Levon Helm

Published on Dec 14, 2012
Levon Helm: THE BAND - The Last Waltz - November 25, 1976 - San Francisco
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Levon Helm

Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm (May 26, 1940 – April 19, 2012) was an American rock musician and actor who achieved fame as the drummer and frequent lead and backing vocalist for The Band. Helm was known for his deeply soulful, country-accented voice, multi-instrumental ability, and creative drumming style highlighted on many of the Band's recordings, such as "The Weight", "Up on Cripple Creek", and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". He also had a successful career as an actor, appearing in such films as Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff.
In 1998, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer, which caused him to lose his singing voice. After undergoing treatment for the disease, his cancer eventually went into remission, which allowed him to gradually regain use of his voice. His 2007 comeback album Dirt Farmer earned the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in February 2008, and in November of that year, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 91 in the list of The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2010, Electric Dirt, his 2009 follow-up to Dirt Farmer, won the first Grammy Award for Best Americana Album, a category inaugurated in 2010. In 2011, his live album Ramble at the Ryman was nominated for the Grammy in the same category and won. On April 17, 2012, his wife and daughter announced on Helm's website that he was "in the final stages of his battle with cancer" and thanked fans while requesting prayers. Two days later, Helm died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.


Early years

Born in Elaine, Arkansas, Helm grew up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, a hamlet west of Helena, Arkansas. His parents, Nell and Diamond Helm, cotton farmers and also great lovers of music, encouraged their children to play and sing. Young Lavon (as he was christened) began playing the guitar at the age of eight and also played drums during his formative years. He saw Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys at the age of six and decided then to become a musician.
Arkansas in the 1940s and 50s stood at the confluence of a variety of musical styles—blues, country and R&B—that later became known as rock and roll. Listening to all these styles on the Grand Ole Opry show on radio station WSM and R&B on radio station WLAC out of Nashville, Tennessee influenced Helm. He also saw traveling shows such as F.S. Walcott's Rabbit's Foot Minstrels that featured top African-American artists of the time.
Another early influence on Helm was the work of harmonica, guitarist and singer Sonny Boy Williamson II, who played blues and early rhythm and blues on the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena and performed regularly in Marvell with blues guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr. In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire - Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, Helm describes watching Williamson's drummer, James "Peck" Curtis, intently during a live performance in the early 1950s and later imitating this R&B drumming style. Helm established his first band, The Jungle Bush Beaters, while in high school.
Helm also witnessed some of the earliest performances by Southern country music, blues and rockabilly artists such as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Bo Diddley and a fellow Arkansan, Ronnie Hawkins. At age 17, Helm began playing in clubs and bars around Helena.

The Hawks

After graduating from high school, Helm was invited to join Ronnie Hawkins' band, The Hawks, a popular Southern bar and club act which also had success in Canada, where rockabilly acts were very popular. Soon after, Helm joined The Hawks, and they moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where, in 1959, they signed with Roulette Records and released several singles, including a few hits.
Helm reports in his biography, This Wheel's on Fire, that fellow Hawks band members had difficulty pronouncing "Lavon" correctly, and started calling him "Levon" (/ˈliːvɒn/ lee-von) because it was easier to pronounce.
In the early 1960s, Helm and Hawkins recruited an all-Canadian lineup of musicians: guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson- although all the musicians were multi-instrumentalists. In 1963, the band parted ways with Hawkins and started touring under the name "Levon and The Hawks," and later as "The Canadian Squires" before finally changing back to "The Hawks." They recorded two singles, but remained mostly a popular touring bar band in Texas, Arkansas, Canada, and on the East Coast of the United States, where they found regular summer club gigs on the New Jersey shore.
By the mid-1960s, songwriter and musician Bob Dylan was interested in performing electric rock music and asked The Hawks to be his backing band. Disheartened by fans' negative response to Dylan's new sound, Helm returned to Arkansas for what turned out to be a two-year layoff, being replaced by drummer Mickey Jones. During this period, Helm worked on off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico until he was asked to rejoin the band.
After The Hawks toured Europe with Dylan, they followed him to live around Woodstock, New York, and remained under salary to him. The Hawks recorded a large volume of demo and practice tapes in Woodstock, playing almost daily with Dylan, who had completely withdrawn from public life the previous year. These recordings were widely bootlegged and were partially released officially in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. The songs and themes developed during this period played a crucial role in the group's future direction and style. The Hawks members also began writing their own songs. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel also shared writing credits with Dylan on a few songs.

