Levon Helm is most widely known for the songs he sang that found their way onto the pop charts during his long tenure as drummer and singer for the Band: “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Don’t Do It,” earthy and infectious conglomerations of gospel, country, blues, folk and rock music.
But the one that might crystallize his approach to music throughout his life was “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” an ode to the kind of freewheeling gatherings in which the musician, who died of cancer Thursday at 71 in New York, thoroughly reveled.
“When your arms are empty, got nowhere to go
“Come on out and catch the show
“There’ll be saints and sinners you’ll see losers and winners
“All kinds of people you might want to know”
That song appeared in 1970 on “Stage Fright,” the third album by the rock group that miraculously emerged out of the shadow of serving for several years as Bob Dylan’s backing band to achieve a reputation in its own right as one of the most esteemed groups in pop music history.
Helm’s wife, Sandy, and daughter, Amy, posted a note on his website Tuesday alerting fans and friends that he was in the final stages of cancer.
“Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration,” the note said. “He has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage.”
The Band’s former guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, in a statement issued Wednesday, said:
“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.”
Helm had been diagnosed in 1998 with throat cancer, which threatened to end his singing career. He declined to undergo a recommended laryngectomy, which he believed was certain to terminate his ability to sing, opting for radiation treatment instead, which left him nearly unable to speak, much less to sing.
Even before he regained the use of his voice, Helm started holding regular jam sessions he called Midnight Rambles at his home studio in Woodstock, N.Y., an outlet he said was crucial to keeping his outlook positive while rehabilitating his voice.
That effort was slow and arduous — it was more than two years before he could speak above a whisper. The medical bills also nearly caused him to lose his home. But thanks to the success of the Midnight Rambles series, eventually he clawed his way out of physical and financial debilitation to enjoy a latter-day career resurgence that yielded three Grammy Awards for his post-illness recordings “Dirt Farmer,” “Electric Dirt” and “Ramble at the Ryman.”
Mark Lavon Helm was born May 26, 1940, in Elaine, Ark., according to his official website, although some sources have listed the year of his birth as 1942 or 1943.
He was the second of four children of Nell and Diamond Helm. His father was a cotton farmer who also enjoyed playing music. At 6, he experienced his first live music event, a performance by bluegrass music patriarch Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. “This really tattooed my brain,” he recalled. “I’ve never forgotten it.”
Helm talked to the Los Angeles Times in 2008 of other early ways he was exposed to music: “I would go right into Chapel Silas’ grocery story and Mr. Silas had one of the best jukeboxes in Phillips County, and I would sit there and feed that jukebox and he would feed me, you know, bologna and cheese.”
A 1955 show by Elvis Presley, before he became a national sensation, impressed Helm with the contributions the drums added to his sound, in that he’d seen Presley the previous year before drummer D.J. Fontana was accompanying him. He was further enamored of the drums when he saw Jerry Lee Lewis’ band with drummer Jimmy Van Eaton.
Still a teenager, he joined the backup band for fellow Arkansas singer Ronnie Hawkins.
“It was five people that were put in that sink-or-swim place,” he said in 2002. “Thank God, we swam.”
Helm was the only American in the backup group, which included songwriter and guitarist Robertson, guitarist-keyboardist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. For a time after they broke with Hawkins they continued as Levon and the Hawks, acknowledging his role as the primary singer.
Bob Dylan heard and recruited the Hawks to be his band at a pivotal time in his explosive career as he broadened his sound from the traditional folk-rooted acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica sound of his earliest recordings to incorporate the visceral power of electric instrumentation that was at the heart of rock.
Dylan and the Hawks were booed by audiences in the U.S. and England when Dylan toured in the mid-1960s, folk purists arguing that he had betrayed his roots in the music of Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Pete Seeger and other folk artists.
But Dylan ultimately triumphed in electrifying his sound. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, he went into seclusion at an upstate New York house dubbed “Big Pink,” working with the members of the Hawks, recording dozens of songs in sessions that were widely bootlegged and only released years later as “The Basement Tapes.”
Some of those songs surfaced when that group launched its own career, for which the members adopted the name The Band in a nod to its star-free ethos.
At a time when rock was splintering in disparate directions — psychedelia, early heavy metal, folk-rock and pure pop — the Band took listeners back to the root strains that originally gave birth to rock. The timeless sound that resulted influenced hundreds of musicians who followed in its wake, and The Band almost single-handedly established the template for a genre that has come to be known as Americana music.
Rather than a lead singer surrounded by accompanists, The Band was an egalitarian collective in which each member’s contributions were indispensable. All five were multitalented musicians who shifted roles for different songs, and often within the same song, creating a fluid and democratic approach to music making that was The Band’s signature.
