Thursday, July 16, 2009


photo by Jaime Martorano

Levon Helm is still alive and kicking out great music. After a bout with throat cancer in the late 90s, his soulful voice was reduced to a whisper. But he fought his way back and fully recovered. In the past couple years he released two great albums, "Dirt Farmer" and the recent release, "Electric Dirt." His music boils over from the melting pot of the Mississippi Delta and Deep South, and Levon serves up a spicy stew of blues, country, jazz and rock and roll.

He was born in Elaine, Arkansas in 1940 to Nell and Diamond Helm, a cotton farmer. The Helm family played music for entertainment, and they listened to The Grand Ole Opry and Sonny Boy Williamson and His King Biscuit Entertainers regularly on the radio.

Levon, in 1959

Levon was fourteen when he saw Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins do a show at Helena in 1954. Also performing was a young Elvis Presley with Scotty Moore on guitar, and Bill Black on stand-up bass. No drummer. The music was early rockabilly and the audience went wild. Levon saw Elvis again a year later--this time D.J. Fontana was on drums and Bill Black was playing electric bass. Levon couldn't believe the difference, how the added instruments filled out the sound. It was the greatest thing he had ever seen. As a junior in High school he formed a rock and roll band, "The Jungle Bush Beaters." In 1957 he met Ronnie Hawkins, a show biz entertainer with an eye for talent, and formed "The Hawks." They recruited four more musicians, all Canadians, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson--all of whom would later form "The Band."

Levon and the Hawks, New York, 1964.
From left. Jerry Penfound, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson.

Bob Dylan was enjoying an unparalleled creative surge that produced Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in just eighteen months. He needed a back-up band, and he hired The Hawks, who accompanied him on a world tour--Levon left after the first leg in 1965.

After the tour, licking wounds and recovering, Dylan and the band retired to Big Pink, a big pink house in Woodstock, New York, and recorded in the basement. "The Basement Tapes" were nearly mythical, and bootlegs of the unreleased recordings soon circulated among diehard fans, including what may have well been the very first bootleg, "Great White Wonder."

The backing band--now rechristened "The Band"--soon released an excellent album called Music from Big Pink, which featured some of this new music they were playing in the basement, and an original painting by Dylan on the cover.

The album was released when most rock was heavily psychedelic, but this was very different and old-timey, echoing the American past with voices and instruments mixing folk, blues, gospel, R&B, classical, and rock & roll. The record included such soon-to-be classics as "Chest Fever" and "The Weight," and a number of Dylan compositions "I Shall Be Released," "Tears of Rage," and "This Wheel's on Fire."

The next album was a masterpiece. Released in 1969, the eponymously titled The Band, showcased Robbie Robertson's songwriting skills, which had improved since the first album. The band was even more focused and cohesive. "Up on Cripple Creek" was released as a single (and became the Band's first and only Top 30 release) and other favorites were "Rag Mama Rag," "King Harvest," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The world stopped and listened.

The Band made seven albums total,
and influenced a wide range of musicians, encouraging people to get back to roots, and inspired the and Americana movements of today.

After the Band broke up, Levon continued playing music. He released The RCO All Stars in 1977, and reunited with good friend and former Band-member Rick Danko to make music. They eventually reformed the Band with some former members, and played until Richard Manuel's tragic death in 1986. Sadly, Danko himself died in 1999, a day after his 54th birthday.

Levon played on, and even acted in movies--He portrayed Loretta
Lynn's father in the Coal Miner's Daughter. He was in The Right Stuff, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

More recently, Levon 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. Since then, people have scrambled to the ramble to hear Levon tell his great stories and perform with a wide variety of musicians in an informal setting.

We're happy Levon Helm is still making such great music
and recommend you buy his latest album, Electric Dirt.


Anonymous said...

great post...saw the Band many times

Bob Rini said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I also saw The Band--the first time was 1974 when I saw them with Bob Dylan on his famous comeback tour. They were fantastic and it remains one of the greatest concerts I've seen. I saw a later incarnation, without Robbie Robertson, that was still pretty wonderful but it wasn't The Band.