In a group remembered for their vocal talent, the late Richard Manuel was often seen as the lead singer. His is the first voice you hear on the Band's legendary debut album, Music From Big Pink, a rich baritone so soulful and charged with pathos it's hard to believe it could come from the frail Canadian. His is also the last voice heard on that album, a lonesome, quavering falsetto on Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" that raises the hair on the back of the listener's neck. Sadly, Manuel hanged himself in a motel room in Florida on March 4, 1986.
Manuel, the son of a Stratford, Ontario, mechanic, developed his vocal ability as a youth in the Baptist church choir. He grew up listening to country music, eventually discovering R&B, which would become a huge influence. (His voice would garner frequent comparisons to Ray Charles.) Manuel was the fourth future member of the Band to join the Hawks. In 1961, Levon Helm was the drummer for the Hawks and Robbie Robertson was on bass. Soon, however, Robertson took over as lead guitarist and Rick Danko was added as the new bass player. When Stan Szelest left the group that year, Richard Manuel was brought in as the piano player.
Throughout the legendary career of the Band, Manuel was troubled by drug and alcohol problems. It was only a few years after the Band had reunited in the '80s (without Robertson) -- and during an endless tour of much smaller clubs than the group was accustomed to -- that Manuel committed suicide. No other singer in the group was as admired, however. Even musical giants such as Eric Clapton (who has made no secret of his fascination with Manuel) were in awe of his vocal ability. Clapton would go on to record a tribute to Manuel, "Holy Mother," on his 1986 album August. Ex-bandmate Robbie Robertson would also eulogize Manuel on his 1987 solo debut with "Fallen Angel." Richard Manuel's grave is at the Avondale cemetery in Stratford, Ontario. ~ Erik Hage