The Modern Medley
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Mark Lavon Helm (May 26, 1940 - April 19, 2012)
Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm (May 26, 1940 – April 19, 2012) was an American rock multi-instrumentalist and actor who achieved fame as the drummer and frequent lead and backing vocalist for The Band.
Helm was known for his deeply soulful, country-accented voice, and creative drumming style highlighted on many of the Band's recordings, such as "The Weight", "Up on Cripple Creek", "Ophelia" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". 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 #91 in the list of 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.
On April 17, 2012, 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. Helm died on April 19, 2012, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Helm was born in Marvell, Arkansas, and grew up in Turkey Scratch, a hamlet west of Helena, Arkansas, the son of Nell and Diamond Helm, who were cotton farmers and also great lovers of music who encouraged their children to play and sing. Young Lavon (as he was christened) began playing the guitar at the age of eight and also played drums during his formative years. He saw "Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys" at the age of six and decided then to become a musician.
Arkansas in the 1940s and 50s was at the confluence of a variety of musical styles—blues, country and R&B—that later became known as rock and roll. Helm was influenced by all these styles listening to the Grand Ole Opry show on radio station WSM and R&B on radio station WLAC out of Nashville, Tennessee. He also saw traveling shows such as F.S. Walcott's Rabbit's Foot Minstrels that featured top African-American artists of the time.
Another early influence on Helm was the work of harmonica, guitarist and singer Sonny Boy Williamson II, who played blues and early rythm and blues on the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena and performed regularly in 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 this R&B drumming style. Helm established his first band, The Jungle Bush Beaters, while in high school.
Helm also witnessed some of the earliest performances by Southern country music, blues and rockabilly artists such as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Bo Diddley and a fellow Arkansan, Ronnie Hawkins. At age 17, Helm began playing in clubs and bars around Helena.
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 a few hits.
Helm reports in his biography, This Wheel's on Fire, that fellow "Hawks" band members had difficulty pronouncing "Lavon" correctly, and started calling him "Levon" (// LEE-von) because it was easier.
In the early 1960s Helm and 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.
By the mid 1960s, songwriter and musician Bob Dylan was interested in performing electric rock music and asked "The Hawks" to be his backing band. Disheartened by fans' negative response to Dylan's new sound, Helm returned to Arkansas for what turned out to be a two-year layoff, being replaced by drummer Mickey Jones. During this period, Helm ended up working on off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico until he was asked to rejoin the band.
After the "Hawks" toured Europe with Dylan, they followed him to live around Woodstock, New York, and remained under salary to him. The "Hawks" recorded a large volume of demo and practice tapes in Woodstock, playing almost daily with Dylan, who had completely withdrawn from public life the previous year. These recordings were widely bootlegged and were partially released officially in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. The songs and themes developed during this period played a crucial role in the group's future direction and style. The "Hawks" members also began writing their own songs. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel also shared writing credits with Dylan on a few songs. In 1967, Danko called Helm and invited him to return to the band in Woodstock.
Helm returned to the group, which by then was often referred to simply as "the band." While contemplating a recording contract, Helm had dubbed the band as "The Crackers." However, when Robertson and their new manager Albert Grossman worked out the contracts, the group's name was cited as "The Band." Under these contracts, "The Band" was contracted to Grossman, who in turn contracted their services to Capitol Records. This arrangement allowed "The Band" to release recordings on other labels if the work was done in support of Dylan. This allowed The Band to play on Dylan's Planet Waves album and on The Last Waltz, both non-Capitol releases. "The Band" also recorded their own album Music From Big Pink, which catapulted them into stardom.
On Big Pink, Manuel was the most prominent vocalist and Helm sang mainly backup, with the exception of "The Weight." However, as Manuel's health deteriorated and Robbie Robertson's songwriting increasingly looked south for influence and direction, subsequent albums relied more and more on Helm's vocals, alone or in harmony with Danko. Helm played drums for perhaps 85% of The Band's songs, including most of those for which he sang lead. On the others, Manuel switched to drums while Helm played mandolin or, on rare occasion, guitar or bass guitar. The entire group was multi-instrumental and certain songs featured Manuel on drums, Helm on mandolin (as on "Evangeline"), rhythm guitar (the 12-string guitar backdrop to "Daniel and the Sacred Harp" is by Helm), or bass (while Danko played fiddle).
