Rock Legend Levon Helms Loses Battle with Cancerby J-Stacknik
Levon Helm, who was a multi-instrumentalist, lead/back-up vocalist and drummer for The Band, died on April 19, 2012 after battling cancer. He was 71. Helm was known for his deeply soulful, country-accented voice. That voice was featured on The Bands biggest songs: The Weight, Up on Cripple Creek, Ophelia, and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. His come back album Dirt Farmer earned the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2008 and in November of that same year Rolling Stone magazine ranked him #91 in the list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
Helm was born in Marvell, Arkansas to cotton farmers who were great lovers of music and encouraged their children to play and sing. Young Levon, saw Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys at the age of six and decided then to become a musician. He began playing guitar at the age of eight and playing drums a little later.
Helm was influenced by the three styles of music that were prevalent in the South then: blues, country and R&B and he learned how to play well in all three genres. He established his first band, The Jungle Bush Beaters, while in high school.
Helm also enjoyed going to performances from other Southern country music, blues and rockabilly artists like Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Bo Diddley and fellow Arkansan, Ronnie Hawkins.
At 17, he began playing clubs in Helena, Arkansas and after graduating from high school Helm was invited to play with Ronnie Hawkins’ band, The Hawks. They were a southern rockabilly band that was very popular in the South and in Canada. Soon after joining The Hawks they moved to Toronto, Canada and signed a record deal with Roulette Records where the group enjoyed moderate success with a few single releases and a few hits.
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. These four musicians, along with Levon, eventually parted ways with Hawkins and started touring under the name Levon and the Hawks, and later as The Canadian Squires before changing back to the The Hawks. They became a very popular touring bar band in Texas, Arkansas, Canada and the East Coast of the United States.
By the mid 1960s, Bob Dylan was looking to perform electric rock and asked The Hawks to be his backing band. Dylan received a lot of negativity around going electric and Helm was so disheartened by this that he returned to Arkansas for a two year hiatus from the music industry. During this time Helm worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico until he was convinced to rejoin the band.
After touring Europe with Dylan they settled with him in Woodstock, New York, where they jammed every day and these recordings were officially released as The Basement Tapes in 1975. It was through these jams and recordings with Dylan that The Hawks found their direction and style and they began writing their own songs. They became known as The Band and they recorded their own album Music From Big Pink which catapulted them into stardom.
Music From Big Pink featured Manuel on lead vocals except for the song The Weight, which featured Helms, and is easily one of their most recognizable songs. As Manuel’s health started deteriorating and more Southern influence was creeping into Robertson’s songwriting, later albums relied on Helm’s vocals, alone or in harmony with Danko. He played drums on 85% of The Band’s songs and for most of those songs he sang lead becoming one of a few bands that featured the drummer as lead.
Helm remained with The Band until their farewell performance, The Last Waltz, which was recorded as a documentary film by director Martin Scorsese.
His performances in the 2000s revolved mainly around the Midnight Ramble at his home and studio, “the Barn,” in Woodstock, New York. These concerts, featuring Helm and a variety of musical guests, allowed him to raise money for his medical bills while fighting throat cancer.
The Midnight Ramble was an outgrowth of an idea Levon explained to Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz. Earlier in the 20th century traveling medicine shows and music shows would put on titillating performances in rural areas.
“After the finale, they’d have the midnight ramble,” Helm told Scorsese. With young children off the premises, the show resumed: “The songs would get a little bit juicier. The jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times”.
Bandmate and friend Robbie Robertson wrote on his Facebook page, “Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.”
Levon’s family has asked fans to send prayers and love to Levon as he makes this part of his journey.