Rick Danko: The Man Behind the Music

December 20th, 2013
Carol Caffin and Rick Danko in Pennsauken, NJ, September 1990

Carol Caffin and Rick Danko in Pennsauken, NJ, September 1990

On December 29, Rick Danko, the bass player and singer in The Band, would have been 70. Danko grew up in Ontario, Canada, and left school at 14 to become a rock musician. His break came when he was tapped by Ronnie Hawkins to join The Hawks, one of Canada’s hottest bands at the time. It was there that he met Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel. In 1963 Danko, Helm, Robertson, Hudson and Manuel broke away from Ronnie Hawkins to form their own group. According to Rick’s obituary in the New York Times they toured under such names as the Canadian Squires. After performing session work for John Hammond, Jr., the group met John Hammond, Sr., who in turn introduced them to Bob Dylan. They soon joined Dylan in Woodstock. During Dylan’s hiatus from touring, they began to record in the basement of the big pink house in West Saugerties, which was found by Rick Danko. The tapes from those sessions became known as The Basement Tapes. The group became known as The Band and went on to record ten albums that are considered among the most influential of all time. In 1994, Rick joined fellow group members Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson on stage when The Band were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

To get a sense of the man behind the touring persona, I recently talked with Carol Caffin, Rick’s friend and longtime publicist. She described Rick as a “badass,” but in the next breath spoke of him as having an “innocent quality”—one of looking at the world around him with a sense of wonder. He was also by turns goofy, crazy, and shy. Not book-educated, he was thrust into the spotlight, into the world of rock and roll, and was able to adapt. “Stage Fright,” the song, was a good fit for his personality. He had a charismatic, one-of-a-kind spirit. Read the rest of this entry »

Frank Spinelli and the Sled Hill Cafe

January 9th, 2012

Frank Spinelli on the Village Green, circa 1965

In the 1960s Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, The Band and later Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were active in the Woodstock area. So, what was it like to grow up Woodstock in the 1960s? Recently I chatted with Frank Spinelli, the photographer and writer, to explore his life and early times.

Frank’s family moved to Woodstock during the summer of 1963. While attending Onteora High School he used to ride the school bus into town. A favorite hangout was the News Shop across from the Village Green. Frank was friendly with the proprietor’s son, Fred, and used to snack on after-school burgers and milkshakes.

Spinelli’s main coming-of-age passions were chasing girls and having a good time. Other hangouts besides the News Shop included the Village Green and the Woodstock Youth Center. In 1965 he was the WYC’s first president.

The countercultural movement was a parallel scene and it didn’t really impact him, but this began to change in 1966 when Frank had to enroll for the selective service and became eligible for the draft. Consequently, he began to pay more attention to the issues of the day. He remembers one time that a lefty told him that he “should not be cannon fodder,” and that he “should go to Canada.”

The summer of 1970 was a watershed moment for Frank. The Woodstock Festival took place the previous year and all kinds of people moved to town. It was also the time that the psychedelic movement hit Woodstock. Kids older than Frank used to hop in a car with a shotgun and head into the woods to shoot bottles and cans. His generation got their recreational high from pot. Spinelli didn’t really relate to the music or the musicians of the day. For the most part they were ordinary folks that he would see around town. One place he saw a good bit of local musicians was as bartender at the Sled Hill Café. Read the rest of this entry »