Levon Helm, who has died aged 71, was the percussionist with the 1960s group The Band, and drummed for Bob Dylan during the folk singer’s troubled transition to electrification; with his distinctive raw white Southern soul style, Helm also brought one of the great blue-collar voices of America to bear on many classic rock numbers.
20 Apr 2012
Regarded as one of rock’s greatest drumming polymaths — he also played mandolin, rhythm guitar and bass — Helm’s warm, dry “thuddy tom-tom” beat, underpinned The Band’s new, rootsy sound. With their stories of medicine shows and moonshine, many of his songs recalled his Deep South upbringing, notably The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up on Cripple Creek.
When Dylan decided to change his sound in the mid-1960s to “go electric”, it was to Helm and his group — then playing as Levon and The Hawks — that he turned for help. But during their first tour together, Dylan’s die-hard folk fans resisted. Slow-clapping, walkouts and constant booing so distressed Helm, surveying a scene that resembled a war-zone from “the best seat in the house” on his drummer’s stool, that this sheer level of nightly abuse caused him temporarily to drop out out in late 1965.
Meanwhile Dylan and the rest of the band came off the road, took up residence in Woodstock, New York, rented a large, pink house where they wrote and rehearsed new material, and renamed themselves The Band, the name by which they were known to the locals.
Helm rejoined them when Capitol Records awarded The Band a recording contract. Their first album, Music from Big Pink (1968) , made them household names and in the autumn of 1969 they appeared on television on the Ed Sullivan Show. Six further albums followed, including their masterpiece, called simply The Band, and one live recording in 1972, Rock of Ages.
Although The Band became closely identified with Dylan, they only backed him on one official studio album, Planet Waves (1974). The group’s blend of musical forms from gospel, mountain music, blues, R’n’B, rockabilly to contemporary rock came to define what is now called Americana.
Later in his career, Helm pursued a solo career, and three of his albums won Grammy award. Of the first, Dirt Farmer, one British critic remarked on “the thrill of his farm boy’s holler”, pointing out that Helm’s currency “isn’t perfection but raw, honest virility”.
Mark Lavon Helm was born on May 26 1940 in Elaine, Arkansas, the son of a cotton farmer and amateur musician. The family enjoyed listening to travelling music shows, and took the boy to see his first live show, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, when he was six. “This really tattooed my brain,” he recalled in his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire (1993). “I’ve never forgotten it.”
Levon’s father bought him his first guitar at the age of nine. When not 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 broadcast his radio show, King Biscuit Time.
With his younger sister Linda playing a string bass, Levon played harmonica and guitar in a double act called “Lavon and Linda”, which won many talent contests on the local club circuit.
After watching an undiscovered Elvis Presley perform, Levon formed his own high school rock band called The Jungle Bush Beaters. When he was 17 he was invited by Conway Twitty to share the stage with him and his Rock Housers. Helm had met Twitty when “Lavon and Linda” opened for him at an earlier show.
In 1957 he met Ronnie Hawkins, a charismatic Canadian rockabilly entertainer and front-man, who was looking for a drummer to tour Canada and recruited Helm. When Ronnie and 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.
Another four Canadian musicians, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson, joined in the early 1960s. When the five decided to break from Hawkins, they called themselves “Levon and the Hawks”.
After the Dylan debacle, Helm built a barn and studio at Woodstock, which became his permanent base. This became a regular rendezvous for rock royalty, with two of the Beatles, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, joining Helm and Dylan for turkey sandwiches and beer at Thanksgiving in November 1968. In his diary the Beatles roadie, Mal Evans, recorded them meeting with Helm, and noted that he also played “great guitar”.
The Band held a farewell concert in San Francisco in 1976, featuring guests including Ronnie Hawkins, Dr John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. The event, called The Last Waltz, was recorded as a triple album and filmed by Martin Scorsese.
Helm released his debut solo album, The RCO All-Stars, in 1977. He also embarked on a modest acting career, making his first film appearance playing Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), followed by a role in The Right Stuff (1983).
In 1998 Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer, but continued to play the drums, mandolin and harmonica, often performing with his daughter, Amy Helm, also a vocalist and instrumentalist.
In January 2004 he held the first of his Midnight Ramble Sessions, a series of live performances at his studio in Woodstock, named for the travelling minstrel shows of his youth.
He recorded two albums of The Midnight Ramble Sessions, followed in 2007 by Dirt Farmer, his first solo studio album for 25 years, featuring music from his childhood and songs handed down from his parents. “The dirt on which America was built is still running through this man’s fingers,” noted one British reviewer.
Dirt Farmer won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2008 and earned Helm a place in Rolling Stone’s The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2011 Sir Elton John and David Furnish named their son Zachary Levon in Helm’s honour.
Helm was also recognised by the Recording Academy with a lifetime achievement award as an original member of The Band and was named Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association.
In 2010 Helm’s album Electric Dirt won a second Grammy for Best Americana Album. In February this year, his live CD and DVD Ramble at the Ryman won him a third consecutive Grammy, also in the Americana best album category.
Levon Helm married Sandra Dodd in 1981. She and their daughter survive him.
Levon Helm, born May 26, 1940, died April 19 2012
Bob Dylan: April 19, 2012