Playing Their Parts
Called by Helm “a really smart and really funny and just awesome person,” Kaufman (who contributes multiple instruments and harmony vocals) was responsible for bringing in studio musicians such as Phil Cook (keys, harmonica), Michael Libramento (bass, organ, percussion), Daniel Littleton (electric guitar), Stuart Bogie (saxophone) and Jordan McLean (trumpet).
Drummer Tony Mason was requested by Helm since they previously worked together on tour. “He’s my favorite drummer of all time,” Helm proclaims until she’s teasingly asked if that means Mason outranks a certain family member. “Wel-l-l-l, no, I mean, it’s my dad!” she hastens to add. “Can’t compare. But definitely one of my favorite players I’ve ever gotten to work with. … Tony, I just knew that he needed to be part of this … album, and Josh was game to try it. Luckily … they got along great and the whole thing really worked out well.”
Helm did bring a real newcomer into Levon Helm Studios — her oldest son Lee (a variation of his birth name Lavon) Collins, who’s now 13. Playing congas and tambourine on the album, Lee has definitely been bitten by the music bug, claims Helm. Her other son with since-divorced husband/musician Jay Collins is nine-year-old Hughie, named for late bluesman Hubert Sumlin, a longtime friend of the Helm family who was among Levon’s cherished guest artists at the Midnight Ramble.
She believes her two boys will continue to extend this musical dynasty in the making but are they curious about their grandfather — who died at age 71 on 19 April 2012, in New York City — and his accomplishments? “Yes, but also no because they’re nine and 13, and they’re interested in [online video game] Fortnite and girls,” Helm replies. “There’s all kinds of distractions … What I’m making for dinner. (laughs) What Drake’s new single is. Is the cute girl going to be at the party? We’re already there. … We’re in a whole new world.”
Still, there’s a strong belief in her children that must be another family tradition. If it’s wasn’t for Levon’s support and persistence, his daughter might be teaching full-time these days in the Big Apple, where she also once worked as a bartender and waitress after earning a psychology degree at the University of Wisconsin.
That sounds nothing like a bucolic life in Woodstock, where she was born on 3 December 1970. Her arrival came two years after the Band’s debut release, Music From Big Pink, following their musical association as the Hawks with Bob Dylan on his stomping grounds.
Living in a ‘Wild’ World
“I think I just always knew I could sing from a very young age, whether it was in my living room or in the car or school,” recalls Helm, who later attended Trinity School in Manhattan.
Asked about her stage debut with professional musicians, as a 6-year-old singing “Wild Thing” at the record release party for the 1977 album Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars, Helm enthusiastically responds, “Oh, yes! I forgot about that gig. That was my first gig, actually. Well, except for school concerts. … But I remember a lot about that. I remember playing ‘Wild Thing’ and finishing and getting a pretty good response from the crowd and deciding we should do it two or three more times. (laughs) … We played a long set, probably half an hour longer than most people wanted us to (laughs) but my dad didn’t give a shit, so that was fun.”
As a small child, though, Helm failed to recognize the powerful company her father kept as a trusty Band member, touring musician, and host at the Barn, which first opened for business in 1975.
“When you’re six and seven and eight … Muddy Waters could be sitting next to you and you wouldn’t … you just don’t register it,” she confesses.
About a week before her sixth birthday, Helm attended the famed Last Waltz show, held on 25 November 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. It symbolized the end of the line after 16 years of touring for one of the most heralded, influential acts in roots music history, despite the Band’s eventual fallout from a breakup that sealed their fate.
Her lasting memory of the Thanksgiving Day event that, under the direction of Martin Scorsese became what the New Yorker called “The Most Beautiful Rock Film Ever Made,” has nothing to do with any of these things:
- With a smile on his face, a twinkle in his eye, and a boisterous vocal delivery, Levon Helm commandingly belts out classics like “Up on Cripple Creek”, “Ophelia” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from “the best seat in the house”, which he always called his spot behind the drum kit;
- Robbie Robertson trades scorching licks with Eric Clapton on “Further on Up the Road”;
- and other legends such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Staple Singers and, yes, Muddy Waters, make dynamic guest appearances.
“I recall the backstage area where all the kids were put into this wild room filled with toys and snacks and babysitters,” Helm submits. “It felt like a big party, honestly.”
If Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and other celebrated musicians didn’t make an impression in person during her youth, at least there were “artists and their voices coming through the speaker of the car,” Helm recollects. “And that I remember hitting me like an earthquake.”
She also credits her mother, singer-songwriter Libby Titus, for “rounding out my musical education with her record collection, first and foremost.”
Titus, who lived with Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack after she and Levon ended their relationship in the ’70s, raised Amy, and introduced her through albums to “all of these incredible soul singers that I loved” from Aretha Franklin to artists on Memphis’ Stax label and other R&B performers. “That’s always the stuff I liked the most,” Helm asserts.
Amy’s mother, who married Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen in 1993, also helped her discover “real writers” that included Laura Nyro, Dolly Parton and Joni Mitchell. “You know, a lot of women that were really adept at writing and creating and arranging their stuff,” Helm explains. “And that was something to strive for. It was a different level of performance when you listen to that stuff and realize that they’ve done the arrangements of it.”
Meanwhile, Levon Helm moved on from the original Band and the Last Waltz. In his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire written with Stephen Davis, he called that momentous event “the biggest fuckin’ rip-off that ever happened” to the group, also alleging that Robertson took financial advantage of his ex-Bandmates.
That thought seemingly never crossed his mind during an interview for the film with Scorsese, who asked the affable drummer what he called the blend of country, blues and bluegrass that permeated his neck of the woods as an Arkansas farm boy.
His straightforward answer came with a wide grin: “Rock ’n’ roll.” And he was there for the birth of it.
Though the bitterness remained, Levon’s attention soon shifted to solo and collaborative projects and a few Band reunions (without Robertson). Along with a productive career as a natural-born actor (catch his buddy-buddy repartee with Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in 1983’s The Right Stuff), he became host/bandleader of his own Midnight Rambles (named after a traveling tent show Levon saw in his youth) that began in 2004.
The smiles from a man who appeared to be in a constant state of joy onstage also returned in the late ‘90s, when he talked 18-year-old Amy into joining him on the road as lead vocalist for his Barn Burners Blues Band.