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
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
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
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
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,
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
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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