On the anniversary of his death, we look back at The Band’s wounded soul on film.
“I always felt very comfortable with Richard in The Band. I knew nobody else had a better singer. Richard’s policy was to hold up his glass and say, ‘spend it all!’ – which is a pretty good policy when you think about it.” – Levon Helm, 1997
RICHARD MANUEL, who died 28 years ago today, was The Band’s secret weapon. Possessed of a scorched baritone that was able to propel Ray Charles-esque R&B (The Shape I’m In, King Harvest (Has Surely Come)) and add spine-tingling melancholy to heartbroken ballads (In A Station, Whispering Pines), he was the fragile figure whose immersion in gospel music helped ignite the group’s emotional core.
Like most members of The Band, Manuel was a skilled multi-instrumentalist and would move from piano to drums when Levon Helm took on mandolin duties – see Evangeline and Rag Mama Rag for key examples of The Band’s second configuration. He was also responsible for co-writing some of their hidden gems, among them the dreamy When You Awake and the spirited country-soul of Jawbone.
“There was something of the holy madman about Richard. He was raw.” – Eric Clapton
Although his later years were plagued by alcoholism, his natural charisma remained undimmed. “I was madly in love with Richard… At the time,  we had the same troubles,” said his good friend Eric Clapton. “I felt insecure and he was clearly insecure, and yet he was so incredibly gifted….For me he [Richard] was the true light of the Band. The other guys were fantastic talents, of course, but there was something of the holy madman about Richard. He was raw. When he sang in that high falsetto the hair on my neck would stand on end. Not many people can do that.”
Here are four videos that shine a light on his genius, beginning with arguably the ultimate Band clip recorded during the sessions for The Band at Sammy Davis Jr.’s L.A. pool house in 1969: