Black Music Matters Festival

Levon Helm dies at 71

Thursday, April 19, 2012 – Levon Helm, 71, the drummer for The Band and later forging his own successful solo career, died today of cancer.

A statement from his family said several days ago that Helm was in the "final stages" of his illness.

His web site said, "Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul."

On May 26, 1940, Mark Lavon Helm was the second of four children born to Nell and Diamond Helm in Elaine, Ark. Diamond was a cotton farmer who entertained occasionally as a musician. The Helms loved music and often sang together. They listened to The Grand Ole Opry and Sonny Boy Williamson and his King Biscuit Entertainers regularly on the radio. A favorite family pastime was attending traveling music shows in the area. According to his 1993 autobiography, "This Wheel's On Fire," Helm recalled seeing his first live show, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, at six years old. His description: "This really tattooed my brain. I've never forgotten it."

Helm's father bought him his first guitar at age nine. When he was only about 10, Helm could be found at KFFA's broadcasting studio in Helena, Ark., watching Sonny Boy Williamson do his radio show, King Biscuit Time. Helm made his younger sister Linda a string bass out of a washtub when he was 12. She would play the bass while her brother slapped his thighs and played harmonica and guitar. They sang songs learned at home and popular hits of the day, and billed themselves as "Lavon and Linda." The pair consistently won talent contests along the Arkansas 4-H Club circuit.

In 1954, Levon was 14 when he saw Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins do a show at Helena. Also performing was a young Elvis Presley with Scotty Moore on guitar, and Bill Black on stand-up bass. They did not have a drummer. He also saw Presley the next year, but this time with D.J. Fontana on drums and Bill Black on playing electric bass.

Helm formed his own rock band as a high school junior, The Jungle Bush Beaters. After seeing Jerry Lee Lewis' drummer Jimmy Van Eaton, he seriously began thinking of playing the drums himself. Around this same time, Helm, 17, was invited by Conway Twitty to share the stage with Twitty and his Rock Housers. He had met Twitty when "Lavon and Linda" opened for him at a previous show.

Ronnie Hawkins came into Helm's life in 1957. A charismatic entertainer and front man, Hawkins was gathering musicians to tour Canada where the shows and money were steady. The Hawk needed a drummer. Fulfilling a promise to his parents to finish high school, Helm joined Hawkins and his "Hawks" on the road.

In 1959, 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.

Hawkins and Helm recruited four more talented Canadian musicians in the early '60s - Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson. Weary of Hawkins' strict regulations, the five decided to break from Hawkins. They called themselves "Levon and the Hawks."

About 1965, Bob Dylan decided to go electric and wanted Levon and The Hawks to help. They toured with Dylan, but unfortunately Dylan's die-hard folk fans resisted. Helm left the group temporarily and headed to Arkansas. Dylan and the rest of the band took up residence in Woodstock, N.Y. They rented a large, pink house where they wrote and rehearsed new material. Danko called for Helm to join them when Capitol Records gave them a recording contract.

Woodstock residents called them "the band," so they kept the moniker. The name "The Band" fit. The sound was no frills rock and roll but far from simplistic. They fused every musical influence they were exposed to over the years as individuals and as a unit.

Their first album, "Music from Big Pink," released in July 1968, made them household names and as a result they were invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in autumn of 1969. The self-titled disc, "The Band," followed, bringing further acclaim. They made seven albums total, including one live recording in 1972, "Rock of Ages." Hits included The Weight, Opheila and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

Helm and his wife, Sandra, whom he married in 1981, moved to Woodstock. The barn and studio Helm built in Woodstock, which became his permanent home, also served as a recording studio. He invited Muddy Waters to his new studio, and they recorded Muddy Waters, winning a Grammy.

The Band held a farewell concert - The Last Waltz - at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976. Hawkins, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and an all-star guest list of peers and friends played as well. The concert became a movie and album.

Helm his debut album "The RCO All-Stars," in 1977. His next effort was the self-titled "Levon Helm," followed by "American Son," released in 1980. That same year was pivotal as Helm turned his attention to acting. He played Loretta Lynn's father in "Coal Miner's Daughter," winning positive reviews for his first film appearance. Three years later, he had a role in "The Right Stuff." He continued doing movies, playing a destitute blind man in the 2005 Tommy Lee Jones' vehicle, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." In 2007 he filmed "Shooter" with Mark Wahlberg. Helm recently portrayed Confederate General John Bell Hood in a movie called "In the Electric Mist," with Jones.

Danko and Levon reunited to play music after Danko had been living in California. Danko moved back to Woodstock and the friends did an acoustic tour in early 1983. In San Jose, Cal. the following year, they received excellent reviews when Hudson and Manuel joined them for their first U.S. appearance as The Band since 1976. They continued playing together until Manuel died at 42, a suicide.

During the 1990s, 3 more Band albums were recorded: "Jericho," "High on the Hog," and "Jubilation."

In 1998, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer and the voice was silenced to a whisper. He still played the drums, mandolin and harmonica, often performing with his daughter, Amy Helm, also a vocalist and instrumentalist. In 1999, Helm endured another tragic loss when Rick Danko passed away 19 days before his 56th birthday.

Helm's voice eventually returned to the point where he took lead vocals. He started The Midnight Ramble Sessions, a series of live performances at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock. Named for the traveling minstrel shows of his youth, the first Midnight Ramble was held in January, 2004. It featured one of the last performances by great blues pianist, Johnnie Johnson. Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, John Sebastian, Allan Toussaint, Elvis Costello, Phil Lesh, Jimmy Vivino, Hubert Sumlin, Little Sammy Davis, Billy Bob Thornton and The Boxmasters, The Muddy Waters Band, The Swell Season, Donald Fagen, Steve Jordon, Hot Tuna, Kris Kristofferson, The Black Crowes, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Norah Jones, The Bacon Brothers, Robbie Dupree, My Morning Jacket, Shemekia Copeland, The Wood Brothers, Steve Earle, Jackie Greene, Sam Bush, Brewer & Shipley, Carolyn Wonderland and Ollabelle all participated.

Helm gained more prominence again with his own recordings. In September 2007, Vanguard Records released "Dirt Farmer," Helm's first solo, studio album in 25 years. The disc won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2008. The next year, he put out "Electric Dirt," which took home a Grammy for Best Americana Album in 2010.

In September 2008, Helm took The Midnight Ramble on the road to Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Buddy Miller, John Hiatt, Sheryl Crow, George Receli, Sam Bush and Billy Bob Thornton helped The Levon Helm Band create an evening of unforgettable musical joy. "Ramble at the Ryman - Live" CD and DVD, (sold individually), won him his third consecutive Grammy, again as Best Album in the Americana category in February.

With his rebirth, he had a heavy touring schedule with his daughter, Amy, and a crew including Larry Campbell on lead guitar. Helm still took over the drums, but he sang less and less.

Earlier this year, Helm took ill again.

More news for Levon Helm

CD reviews for Levon Helm

Ramble at the Ryman CD review - Ramble at the Ryman
Time can be a funny thing. Where the passage of decades has made Bob Dylan's voice nearly unintelligible, the years have sanded some of the grit off of Levon Helm's legendary pipes. Yes, we're aware Mr. Helm has had medical issues with his throat, and don't wish to make light of his situation, but those elements have rendered his voice more smooth and supple whereas the best known versions of his songs had a little more grit at their core. That doesn't mean you »»»
Electric Dirt CD review - Electric Dirt
Even when he was a young man, before the years and the ailments, Levon Helm's vocals sounded like they were from a bygone era. It was a voice to make you believe that medicine shows still traveled the earth. That wonderful, weathered instrument is the rustic heart of this new record, just as Helm's ageless drumming is its heartbeat. And despite a title that suggests a more modern program than 2007's "Dirt Farmer," the songs, like their vessel, are mostly from another time. »»»
Dirt Farmer CD review - Dirt Farmer
Levon Helm's music has always been firmly rooted in early American music well past the Carters and Stanleys. This embraces this heritage in its selections of traditional and contemporary Americana. As its title implies, "Dirt Farmer" is earthy with a raw and vital energy. It is Helm's valentine to life and the music that continues to sustain him. Helm explains in the liner notes his interest in revisiting some traditional songs he grew up playing, including "Little »»»