Helm remained with "The Band" until their 1976 farewell performance, The Last Waltz, which was recorded in a documentary film by director Martin Scorsese. Many music enthusiasts know Helm through his appearance in the concert film, a performance remarkable for the fact that Helm's vocal tracks appear substantially as he sang them during a grueling concert. However, Helm repudiated his involvement with The Last Waltz shortly after the final scenes were shot and. In his autobiography, Helm offers scathing criticisms of the film and of Robertson, who produced it.
With the breakup of "The Band" in its original form, Helm began working on a solo album Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars, followed by Levon Helm. Helm recorded solo albums in 1980 and 1982 entitled American Son and (once again) Levon Helm. Helm also participated in musician Paul Kennerley's 1980 country music concept album, The Legend of Jesse James, singing the role of Jesse James alongside Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Albert Lee.
In 1983, "The Band" reunited without Robbie Robertson, with Jim Weider on guitar. In 1986, while on tour, Manuel committed suicide. Helm, Danko and Hudson continued in "The Band", releasing the album Jericho in 1993 and High on the Hog in 1996. The final album from The Band was the 30th anniversary album, Jubilation, released in 1998.
In 1989, Helm and Danko toured with drummer Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. Other musicians in the band included singer/guitarist Joe Walsh, singer/pianist Dr. John, guitarist Nils Lofgren, singer Billy Preston, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and drummer Jim Keltner. Garth Hudson was a guest on accordion on certain dates. Levon played drums and harmonica, and sang "The Weight" and "Up On Cripple Creek" each night.
Helm performed with Danko and Hudson as "The Band" in 1990 at Roger Waters' epic The Wall – Live in Berlin Concert in Germany to an estimated 300,000 to half a million people.
In 1993, Helm published an autobiography entitled This Wheel's on Fire – Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.
Helm's performance career in the 2000s revolved mainly around the Midnight Ramble at his home and studio, "the Barn," in Woodstock, New York. These concerts, featuring Helm and a variety of musical guests, allowed Helm to raise money for his medical bills and to resume performing after a nearly career-ending bout with cancer.
In the late 1990s, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer suffering hoarseness. Advised to undergo a laryngectomy, Helm instead underwent an arduous regimen of radiation treatments at Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Although the tumor was then successfully removed, Helm's vocal cords were damaged, and his clear, powerful tenor voice was replaced by a quiet rasp. Initially Helm only played drums and relied on guest vocalists at the Rambles, but Helm's singing voice grew stronger. On January 10, 2004, he sang again of his Ramble Sessions. In 2007, during production of Dirt Farmer, Helm estimated that his singing voice was 80% recovered.
The "Levon Helm Band" featured his daughter guitarist Amy Helm, along with Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Jim Weider (the Band's last guitarist), Jimmy Vivino, Mike Merritt, Brian Mitchell, Erik Lawrence, Steven Bernstein, Howard Johnson (tuba player in the horn section who played on "The Band"'s "Rock of Ages" and "The Last Waltz" live albums), Byron Isaacs, and blues harmonica player Little Sammy Davis. Helm hosted Midnight Rambles at his home in Woodstock that were open to the public.
The Midnight Ramble was an outgrowth of an idea Helm explained to Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz. Earlier in the 20th century, Helm explained, traveling medicine shows and music shows such as F.S. Walcott Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, featuring African-American blues singers and dancers, would put on titillating performances in rural areas. This was also turned into a song by the Band, "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show," with the name altered so the lyric was easier to sing.
"After the finale, they'd have the midnight ramble," Helm told Scorsese. With young children off the premises, the show resumed: "The songs would get a little bit juicier. The jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times. A lot of the rock and roll duck walks and moves came from that."
