Richard L. “Dick” Kniss of High Woods died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on Wednesday, Jan. 25 at Benedictine Hospital. He was 74. A self-taught musician, Dick played the upright bass for more than 40 years with the legendary folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary. At their concerts, his wife Diane remembers, Dick was always introduced on stage by the trio as “the fourth member” of their group, and as “the MVP, or most valuable player.” She says that he wasn’t in it for the glory, though. “Dick never cared about that,” Diane says, “he was always just so happy to play his music, to be able to go on the road and pursue what he loved.”

When Peter, Paul and Mary disbanded for a time in 1970, Kniss went on the road with John Denver. “Dick knew him,” Diane says, “because the trio had recorded “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which John had written, and the trio had a huge hit with it.” At the time, friends of the Knisses thought that Dick was taking a step down. “People would ask us what Dick was going to do now that the trio had broken up, and when we would say that he was going on the road with this guy John Denver, they would look at us kind of sadly,” she remembers. “We’d say, ‘oh, but he’s great, and he wrote “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and you’re going to know who he is.’ Of course within a couple of years, everything evolved and everyone knew who John was.”

Kniss (and the ‘K’ is pronounced, not silent) played in Denver’s band for eight years, until he re-joined the reunited Peter, Paul and Mary trio in1978. During his years with Denver, Kniss co-wrote, along with Denver and Mike Taylor, one of Denver’s biggest hits, “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” which became the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1974. In various interviews, Denver related how he came up with the lyrics in a melancholy mood on a dreary Minnesota day in late winter, longing for spring, but it’s the gentle and wistful melody co-written by Kniss mingling with those words that makes the tune so memorable. The song was everywhere in the seventies, of course, but it still endures today as a timeless piece of American music, evocative of a less cynical and more hopeful frame of mind. Diane Kniss says, “I’ll be somewhere and I’ll hear it, and I’ll look around at people, and they don’t even realize it, but they’re smiling.”

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