The Band

Helm returned to the group, then referred to simply as "the band." While contemplating a recording contract, Helm had dubbed the band as "The Crackers." However, when Robertson and their new manager Albert Grossman worked out the contracts, the group's name was cited as "The Band." Under these contracts, The Band was contracted to Grossman, who in turn contracted their services to Capitol Records. This arrangement allowed The Band to release recordings on other labels if the work was done in support of Dylan.[citation needed] This allowed The Band to play on Dylan's Planet Waves album and on The Last Waltz, both non-Capitol releases. The Band also recorded their own album Music from Big Pink, which catapulted them into stardom.
On Music From Big Pink, Manuel was the most prominent vocalist and Helm sang backup and harmony, with the exception of "The Weight." However, as Manuel's health deteriorated and Robbie Robertson's songwriting increasingly looked to the South for influence and direction, subsequent albums relied more and more on Helm's vocals, alone or in harmony with Danko. Helm was primarily a drummer and vocalist, and increasingly sang lead. However, but like all his bandmates, he was also a multi-instrumentalist. On occasion, Manuel switched to drums while Helm played mandolin, guitar, and bass guitar on some songs. This included the 12-string guitar backdrop to "Daniel and the Sacred Harp", bass (while Danko played fiddle).
Helm remained with The Band until their 1976 farewell performance, The Last Waltz, which was recorded in a documentary film by director Martin Scorsese.The documentary is widely considered the greatest rock and roll film ever made.[citation needed] Many music enthusiasts know Helm through his appearance in the concert film, a performance remarkable for the fact that Helm's vocal tracks appear substantially as he sang them during a grueling concert. However, Helm repudiated his involvement with The Last Waltz shortly after the completion of its final scenes. In his autobiography, Helm offers scathing criticisms of the film and of Robertson, who produced it.

Solo artist and the reformed Band

With the breakup of The Band in its original form, Helm began working on a solo album Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars, followed by Levon Helm. Helm recorded solo albums in 1980 and 1982 entitled American Son and (once again) Levon Helm. Helm also participated in musician Paul Kennerley's 1980 country music concept album, The Legend of Jesse James, singing the role of Jesse James alongside Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Albert Lee.
In 1983, The Band reunited without Robbie Robertson, with Jim Weider on guitar. In 1986, while on tour, Manuel committed suicide. Helm, Danko and Hudson continued in The Band, releasing the album Jericho in 1993 and High on the Hog in 1996. The final album from The Band was the 30th anniversary album, Jubilation, released in 1998.
In 1989, Helm and Danko toured with drummer Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. Other musicians in the band included singer/guitarist Joe Walsh, singer/pianist Dr. John, guitarist Nils Lofgren, singer Billy Preston, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and drummer Jim Keltner. Garth Hudson was a guest on accordion on certain dates. Levon played drums and harmonica, and sang "The Weight" and "Up On Cripple Creek" each night.
Helm performed with Danko and Hudson as The Band in 1990 at Roger Waters' epic The Wall – Live in Berlin Concert in Germany to an estimated 300,000 to half a million people.
In 1993, Helm published an autobiography entitled This Wheel's on Fire – Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.

Personal Life

Helm met singer/songwriter Libby Titus in April 1969, while The Band was recording its second album. They began a lengthy relationship, which produced daughter Amy Helm (born December 3, 1970). Amy would grow up to form the band Ollabelle and perform with her father's band at the Midnight Rambles and other concerts. Helm would meet his future wife, Sandra Dodd, in 1975 in California, while he was still involved with Titus. Helm and Dodd were married on September 7, 1981, and had no children together.

Acting career

In addition to his work as musician, Helm also acted in several dramatic films after the breakup of The Band. His first acting role was the 1980 film Coal Miner's Daughter in which he portrayed Loretta Lynn's father, followed three years later when he appeared as U.S. Air Force test pilot and engineer, Jack Ridley, in The Right Stuff. He played an eccentric old man in the 2005 film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and appeared as Gen. John Bell Hood in the 2009 film In The Electric Mist. He also had a brief cameo as a weapons expert in the film Shooter with Mark Wahlberg.


