The Life and Times of Levon Helm: A Retrospective Tribute
Published Apr 19, 2012As reported earlier this afternoon (April 19), Levon Helm, one of the most influential figures in rock'n'roll, died today as a result of the cancer he had battled since the late 1990s. Although Helm had been recording and performing to great acclaim up until 2010, his wife Sandy and daughter Amy released a statement Tuesday (April 17) saying that his cancer had reached its final stages. The message expressed gratitude to all of Helm's fans and asked that they send prayers and love to him.
Helm is best remembered as drummer/vocalist in the Band, the Toronto-based group that backed Bob Dylan on his first "electric" tours and went on to make the landmark albums Music from Big Pink and The Band. Despite guitarist Robbie Robertson's decision to put an end the group in 1976 after years of contentiousness -- an occasion lavishly documented in the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz -- Helm revived the Band without Robertson a few years later and continued to lead them up until the death of bassist/vocalist Rick Danko in 1999.
Most observers believed Helm's career was over at that point, as the treatment he underwent for throat cancer resulted in the loss of his unmistakable voice. However, Helm made a miraculous recovery in 2007, recording the album Dirt Farmer with the aid of his daughter and other musicians who frequently took part in Helm's Midnight Ramble, a weekly show at his Woodstock, NY studio that raised funds to cover his medical expenses.
Dirt Farmer went on to win a Grammy in 2008 and the following year Helm released the follow-up, Electric Dirt, which also won a Grammy, this time in the inaugural Americana category. It was a fitting tribute to a musician whose style was an amalgamation of nearly every essential form of homegrown American music.
Born Mark Lavon Helm on May 26, 1940, the musician grew up on a farm near Turkey Scratch, AR. His interest in music was first stoked through hearing popular country and bluegrass songs, and he was also an avid listener of local blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson's daily noon hour King Biscuit Time radio show.
Helm witnessed a young Elvis Presley perform on one of his first tours, prompting him to form a group with his older sister Linda called the Jungle Bush Beaters in which the siblings played guitar and sang. Helm later took to the drums when, at a jam session, he felt moved to try doing a "Bo Diddley beat," the distinctive rhythm popularized by the singer/guitarist of the same name.
His quickly forged reputation as a drummer brought him to the attention of Arkansas rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who was in the process of forming a full-time band. Within months, Hawkins was told by a friend, Harold Jenkins (later known as country star Conway Twitty) of opportunities to play in Southern Ontario, and brought along Helm, who had just graduated high school.
Hawkins's first Canadian trip in the summer of 1958 caused a sensation in Toronto where few American rock'n'roll stars had performed until then. Hawkins's relationship with the city grew from there, and Helm kept returning as well, even as most other members of the band chose to remain in Arkansas. Helm had also figured out that by entering into a marriage of convenience with a Canadian woman, he could avoid doing military service back home.
By 1963, Hawkins's band was comprised entirely of Canadian musicians with the exception of Helm, whose name was now commonly accepted as "Levon." He particularly relished the role of teaching his bandmates the finer points of Southern culture, and within a year, the Hawks were widely regarded as one of the best white R&B bands in North America.
Finding Hawkins's repertoire too limiting, the group went out on their own in 1964 with Helm serving a leader. During an extended engagement in New Jersey during the summer of 1965, Helm received a phone call asking if he and Robertson would join Bob Dylan's backing band. Neither was familiar with the controversy Dylan was stirring then within the folk music establishment, but they got a large dose of it at their first show with him at New York's Forest Hills tennis stadium. Following that, Helm demanded that Dylan hire the entire Hawks lineup. Helm could not grasp the booing that often greeted them in each city they played over the next two months, and he abruptly left the tour to return home to Arkansas, temporarily giving up music altogether.
Helm rejoined his bandmates in the fall of 1967 when, having settled in Woodstock, NY, they were poised to record an album of original material. Although Helm was a latecomer to this process and only briefly took part in the famous Basement Tapes recordings, his rhythmic subtlety on what became Music from Big Pink, and especially his lead vocal on "The Weight," were part of the album's overall appeal as a response to the excesses of psychedelic rock.
Helm took a larger role on the Band's eponymous second album, with Robertson tailoring much of his songwriting to Helm's strengths, such as the swamp rock classic "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," which in some ways was Robertson's tribute to everything Helm had taught him.
The sudden onset of fame that followed The Band's release in 1969 took an immediate toll on all of the members. As he admitted in his autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, Helm began using heroin during this period, a habit that lasted until 1972 when the group went on a self-imposed hiatus and Helm enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston as part of his recovery.
The Band emerged again in the summer of 1973, playing the massive Watkins Glen festival with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. This led to a reunion with Dylan for the album Planet Waves and a two-month North American tour at the start of 1974. However, the group were unable to build on the momentum of the tour, taking another two years to release their next album, Northern Lights-Southern Cross. Shortly after, Robertson announced his intention to leave the group, but the ensuing Last Waltz project cemented the Band's legacy for all time.
Before reforming the Band in 1983, Helm had carved out a sideline career as an actor, earning praise for supporting roles in Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff. Yet music remained his top priority, even after founding Band member Richard Manuel's suicide in 1986. Helm suffered another personal blow five years later when his home studio, the Barn, burned down, and his determination to rebuild it led directly to the social gatherings that eventually became the Midnight Rambles, which Exclaim! was fortunate enough to attend in 2009.
As anyone who ever attended one will attest, few displayed as much joy as Helm did just to be able to play music they love, and it was that dedication that brought him back into the spotlight with Dirt Farmer. The album's success seemed to cool the long-simmering feud between Helm and Robertson over Helm's claims to unacknowledged songwriting credits, and upon Helm's passing, Robertson revealed that the two shared one final meeting at New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where Helm had been receiving treatment.
Helm's ability to seamlessly blend all the cornerstones of American music -- blues, jazz, country and bluegrass -- remains his greatest achievement, as countless musicians can attest to who have attempted to follow in the Band's footsteps. Another aspect was doing it with utter humility, as Helm's latter-day collaborator Teresa Williams explained to Woodstock arts magazine Chronogram in 2008.
"Just being around Levon elicits your truest self, musically and otherwise," Williams said. "He's so utterly sincere, he just makes everybody feel like they're the only person in the room."
The Midnight Rambles always sought to capture that feeling, even when Helm finally took the show on the road in 2010. As Helm told Chronogram, his belief in music as a true force for goodness in the world never wavered throughout his life.
"When you have everything taken away, you're just so glad to get it back, which is what I've been so fortunate enough to do," he said. "Every opportunity to play just means so much more than the last one."