Levon Helm, multi-instrumentalist best known for providing drums and both lead and backing vocals for the band, passed on 19 April 2012 at the age of 71. The cause was cancer.
Levon Helm was born Mark Lavon Helm on 26 May 1940 in Elaine, Arkansas. He spent his child hood in Turkey Scratch, a small village outside Helena, Arkansas. His family loved music, so that Mr. Helm was exposed to it at a very early age. At age six he saw his first live concert, one by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. The show left an impression on young Lavon Helm's mind. When he was ten and eleven, during those times when he was not working on the farm or in school, he often went to radio station KFFA in Helena to watch blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson in his radio show, King Biscuit Time. By the time he was eleven he could already play both the guitar and the harmonica. Impressed by the drummers in Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis's bands, it would be rock 'n' roll that would lead Lavon Helm to become a drummer. He was only a junior in high school when he formed his first band, The Jungle Bush Beaters.
By the time Lavon Helm was 18 his talent was such that he was able to join Ronnie Hawkins' band The Hawks following his graduation from high school. It was at this time that Lavon Helm's stage name became "Levon Helm." The Hawks had some difficulty pronouncing Lavon's name correctly, more often than not pronouncing it "Levon." It was in 1959 that Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks were signed to Roulette Records. Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks would have a significant hit in 1959 with the song "Mary Lou," which went to #26 on the Billboard Hot 100.
It was in the early Sixties that Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm formed a new band of Hawks, recruiting Canadians Ronnie Robertson on guitar, Rick Danko on bass, Richard Manuel on piano, and Garth Hudson on organ--essentially what would become The Band. It was in 1964 that The Hawks and Ronnie Hawkins parted over personal differences. In 1965 the band would record two singles, both under different names. "Uh-Uh-Uh"/"Leave Me Alone" was released under the name of The Canadian Squires, while "The Stones I Throw"/"He Don't Love You (and He'll Break Your Heart)" was released under the name Levon and The Hawks. It was late in 1965 that Bob Dylan hired The Hawks as his backing band on his next tour--the first on which he would utilise electric instruments. Unfortunately, folk music fans were none too happy with Bob Dylan's transition from folk musician to rock star, so that his concerts were often met with a somewhat negative reception. Three months into the tour Levon Helm left. While Levon Helm worked on an oil rig, the rest of The Hawks continued to tour with Bob Dylan. When Mr. Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident and retired to Woodstock, New York to recover, The Hawks joined him there. In Woodstock The Hawks were more often than not called simply "the band." The name stuck.
Eventually Levon Helm returned to The Hawks. The group rented a big, pink house in Woodstock, New York where they set to work on writing original material. What had been The Hawks were signed to Capitol Records under the name "The Band." Their first album, Music From Big Pink (the name taken from the big pink house in Woodstock), was released 1 July 1968. The album received largely positive reviews and would eventually peak on the Billboard album charts at #18. While the single "The Weight" only peaked at #63 on the Billboard Hot 100, it would go onto become one of their most recognisable songs.
Their eponymous second album was released over a year later, on 22 September 1969. The Band contained what may well be the group's best known song, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The single from the album, Up on Cripple Creek, went to #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album The Band itself went to #9 on the Billboard albums chart. The Band would have continued success with their next album, Stage Fright, released on 17 August 1970. The album went to #5 on the Billboard album chart. In the Seventies The Band's albums would continue to do moderately well on the charts. They released four more studio albums (Cahoots, Moondog Matinee, Northern Lights--Southern Cross, and Islands), as well as a live album (Rock of Ages). Their single, "Baby, Don't Do It," a cover of the Marvin Gaye song from Rock of Ages, went to #34 on the Billboard Hot 100. By 1976 Robbie Robertson had grown weary of touring, so that The Band decided to retire from touring. They held a farewell concert on Thanksgiving in 1976 in San Francisco, California. The concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as the movie The Last Waltz. A soundtrack album was also released.
After The Band's retirement Levon Helm continued to perform as a solo artist. From the late Seventies into the early Eighties, Mr. Helm recorded the solo albums Levon Helm & The RCO All Stars, Levon Helm, American Son, and Levon Helm. In 1983 The Band reunited without Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm was part of the reunion. Sadly, Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986. Messrs. Helm, Danko and Hudson would continue to perform as The Band. In 1989 Levon Helm and Rick Danko performed as part of Ringo Starr's All-Star Band. In 1990 Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson performed as The Band at Roger Water's "The Wall-Live in Berlin in Germany. In 1993 The Band released their first new studio album in years, Jericho, without Robbie Robertson as part of the group. The Band released two more studio albums, High on the Hog in 1996 and Jubilation in 1998.
It was in 1998 that Levon Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. It would be some time before he could sing again. He would return to singing in 2004 with the launch of his Midnight Ramble Sessions. The Midnight Ramble Sessions were a series of live concerts performed at his studio, "The Barn," at his home in Woodstock, New York. Levon Helm also returned to touring. In 2005 two albums collecting The Midnight Ramble Sessions were released (Midnight Ramble Sessions Volume I and Midnight Ramble Sessions Volume II). In 2007 Levon Helm released his first solo album since 1982, Dirt Farmer. On 17 September 2009 Levon Helm performed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. The performance was recorded and released as the album Ramble at the Ryman in 2011. In 2009 he released his final studio album, Electric Dirt.
Levon Helm also had an acting career. He made his film debut in 1980 playing Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter. He would go onto appear in such films as The Right Stuff (1983), Best Revenge (1984), Man Outside (1989), Feeling Minnesota (1996), The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (1998), Shooter (2007), and In the Electric Mist (2009).
It is probably impossible to adequately assess the importance of Levon Helm to the history of rock, folk, and Americana music. Indeed, it must be said that without Levon Helm, The Band would never have come into being. Aside from being the founder of one of the most influential bands in the last half of the 20th Century, he was also an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist. Although best known as The Band's drummer, Mr. Helm could play guitar, harmonica, mandolin, bass, and banjo, and he was good at all of them. What is more, he was one of rock music's most distinctive vocalist. He had a strong tenor voice with a touch of roughness about it and his Arkansas accent could often clearly be heard. Levon Helm's band would have an influence on several bands over the years, as diverse as Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young; Led Zeppelin; Elvis Costello, The Black Crowes; and The Hold Steady. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Levon Helm would have a lasting impact on rock, folk, and Americana music.