A perfect example is “The Weight,” one of the cornerstones of The Band’s repertoire. After an arcing opening solo acoustic guitar riff, Helm struck three chest-rattling drumbeats before establishing the rock-steady loping rhythm, then delivered the evocative first verse evoking the weariness of a generation battle-scarred both by the Vietnam War and the broad social and political unrest of the 1960s:
“I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ’bout half-past dead
“I just need a place where I can lay my head
“‘Hey mister, can you tell me, where a man might find a bed?’
“He just grinned and shook his head, ‘No,’ was all he said.”
Helm handed the fourth verse off to Danko, and in the chorus with Danko and Manuel created a multilayered tapestry of voices.
Helm’s was the dominant voice on that song and other signature works including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Ophelia,” “Don’t Do It” and “Daniel and the Sacred Harp.”
“The Band was an ensemble — it wasn’t a group of soloists — and they worked together so great,” said Lauren Onkey, vice president of education and public programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted the group in 1994. “But when I hear Levon’s voice, I hear it crying out over everybody else’s. He had the roots of all elements of American music. I don’t think any of them could have handled ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ the way Levon did.”
Grammy Museum executive director Robert Santelli, co-author with E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg of the 1991 book “The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock’s Great Drummers,” said, “Something I didn’t realize until I wrote the book with Max is the respect — not just as a singer, but as a drummer — that Levon Helm had in the music world. Max considers Levon Helm one of the greatest drummers in popular music history, as high as you would rank (Led Zeppelin’s) John Bonham or (Cream and Blind Faith’s) Ginger Baker, obviously for different reasons.
“My sense is that Levon Helm was the greatest white blues drummer of all time,” Santelli said. “He had an innate ability to create something that not only had great authenticity, but also was strikingly original in the way he played it.”
When Dylan emerged from his hiatus in 1974 with a new album, “Planet Waves,” and a tour, once again he called on The Band. Among the highlights of their tour together were his thunderous recasting of his 1966 song “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” and the massive, newly muscular arrangement of “All Along the Watchtower,” both propelled by Helm’s explosive drumming.
But after having toured incessantly for 20 years, The Band called it quits in 1976 with perhaps the most famous sendoff concert ever, an all-star affair that director Martin Scorsese documented in the concert film “The Last Waltz.” Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond and numerous others played at the concert in San Francisco that brought The Band’s career to a close.
For Helm, “The Last Waltz” was the last straw. He pursued a solo career with a string of albums for which he again employed the communal approach. Gathering associates for a group he branded “The RCO All-Stars,” he worked with soul, R&B and blues musicians Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, and Booker T. Jones and two members of his group the MG’s, Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn. In the late-1980s, he was invited by fellow drummer Ringo Starr to join the ex-Beatle’s first “All-Starr Band” tour featuring numerous players with stellar pedigrees.
He established a second profession as an actor, starting with his role as country singer Loretta Lynn’s father in the 1980 Oscar-winning biopic “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and put his Arkansas drawl to work as narrator of the 1983 film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book about the U.S. space program, “The Right Stuff.”
Minus Robertson, the remaining members of The Band reconvened in 1983 and began touring, but three years into their career revival, Manuel hanged himself after a club performance. Helm, Danko and Hudson continued and recorded three new studio albums — “Jericho,” in 1993, “High on the Hog” in 1995 and “Jubilation” in 1998. In 1999, Danko died of a drug-related heart attack.
And there were other problems along the way. In his 1993 autobiography “This Wheel’s on Fire,” Helm charged that Robertson unfairly claimed sole songwriting credits, and therefore publishing revenues, on songs he said were often the result of collaboration among several or all of The Band’s members.
“Those songs weren’t written,” he told an interviewer in 2002. “They were planted, cultivated and grown over a period of time.”
He also bristled in the book at how he felt that Scorsese’s film painted Robertson as the star and put the others in subordinate roles. Consequently, Helm refused to attend when The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In an interview last year with the Times, Robertson expressed his admiration for his former Band mates.
“I feel so lucky to have been in a group where it was a real band,” he said. “This wasn’t a singer and guitar player and some other guys. … Everybody in that group played such a pivotal part in it. … It made me feel excited about coming up with ideas and ways to structure songs, and that we could do this almost like a theater group: ‘You sing those lines, and then you come in after that thing, and you come in on the chorus there.’ It was a position I could take in this thing and not feel like, ‘No, no, I need to be singing that part.’ I could really stand back and look at it through more of a director’s lens, or some position other than trying to be the center of everything all the time.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Helm is survived by two grandchildren.