Levon Helm: 1940-2012
Article by: Quinn Erwin | Photo Credits: Doug Mason (main), Joo Chung (art), John Storey (b&w), Craig Ruttle | Posted: 04/24/2012
American rock multi-instrumentalist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Levon Helm, gracefully passed away last Thursday after a long, hard-fought battle with throat cancer. It can be said though that he went out swinging, managing to play music to the very end while continuing to bring his fans close and his friends closer, even at the age of 71.
In the end, Helm was a much bigger force in music than his voice, and even though he is best known for sharing lead vocals in The Band, he was an icon and a living legend of music history. There are few men who can say that they started playing drums after watching a young Elvis Presley in concert, or got booed off of a stage with Bob Dylan as he tried to turn his sound electric, but this farm boy from Arkansas did both. Helm was right in the thick of the birth of rock ‘n roll and made sure to leave his mark on it before he left it to all of us.
Helm cut his teeth playing his first gigs with Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and his back up band, The Hawks, for a mere $15 a show. He toured relentlessly for many years while learning the ropes of the road and honing his chops. Hawkins came to rely on Helm, even making him band manager and giving him the opportunity to sing a couple tunes during the show. At the time, this was unheard of for a drummer to play and sing lead vocals, but Helm managed it with finesse. He was eventually joined by future members of The Band, forging the tight bonds of friendship that would create the synergy we all know and love. Few bands have managed to capture what these gentlemen would. Bob Dylan would be one of the most important men to notice it first, and he quickly recruited them when he made a game-changing decision to put his acoustic guitar down and pick up a Fender Strat.
After backing up Dylan on and off for many years, Helm and his bandmates eventually struck out on their own and dubbed their new venture simply “The Band.” Over time, Helm found himself singing more and more lead vocals and playing a host of other instruments, including guitar and mandolin to name a few. It was his lead vocal performance on “The Weight,” however, that put him on the map.
Years of touring proved to wear down the members of The Band, and they eventually parted ways in their original form. Helm would focus on a solo career in many different forms from that point on, but still continued playing the drums.
Helm’s unique drumming style was a combination of subtlety and force. He had the ability to create a landscape or picture with every stroke on the skins. Always known for trying to create community while doing what he loved best, Helm in his last days managed to pull together some of the greatest musicians to play intimate “barn shows” in Woodstock, NY, and Midnight Rambles that will remain unforgettable for those who were able to attend. It seems that even after his diagnosis in 1996, his disposition to live and to live well was that much more profound. He even appeared in a few movies while he was at it. Helm once said, “If it doesn’t come from your heart, music just doesn’t work.” We’re fortunate that Helm had plenty of heart, even until the end.
The Band - "The Weight, Live at Woodstock, 1969"