In 2012, during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies in Cleveland, Robbie Robertson sent “love and prayers” to Helm, fueling speculation on Helm's health. Helm had previously cancelled several performances, citing poor health or a "slipped disk" in his back.
On April 17, 2012, Helm's wife Sandy and daughter Amy revealed that Helm had end-stage cancer. They posted the following message on Helm's website:

"Dear Friends,
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.
Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration... he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage...
We appreciate all the love and support and concern.
From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy.
On April 18, Robertson revealed on his Facebook page that he had a long visit with Helm at the hospital the previous Sunday. On the same day, Garth Hudson posted on his personal website that he was "too sad for words". He then left a link for a video of himself and the Alexis P. Suter band performing Bob Dylan’s song "Knocking on Heaven's Door".
Surrounded by family and friends, Helm died on April 19, 2012, at 1:30 pm at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Fans were invited to a public wake at Helm's Barn studio complex on April 26. Approximately 2,000 fans came to pay their respects to the rock icon. The following day, after a private funeral service and a procession through the streets of Woodstock, Helm was interred in the Woodstock Cemetery, within sight of the grave of his longtime bandmate and friend Rick Danko.


Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote the song "Levon" for Helm. Both John and Taupin cited that they were inspired by Levon Helm, Bernie saying so in various interviews on how they would "go down to their favourite record stores to buy The Band's records" along with Elton.
In 1994, Helm was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Band.
Marc Cohn wrote the song "Listening to Levon" in 2007.
"The Man Behind the Drums," written by Robert Earl Keen and Bill Whitbeck, appeared on Keen's 2009 album The Rose Hotel.
On the day of Levon's death, April 19, 2012, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were playing The 1st Bank Center in Broomfield, CO and paid tribute to Levon by dedicating and performing their song "The Best of Everything" to him.
At their May 2, 2012 concert at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed "The Weight" as a tribute to Helm. Springsteen called Helm "one of the greatest, greatest voices in country, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll ... staggering ... while playing the drums. Both his voice and his drumming were so incredibly personal. He had a feel on the drums that comes out of certain place in the past and you can't replicate it." Springsteen also said it was one of the songs that he had drummer Max Weinberg audition with prior to joining the band.
On June 2, 2012 at Mountain Jam, Gov't Mule, along with the Levon Helm Band (with Lucas Nelson coming on stage for the closing song) played a tribute set, including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up On Cripple Creek,""It Makes No Difference," and closing with "The Weight."
A tribute concert called Love for Levon took place at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey on October 3, 2012. The concert featured many special guests who have collaborated with and were inspired by Helm and The Band including Roger Waters, Garth Hudson, Joe Walsh, Gregg Allman, Bruce Hornsby, Jorma Kaukonen, John Mayer, Mavis Staples, My Morning Jacket, Marc Cohn, John Hiatt, Allen Toussaint, Jakob Dylan, Mike Gordon and others. Poceeds from the concert will "help support the lasting legacy of Levon Helm by helping his estate keep ownership of his home, barn and studio, and to continue the Midnight Ramble Sessions."
At the 2013 Grammy Awards, the Zac Brown Band, Mumford & Sons, Elton John, Mavis Staples, T-Bone Burnett and Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard performed "The Weight" as a tribute to Levon and other recently deceased musicians. They also dedicated the song to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Levon Helm

Levon Helm performing in 2004 on the Village Green in Woodstock, New York.
Background information
Birth nameMark Lavon Helm
BornMay 26, 1940
Elaine, ArkansasUnited States
DiedApril 19, 2012 (aged 71)
New York CityNew York,United States
GenresRock and rollrhythm and blues,rockbluescountryfolk
Years active1957–2012
LabelsCapitol, Mobile Fidelity, MCA, Breeze Hill, Levon
Associated actsThe BandRonnie Hawkins & The HawksBob Dylan, Levon Helm's Ramble on the Road, Levon Helm and The RCO All-Stars, Ringo Starr & His All-Starr BandEric ClaptonJohnny Cash