He saw the birth of rock and roll and though he was too much of a gentleman to say it, his role in helping to keep that rebellious child healthy was more than just instrumental.
On May 26, 1940, Mark Lavon Helm was the second of four children born to Nell and Diamond Helm in Elaine, Arkansas. Diamond was a cotton farmer who entertained occasionally as a musician. The Helm’s loved music and often sang together. They listened to The Grand Ole Opry and Sonny Boy Williamson and his King Biscuit Entertainers regularly on the radio. A favorite family pastime was attending traveling music shows in the area. According to his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon recalled seeing his first live show, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, at six years old. His description: “This really tattooed my brain. I’ve never forgotten it.”
Hearing performers like Monroe and Williamson on the radio was one thing, seeing them live made a huge impression.
Levon’s father bought him his first guitar at age nine. At ten and eleven, whenever he wasn’t in school or at work on the farm, the boy could be found at KFFA’s broadcasting studio in Helena, Arkansas, watching Sonny Boy Williamson do his radio show, King Biscuit Time.
Helm made his younger sister Linda a string bass out of a washtub when he was twelve years old. She would play the bass while her brother slapped his thighs and played harmonica and guitar. They would sing songs learned at home and popular hits of the day, and billed themselves as “Lavon and Linda.” Because of their fresh faced good looks, obvious musical talent and Levon’s natural ability to win an audience with sheer personality and infectious rhythms, the pair consistently won talent contests along the Arkansas 4-H Club circuit.
In 1954, Levon was fourteen years old when he saw Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins do a show at Helena. Also performing was a young Elvis Presley with Scotty Moore on guitar, and Bill Black on stand-up bass. They did not have a drummer. The music was early jazz-fueled rockabilly, and the audience went wild. In ’55 he saw Elvis once more, before Presley’s star exploded. This time Presley had D.J. Fontana with him on drums and Bill Black was playing electric bass. Helm couldn’t get over the difference and thought it was the best band he’d seen. The added instruments gave the music solidity and depth. People jumped out of their seats dancing to the thunderous, heart-pumping, rhythms. The melting pot that was the Mississippi Delta had boiled over and evolved. It’s magnificently rich blues was uniting with all the powerful, new, spicy-hot sounds and textures that became rock and roll.
Natural progression led Levon to form his own rock band as a high school junior, called The Jungle Bush Beaters. While Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were making teens everywhere crazed, Levon would practice, play, watch and learn. After seeing Jerry Lee’s drummer Jimmy Van Eaton, he seriously began thinking of playing the drums himself. Around this same time, the seventeen year old musician was invited by Conway Twitty to share the stage with Twitty and his Rock Housers. He had met Twitty when “Lavon and Linda” opened for him at a previous show. Helm was a personable, polite teen who took his music seriously, so Twitty allowed him to sit in whenever the opportunity arose.
Ronnie Hawkins came into Levon Helm’s life in 1957. A charismatic entertainer and front-man, Hawkins was gathering musicians to tour Canada where the shows and money were steady. Ronnie had a sharp eye for talent. He needed a drummer and Levon fit the bill. Fulfilling a promise to Nell and Diamond to finish high school, Levon joined Ronnie and his “Hawks” on the road. The young Arkansas farm boy, once a tractor driving champion, found himself driving Hawkins’ Cadillac to gigs, happily aware that all the unknown adventures of rock and roll would soon be his destiny.
In ’59 Ronnie got The Hawks signed to Roulette Records. They had two hits, Forty Days and Mary Lou, sold 750,000 copies and appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
Hawkins and Helm recruited four more talented Canadian musicians in the early sixties, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson. Under Ronnie’s tutelage they would often perform until midnight and rehearse until four in the morning. Other bands began emulating their style, now they were the ones to watch and learn from.
Eventually, the students surpassed their teacher. Weary of Ronnie’s strict regulations, and eager to expand their own musical interests, the five decided to break from Hawkins. They called themselves “Levon and the Hawks.”
About 1965, Bob Dylan decided to change his sound. He was ready to “go electric” and wanted Levon and The Hawks to help him fire it up. The boys signed on to tour with Dylan but unfortunately Dylan’s die-hard folk fans resisted. Night after night of constant booing left Levon without the pleasure of seeing his audience enjoy themselves. He called his drummer’s stool “the best seat in the house,” because he could see his fellow musicians and his audience simultaneously. What pleased him most, always, was that his audience had a good time. He temporarily left the group and eventually landed back home in Arkansas. Dylan and the rest of the band took up residence in Woodstock, N.Y. They rented a large, pink house where they wrote and rehearsed new material. Danko called for Helm to join them when Capitol Records gave them a recording contract.
Woodstock residents called them “the band,” so they kept the moniker. The name “The Band” fit. The sound was no frills rock and roll but far from simplistic. They fused every musical influence they were exposed to over the years as individuals and as a unit. The result was brilliant. Their development as musicians was perfected by years of playing. Living together at “Big Pink” allowed complete collaboration of their artistic expression. Americana and folklore themes, heart-wrenching ballads filled with naked emotion, majestic harmonies, hard driving rhythms, and exquisite instrumentation made critics, peers and fans realize that this music was unlike any heard before. Their first album, Music from Big Pink, released in July of 1968, made them household names and as a result they were invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in autumn of ’69. Following Big Pink’s success the next album, called simply The Band, is considered by some as their masterpiece. They made seven albums total, including one live recording in 1972, Rock of Ages. Many of their hits such as The Weight, W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show, and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, were spawned from stories of Levon’s beloved south.
