As today is the anniversary of the passing of Levon Helm I felt that it might be good to shine the spotlight on him and his music.
He was born Lavon Helm in Elaine, Arkansas on 26th May 1940 and grew up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas (I love the name of that place!). His parents were cotton farmers and lovers of music and encouraged the kids to learn to play and sing. He saw Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys at the age of six and knew from that moment he wanted to be a musician. By the age of eight he was learning guitar and he was also playing drums (which would of course become what he is known for).
Influenced by the blues, country, early rock 'n' roll and rockabilly at aged 17 Levon began playing in clubs in Helena, Arkansas. When still in High School he joined Ronnie Hawkins band The Hawks (here's a great performance from 1960 with Levon on the drums) with his mother insisting he had to graduate before he could go touring, up until that moment he played local shows at the weekend with the band. In 1958 he graduated, joined the band and moved to Toronto,Canada in 1959 where they signed with Roulette Records and had a few hit singles.
In the early 60s Hawkins and Helm gathered around themselves a strong Canadian band that included guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson, all of whom were multi-instrumentalists. In 1963, the band parted ways with Hawkins and started touring as Levon and the Hawks and later as the Canadian Squires, before changing back to the Hawks.
In the mid-sixties Bob Dylan came calling and The Hawks became his backing band and after a period of time Helm left discouraged by the negative response of fans towards Dylan's new sound, but he did return and joined Dylan in Woodstock. The Hawks recorded a large number of demo tapes almost on a daily basis with Dylan which ended up being widely bootlegged. We know them today as The Basement Tapes (officially released in 1975).
The Hawks began performing as The Band in 1968 and continued to collaborate with Dylan and also release their own albums. Their debut, Music From The Big Pink was released in 1968. The album contains one of their most cherished songs The Weight which sees Levon and Rick Danko take the lead vocals. Helm remained with The Band until their Farewell performance November 26th 1976 which was filmed (the link by the way is not the actual film but the complete four hour and 19 minute show from the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco and shot in black and white) and recorded as The Last Waltz.
After The Band he recorded some solo albums (that included Levon Helm in 1978, American Son in 1980) and also did some acting (he played the part of Loretta Lynn's Father in The Coal Miner's Daughter) in a number of films.
Then in 1983 The Band reunited without Robbie Robertson. Tragedy struck when Richard Manuel committed suicide whilst on tour in 1986. The remaining members of The Band - Helm, Danko and Hudson did continue and released Jericho in 1993 (the link by the way doesn't contain the full album but only 8 of the 12 songs), the first album from The Band since the break-up 17 years before! The final album from The Band would arrive in 1998 and was called Jubilation.
In the late nineties Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer and after a successful operation with the tumour removed his vocal chords were damaged. His performances then were mainly at his barn under the banner of The Midnight Ramble. These shows allowed him to raise money for his medical bills and also gave him the opportunity of playing with a very wide variety of artists.
Artists who performed at the Rambles include Helm's former bandmate Garth Hudson, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Mavis Staples, Chris Robinson, Allen Toussaint, Donald Fagen and Jon Herington of Steely Dan, Jimmy Vivino (of the house band on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien"), the Max Weinberg 7, Sean Costello, the Muddy Waters Tribute Band, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Carolyn Wonderland, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Justin Townes Earle, Bow Thayer, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Taylor, Ollabelle, the Holmes Brothers, Catherine Russell, Norah Jones, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Phil Lesh (along with his sons Grahame and Brian), Hot Tuna (Jorma Kaukonen introduced the group as "the Secret Squirrels"), Michael Angelo D'Arrigo with various members of the Sistine Chapel, Johnny Johnson, Ithalia, David Bromberg, the Youngers and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
Initially Helm only played drums and relied on guest vocalists at the Rambles, but eventually his singing voice grew stronger. On January 10, 2004, he sang again at his Ramble sessions. In 2007, during production of Dirt Farmer, Helm estimated that his singing voice was 80% recovered. He ended up winning a Grammy for that album. The follow-up Electric Dirt (2009) also won a Grammy in the newly created Best Americana Album category (he also won it at the 2012 ceremony with Ramble at The Ryman - that link is not the complete album/show but just a few of the live performances album).
On 17th April 2012 it was reported by Helm's wife Sandy and his daughter Amy that Levon was very ill once again and this time with end-stage cancer. Two days later surrounded by family and friends at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, Levon Helm passed out of this world.
His legacy to the world of music is best described in this stunning article on the American Songwriter Website by Lynne Margolis. I would probably say read that rather than anything I've written today.
Produced by Larry Campbell and Amy Helm
Released 30th October 2007
Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album
At the 50th Grammy Awards in 2008
Let The Day Begin...Let The Day Start