Artists who have performed at the Rambles include Helm's former bandmate Garth Hudson, as well as Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Chris Robinson, Allen Toussaint, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and Jimmy Vivino of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien's" The Max Weinberg 7. Other performers have included Sean Costello, The Muddy Waters Tribute Band, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Carolyn Wonderland, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Justin Townes Earle, Bow Thayer, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Taylor, Ollabelle, The Holmes Brothers, Catherine Russell, Norah Jones, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Phil Lesh (along with his sons Grahame and Brian), Hot Tuna (although Jorma Kaukonen introduced the group as "The Secret Squirrels"), Michael Angelo D'Arrigo with various members of the Sistine Chapel, Johnny Johnson, Ithalia, David Bromberg, and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
As for his drumming, in recent years Helm switched to the matched grip and adopted a less busy, greatly simplified style, as opposed to his years with "The Band" when he played with the traditional grip.
Helm was busy touring every year during 2000s, generally traveling by tour bus to venues in Eastern Canada and the Eastern United States. Since 2007, Helm had performed in large venues such the Beacon Theater in New York. Dr. John and Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers Band, Govt. Mule) and Garth Hudson played at the concerts as well along with several other guests. At a show in Vancouver, Canada, Elvis Costello joined to sing "Tears of Rage." The "Alexis P. Suter Band" was a frequent opening act. Helm was a favorite of radio personality Don Imus and was frequently featured on Imus in the Morning. In the Summer of 2009, it was reported that a reality television series centering around the Midnight Ramble was in development.
The Fall of 2007 saw the release of Dirt Farmer, Helm's first studio solo album since 1982. Dedicated to Helm's parents and co-produced by his daughter Amy, the album combines traditional tunes Levon recalled from his youth with newer songs (by Steve Earle, Paul Kennerley and others) which flow from similar historical streams. The album was released to almost immediate critical acclaim, and earned him a Grammy Award in the Traditional Folk Album category for 2007.
Helm declined to attend the Grammy Awards ceremony, instead holding a "Midnight Gramble" and celebrating the birth of his grandson, named Lavon (Lee) Henry Collins.
In 2008, Helm performed at Warren Haynes' Mountain Jam Music Festival in Hunter, New York. Helm played alongside Warren Haynes on the last day of the three-day festival. Levon also joined guitarist Bob Weir and his band Ratdog on stage as they closed out the festival. Helm performed to great acclaim at the 2008 Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.
Helm drummed on a couple of tracks for Jorma Kaukonen's February, 2009 album River of Time, recorded at the Levon Helm studio.
Helm released the album Electric Dirt on his own label on June 30, 2009. The album won a best album Grammy for the newly created Americana category in 2010. Helm performed on the CBS Television program David Letterman Show on July 9, 2009. He also toured that same year in a supporting role with the band Black Crowes.
In March, 2010, a documentary on Helm's day-to-day life titled Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm was released. Directed by Jacob Hatley, it made its debut at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, and went on to screen at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2009.
On May 11, 2011, Helm released Ramble at the Ryman, a live album recorded during his September 17, 2008 performance at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. The album features Helm's band playing six songs by "The Band" and other cover material, including some songs from previous Helm solo releases. The album won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album.
In 2012, during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies in New York City, Robbie Robertson sent “love and prayers” to Helm, fueling weeks of speculation on Helm's health. Helm had previously cancelled several performances due to an alleged slipped disk in his back.
On April 17, 2012, Helm's wife Sandy and daughter Amy revealed that Helm had end-stage cancer. They posted the following message on Helm's website:
- "Dear Friends,
- Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.
- Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration... 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...
- We appreciate all the love and support and concern.
- From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy"
Helm died on April 19, 2012, at 1:30 pm at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York A few days before his death, Robertson had a long visit with him at the hospital.
In addition to his work as musician, Helm also acted in several dramatic films after the breakup of The Band. His first acting role was the 1980 film Coal Miner's Daughter in which he portrayed Loretta Lynn's father.