Listen to this track by Americana architects The Band, featuring “rhythm pianist”, vocalist, and sometime songwriter Richard Manuel singing lead. It’s “Whispering Pines”, his song that he co-wrote with guitarist Robbie Robertson as featured on the Band’s 1969 self-titled album The Band, sometimes called The Brown Album.
I recently finished reading Million Dollar Bash, by Sid Griffin, the story of how the band became the Band out of the ashes of the R&B backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan that they once were. It was during a 1967-68 recording stint , when four, and later all five, members of the Hawks rented a house and rehearsal space they named Big Pink in rural upstate New York. It was here that they delved into the folk music of decades and centuries past, with Bob Dylan on hand to serve as a catalyst, while also rehearsing new songs by Dylan, fresh off of Bob’s typewriter in the very house and in the very hour that they were being recorded. They in turn kept Bob on the straight and narrow in how to play in a band, after years of his playing solo.
Soon, the set-up at Big Pink (and at Dylan’s house, and later Rick Danko’s house) came to represent an alternate way of making music that eschewed the constraints of the studio. This is a practice which is now commonplace, even if Dylan and the Hawks were pioneering spirits in its development. From The Cowboy Junkies recording their Trinity Sessions album at Holy Trinity Church in Toronto, to Bruce Springsteen releasing his 1982 Nebraska album based on homemade demo tapes, to Bon Iver recording a debut album in a hunting shed, the approach can be laid at the feet of the group which would eventually emerge two years later as The Band.
And this approach was how this song, and the others that accompanied it, were ushered into the world, this time in a rented guesthouse as owned by Sammy Davis, Jr. of all people. The clubhouse approach brought out possibilities for this group that, arguably, might not have been accessible while under normal studio-bound conditions. For instance, the melody lines in “Whispering Pines” suggest a choral piece more so than a rock n’ roll ballad, helped along by Manuel’s gospel-tinged lead, and organist Garth Hudson’s churchy sonic colour palette. This is clearly a mix that would have taken time and the right environment to render properly. And Manuel, a troubled soul with what bandmate Robbie Robertson described as having a ‘hurt in his voice’, is in a league of his own at being able to achieve the subtleties.
Manuel as a vocalist was compared to Ray Charles even by his own bandmates, and later by many others. Indeed, Manuel was a huge Ray Charles fan, and his ability to hit a similar soulful chord in everything he sang was an element that got him hired into the Hawks to begin with. And Manuel’s ability to bring this into what the Band was creating, that is, a musical stew that was far removed from the trends of the times, was considered to be his untouchable strength.
Manuel had a number of personal problems which sprung from his prodigious intake of alcohol and drugs. While the Band was a growing concern from the late 60s to the mid-70s, it was this which stunted his ambitions as a songwriter, and even later as a vocalist. The hints of spiritual turbulence to be found here in “Whispering Pines” is something of a window into Manuel’s soul. Like many , perhaps if he’d been born at a later time, when these kinds of problems were more recognized as such, he might have overcome.
But, sadly even after the Band reformed without Robertson in 1983 and when Manuel seemed to be making progress away from his own destruction, the darkness which seemed to plague him overtook him in March of 1986. Richard Manuel hung himself in his Florida hotel room while on tour with his old bandmates.
One of his many professional and personal admirers was Eric Clapton, who had this to say about Manuel:
“I was madly in love with Richard… At the time,  we had the same troubles. 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.”
Read more about Richard Manuel on the official The Band website.