs in the process), combining it with their ideal of the perfect album, with Manuel contributing four songs (one of them, "Tears Of Rage", a co-write with Dylan) and Robertson the same (all on his own), with a cover of an old country track and a Danko-Dylan collaboration ("This Wheel's On Fire") rounding out the bunch. The album was released with the group name as The Band, which it would be for the rest of their career. 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 woman of Swedish extraction named Jane who he had dated intermittently since the Hawks days; he would father two children with her before divorcing in 1975. With the group's gradual reemergence into the glamour of late 60s American rock and the perceived pressues of raising a family — clearly a highly unsuitable lifestyle for him — the shy and insecure musician was the first of the group to succumb to the temptations of that lifestyle: already considered by most friends and associates to be an alcoholic (he reportedly claimed to have started drinking at age 7), it was not long before Manuel added Tuinal, Valium, heroin, and cocaine to the mixture.

While Manuel's drug abuse did not yet adversely affect his performance or reliability on stage, it was not beneficial to his creativity. 1969's eponymous release featured just three tracks by Manuel, all co-writes with Robertson (who was credited with writing or co-writing all of the album's 12 tracks). 1970's Stage Fright featured two, again, both credited as being written with Robertson. Thereafter, Manuel was simply used as singer, keyboardist, and drummer for the group's creations, 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 offered to collaborate with Manuel - who even before his downward spiral was more adept at composing rather than writing lyrics - but these overtures were declined.

In 1972, after a fall 1971 tour that culminated with four celebrated performances that would be extracted for the Rock of Ages live album, he reached new lows. Kicking his heroin habit with a fellow unproductive artist, Beat writer Mason Hoffenberg, the twosome immediately bonded, degenerated further into their mutual alcoholism, and became housemates after Manuel's long suffering wife briefly departed with his children. A Rolling Stone profile of Hoffenberg from 1973 describes a palid Manuel (described by his friend as "a brilliant composer") living in barely inhabitable conditions littered with dog feces, consuming his first solid food after a three day bender. Barely functioning, the singer's condition had grown both worrisome and irritating to his bandmates (namely Robertson), who wanted to record a new album.

By mid-1973, the group had once again followed the lead of Dylan, having 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 clearly reluctant to perform, the album nonetheless 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", a favorite from the Hawks days. Another highlight was his clearly tongue-in-cheek version of the obscure Leiber & Stoller song "Saved". The Band played to receptive audiences that summer at the Watkins Glen festival 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 "Tour '74", lasting from January 3rd to February 14th of 1974, were meandering musical marathons featuring two sets of Dylan backed by The Band, two Band sets, and a Dylan acoustic set. Relishing the rock limelight, Manuel demanded that roadies shot Polaroid photos of prospective groupies before permitting entrance to the backstage sanctum. The ensuing live album from the tour, Before The Flood, reveals that Manuel was still capable of reaching the breathtaking falsetto of "I Shall Be Released" but was rather hoarse on "The Shape I'm In" and his background vocals — years of alcohol and cocaine addiction were beginning to take their wrath.

Continued touring throughout 1974 and the release of the acclaimed Northern Lights - Southern Cross in 1975 (the group's first album of originals in four years) did little to alleviate Manuel's problems. He routinely drank and drugged himself into a blank stupor; according to Levon Helm, at the peak of his alcoholism the singer was consuming eight bottles of the potent liqueur Grand Marnier a day. Before long, he developed a kinship with the similarly despondent Eric Clapton, and was a driving force behind the boozy sessions that comprise the guitarist's 1976 release No Reason To Cry (recorded at The Band's new Shangri-La Studios). By 1976, Robertson had expressed his dissatisfaction with many aspects the group, especially touring. On the group's final full fledged tour, Manuel was a shadow of his former self, more often than not too drunk to play effectively; his most notable contributions being raging versions of the prophetic "The Shape I'm In" and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", propelled by his now ragged vocal tone. Once his "backup singers", Danko and especially Helm were forced to assume the brunt of the vocal slack, with a horn section and Hudson's virtuostic keyboards covering the musical loss.

The Band played its final show at Winterland Arena on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 with several guests; it was filmed in 35mm by Robertson cohort and avowed longtime Band fan Martin Scorcese for inclusion in a documentary, The Last Waltz. While Manuel's good humor and warm, genial nature emerged in the interview segments, it was clear that he was severely depressed and inebriated. Most shots of the concert, to the eternal chagrin of Helm, featured Robertson; Manuel, clad in an epochal plaid leisure suit and looking far older than his 33 years, was barely noticeable in the concert footage. Initially intended as an end to live performances by the group, with each member kept on a $2,500 a week retainer by a prospective record company, by 1978 the group had drifted apart. Taking advantage of this new solace, Manuel moved to Garth Hudson's dude ranch outside Malibu, drying out and eventually remarrying.

1983 saw the reformation of The Band, 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 those years of self-indulgence, Manuel performed old hits such as "The Shape I'm In", "Chest Fever", and "I Shall Be Released" alongside favorites such as the blues standard "You Don't Know Me" and "She Knows". The group was warmly received during a Japanese tour in 1985. All of that changed when Band manager Albert Grossman — one of those Manuel depended on to keep him in line — died in late January 1986.

Depressed by Grossman's death, dwindling gigs, and the perception that The Band had stagnated and reverted to their Hawks status as a traveling jukebox, Manuel returned to his addictions. On March 4, 1986, after a gig outside Orlando, in Winter Park, Florida, Manuel committed suicide by hanging when his wife briefly stepped out of their room. Cocaine and a bottle of Grand Marnier were found alongside his corpse. He was buried a week later in his hometown of Stratford, Ontario.

Posthumous Recognition

For the longest time, Manuel lacked the solo release that Danko, Helm, Robertson, and even Hudson had. In 2003, the Japanese company Dreamsville Records righted this wrong by releasing selections from two solo concerts recorded in Saugerties, New York in October 1985, in a compilation entitled Whispering Pines: Live at the Getaway. They show Manuel in top form, performing songs such as "Georgia On My Mind", "Crazy Mama", and "I Shall Be Released", for friends and wellwishers. Four months later, he was dead.

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

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

In 2003, Counting Crows released Hard Candy, which contained the song "If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel Is Dead)", inspired by the late musician. Songwriter Adam Duritz has said the song is "about a thing that happened about 15 years ago when I was out all night with my friends drinking. I came home about six in the morning with this girl and got the morning paper on the way in the house and I opened it up and it turned out that Richard Manuel had died. He was the piano player and one of the singers for The Band. And I was a huge fan, you know? They were a big deal to me. And I kinda went to bed that morning thinking about how this thing that I had always loved was gone now. It's like John Lennon dying, there's not going to be anymore Beatles reunions, for sure. There's not going to be any Band reunions. And I was thinking this girl will probably be gone sometime soon too, you know, things just come and go in life. When were starting recording, we started writing, and we wrote this song. It's just sort of about how you can't hold on to anything in your life (your idols, the music you love, some girl, anything at all) a lot of times because you can't give all of yourself to it."

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 refer to other members of The Band.

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