Helm was working in Los Angeles in ’74, at a Sunset Blvd. hotel when he spotted a beautiful young brunette taking a dip in the pool. Her name was Sandra Dodd and when she looked up at him smiling, she didn’t recognize him at first. The charming musician offered to take the lovely lady for sushi and never looked back. They were married on September 7, 1981 in Woodstock.
The barn and studio Helm built in Woodstock, which became his permanent home, was just about complete in 1975. He invited Muddy Waters to his new studio and they recorded Muddy Waters in Woodstock. To the delight of everyone involved, it won a Grammy.
The Band held a farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976. It was a bittersweet time for many who felt the group’s demise was too soon. They called it The Last Waltz which included Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and an all-star guest list of peers and friends that read like the “Who’s Who” of rock and roll. The event eventually sold as a triple album and was also filmed, becoming the first historical “rockumentary.”
Group members went on to individual pursuits. Levon cut his debut album The RCO All-Stars, in 1977. His next effort was the self-titled Levon Helm, followed by American Son, released in 1980. That same year was pivotal as Helm turned his attention to acting. He played Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter, winning great reviews for his first film appearance. He did another self-titled album and Hollywood again came knocking in ’83 giving Helm a role in The Right Stuff. The authenticity he brought to his characters earned him numerous movie roles from 1980 until 2009. Levon gave a sensitive, convincing portrayal of a destitute blind man in the 2005 Tommy Lee Jones’ vehicle, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. In 2007, he filmed Shooter with Mark Wahlberg. His last role was in 2009. where he portrayed Confederate General John Bell Hood in a movie called In the Electric Mist, again with his friend Tommy Lee Jones.
Rick Danko and Levon reunited to play music after Danko had been living in California. Rick moved back to Woodstock and the friends did an acoustic tour in early ’83. In San Jose the following year, they received excellent reviews when Hudson and Manuel joined them for their first U.S. appearance as The Band since 1976. They continued playing together until the tragic death of their dear friend and comrade, the forty-two year old Manuel.
During the 90’s three more Band albums were recorded. Jericho, High on the Hog, ending with Jubilation. In 1998, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer and the famous voice with the rich southern nuances was silenced to a whisper. He still played the drums, mandolin and harmonica, often performing with his daughter, Amy Helm, also a vocalist and instrumentalist. A great emotional support to her father during this time, Amy appeared with him regularly at Levon Helm Studios. In 1999, Helm endured another tragic loss when Rick Danko passed away nineteen days before his fifty sixth birthday. His death marked the end of an era.
Miraculously, Levon’s voice slowly returned. He felt comfortable enough to sing again live. With imagination and vision, he conceived The Midnight Ramble Sessions, a series of live performances at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock. Named for the traveling minstrel shows of his youth, the first Midnight Ramble was held in January, 2004. It featured one of the last performances by great blues pianist, Johnnie Johnson. Friends old and new joined Levon on his stage including: Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, John Sebastian, Allan Toussaint, Elvis Costello, Phil Lesh, Jimmy Vivino, Hubert Sumlin, Little Sammy Davis, Billy Bob Thornton and The Boxmasters, The Muddy Waters Band, The Swell Season, Donald Fagen, Steve Jordon, Hot Tuna, Kris Kristofferson, The Black Crows, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Norah Jones, The Bacon Brothers, Robbie Dupree, My Morning Jacket, Shemekia Copeland, The Wood Brothers, Steve Earle, Jackie Greene, Sam Bush, Brewer & Shipley, Carolyn Wonderland, Ollabelle, and The Alexis P. Suter Band. The monthly Rambles at “The Barn,” were wildly successful drawing a world wide audience.
Releases produced by Levon Helm Studios from Helm’s personal “vault,” were Volume I and II of The Midnight Ramble Sessions, plus a live RCO All-Stars performance from New Year’s Eve 1977, at the Palladium. The vitality and magnetism of these recordings speak for themselves. In September of 2007, Dirt Farmer Music and Vanguard Records released Dirt Farmer, Levon’s first solo, studio album in twenty-five years. A project particularly close to his heart, the CD contains music reminiscent of his past, and songs handed down from his parents. Dirt Farmer was awarded a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in February 2008 and landed Levon a spot in Rolling Stone’s The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. That same year he was also recognized by the Recording Academy with a lifetime achievement award as an original member of The Band and was given the “Artist of the Year” Award by the Americana Music Association. In 2009, Levon released Electric Dirt which marked his highest debut in Soundscan era at #36 and spent six consecutive weeks at #1 on the Americana Radio Chart. He won a second Grammy for Electric Dirt in the inaugural category of Best Americana Album in 2010. In September 2008, Levon took The Midnight Ramble on the road to Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. Buddy Miller, John Hiatt, Sheryl Crow, George Receli, Sam Bush and Billy Bob Thornton helped The Levon Helm Band create an evening of unforgettable musical joy. Ramble at the Ryman – Live CD and DVD, (sold individually), won him his third consecutive Grammy, again as Best Album in the Americana category, in February 2012. Sadly, Levon’s cancer returned shortly after this last triumph. He passed away on April 19, 2012. His funeral was a tearful, joyful, musical celebration of his life.
The intimacy of the shows performed at Levon’s hearth offered a hospitality and warmth found in no other venue, not to mention the excellence of the performances themselves, hosted by a man whose gifts were truly legendary. Though always an enthusiastic and passionate performer, with sheer joy and gratitude, he effortlessly captivated his audience, young and old, with a rhythmic power all his own. During a career that spanned over five decades, Levon Helm nurtured a tradition of professionalism with a deep respect for his craft and remained refreshingly genuine in a world that often compromised integrity. He was a master storyteller who wove his tales with the magic thread of universality that ties us all. He beckoned us to come in, sit awhile and enjoy. We see ourselves in his stories and we are home.
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