By Allen Bacon, The Daily Bosco
I remember the very first time I really started paying attention to Levon Helm and The Band. It was the early 70's and my friend Russ Dobbie and I worked out of the Fullerton High School Library before and after school.
One of the fringe benefits of working in the Library was that we got first divs on the albums that would come in. There was this live recording of Bob Dylan and he was backed by The Band. My friend Russ says "You gotta check this out...this is great". I literally checked it out. It was a library after all.
And then I proceeded to wear the grooves off that album, wrecking it for anybody else that would try to check it out after me.
At the focal point was Levon Helm and I had rarely seen this. The guy was singing with this great twangy, smokey voice and playing drums keeping perfect beat.
The Band and Levon Helm became my favorite group and in my rock and roll fantasy concert in my dreams I am Levon Helm playing drums and singing "Ophelia", "Up On Cripple Creek" and "The Weight". Even though I don't even play drums very well...I'm a guitar player. But Levon Helms was doing it and well, that's pretty cool.
Ironically, I was watching recently a studio out take film from 1969 with Levon Helm singing and playing drums on "Up On Cripple Creek". And there it was, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. It seemed cool..but I guess that's what eventually did him in because he died of throat cancer yesterday. Even though with his hard livin', heavy drinkin', and basically being a rock n' roller Helm cheated death a lot before yesterday. And now he has gone on to Ramble in Heaven.
Mark Levon Helm was born in Marvell, and grew up in Turkey Scratch Arkansas in 1940, the son of Arkansas cotton farmers and that fact was an important part of his legacy as his parents encouraged all of their kids to play music.
A lot of the music from Helm and the Band came from those strong influences and that region of the United States. Young Levon began playing the guitar at the age of eight and also played drums during those years. He saw Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys at the age of six and decided then and there to become a musician.
Another early influence on Helm was the work of harmonica, guitarist and singer Sonny Boy Williamson II, who played blues and early R&B on the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena, MT and performed regularly in Helms home town of Marvell with blues guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood.
In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire - Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, Helm describes watching Williamson's drummer, James "Peck" Curtis, intently during a live performance in the early 1950s and later imitating his R&B drumming style.
Helm was also able to witness some of the earliest performances by Southern country music, blues and rockabilly artists such as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Bo Diddley and Ronnie Hawkins. At age 17, Helm began playing in clubs and bars around Helena, MT.
After graduating from high school, Helm was invited to join Ronnie Hawkins' band, "The Hawks", who were a popular bar and club act across the South and also in Canada, where rockabilly acts were very popular. Soon after Helm joined "The Hawks", they moved to Toronto, Canada, where, in 1959, they signed with Roulette Records and released several singles, including some hits.
In the early 1960s Helm and Ronnie Hawkins recruited an all-Canadian lineup of musicians: guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson- although all the musicians were multi-instrumentalists.
In 1963, the band parted ways with Hawkins and started touring under the name "Levon and The Hawks," and later as "The Canadian Squires" before finally changing back to "The Hawks." They recorded two singles, but remained mostly a popular touring bar band in Texas, Arkansas, Canada, and on the East Coast of the United States, where they found regular summer club gigs on the New Jersey shore.
It was hard to pigeon-hole Helm and the group into what kind of music the group that would later become simply known as The Band was doing. Some say it was Rock and roll. Others say R&B, or blues, or country, or folk. The Band melded all those elements together and came up with their own unique sound.
Even though he is most associated with playing drums and singing, Helm was an extremely versatile musician and could also play percussion, mandolin, guitar, bass, harmonica, and banjo.
Helms seemed to be out of the limelight of the public eye for years. But he came back with a vengeance creating some of his most memorable music moments in the past five years. His 2007 comeback album Dirt Farmer earned the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in February 2008, and in November of that year, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him in The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
In 2010, Electric Dirt, his 2009 follow-up to Dirt Farmer, won the first ever Grammy Award for Best Americana Album, an inaugural category in 2010.
In 2011, his live album Ramble at the Ryman was nominated for the Grammy in the same category and won.
Earlier this week, his wife and daughter announced on Helm's website that he was "in the final stages of his battle with cancer" and thanked fans while requesting prayers.