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Levon Helm

Levon Helm performing in 2004 on the Village Green in Woodstock, New York.
Background information
Birth name Mark Lavon Helm
Born May 26, 1940 (1940-05-26) (age 69)
Marvell, Arkansas
United States
Genres Rock and roll, rhythm and blues, rock, blues, country, folk
Occupations Musician, Songwriter, Actor, Producer
Instruments Vocals, drums, mandolin, guitar, bass, harmonica
Years active 1957-present
Labels Capitol, Mobile Fidelity, MCA, Breeze Hill, Levon
Associated acts The Band, Levon Helm's Ramble on the Road, Levon Helm and The RCO All-
Website www.levonhelm.com

Mark Lavon Helm (born May 26, 1940), best known as Levon Helm, is an American rock multi-instrumentalist and actor who achieved fame as the drummer and frequently lead and backing vocalist for the R&B/rock group The Band. Helm is known for his deeply soulful, country-accented voice, and creative drumming style highlighted on many of the 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.[1] 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.[2]

Contents

Early years

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 right then to become a musician.

Arkansas in the 1940s and 50's 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 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 blues 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 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, 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, he was invited to join 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 where, in 1959, they signed with Roulette Records and released several singles, including a few hits.

Formation of The Band

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 where they found regular summer club gigs on the New Jersey shore.

Helm with The Band, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium 1976 Photo: David Gans

By the mid 1960s, 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 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 as Dylan's backing band, they followed Dylan to reside in the area in and around Woodstock, New York and remained under salary to him. There they recorded a large volume of demo and practice tapes, playing almost daily with Dylan, who had completely withdrawn from public life the previous year. These recordings were widely bootlegged, and the best tracks were officially released only in 1975 as The Basement Tapes double album. The songs and themes developed during this period played a crucial role in the group's future direction and style. The Hawks members 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 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 had contracted their services to Capitol Records. The arrangement allowed The Band to release work on other labels only if the work was done with Dylan. This later allowed The Band to play on Dylan's Planet Waves album and on The Last Waltz, both non-Capitol releases. They recorded the 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 outstanding exception of "The Weight," but 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 growling but eerily plaintive vocals (alone or in harmony with Danko), both enriched by and anchored in lush Southern texture. Singing lead, Helm brought out common elements in folk and blues vocal styles, often assuming the character of a kind of mythical Southern everyman, who witnesses bewildering events and reacts to them with wonder and rage. 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. The entire group was multi-instrumental, and for certain songs the group 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). [3]

Helm remained with The Band until their 1976 farewell performance, The Last Waltz, which was recorded in a documentary film by Martin Scorsese. Although many now 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 – he repudiated his involvement with the film shortly after the final scenes were shot and, in his autobiography, offers scathing criticisms of the film and of his former bandmate, Robertson, who produced it.[4]

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As solo artist, The Band reunited

With the breakup of The Band in its original form, Helm began working on a solo album Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars, which was followed soon thereafter by Levon Helm. He recorded solo albums in 1980 and 1982 entitled American Son and (once again) Levon Helm. Helm also participated in 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. But then Manuel committed suicide while on tour in 1986. 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 Rick Danko toured with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. Other musicians in the band included Joe Walsh, Dr. John, Nils Lofgren, Billy Preston, Clarence Clemons and Jim Keltner. Garth Hudson guested on accordion on certain dates. Levon played drums, harmonica and sang "The Weight" and "Up On Cripple Creek" each night.

Helm published an autobiography entitled This Wheel's on Fire in 1993.

Acting

Helm has also had a considerable career as an actor. He has appeared in the movies The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Shooter, Smooth Talk, The Right Stuff, The Dollmaker, Feeling Minnesota, End of the Line, Coal Miner's Daughter and In the Electric Mist, among many others.

The Midnight Ramble

Helm's performance career in the 2000s has 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, have allowed Helm to raise money for medical bills and to resume performing after a nearly career-ending bout with cancer.

Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s after suffering hoarseness. Advised to undergo laryngectomy, Helm instead underwent an arduous regimen of radiation treatments at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Although the tumor was successfully removed, his 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 and on January 10, 2004, he sang for the first time at one of his Ramble Sessions. In 2007, during production of Dirt Farmer, he estimated that his singing voice was 80% recovered.

The Levon Helm Band features his daughter Amy Helm, along with Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Jimmy Vivino, Mike Merritt, Brian Mitchell, Erik Lawrence, Steven Bernstein and blues harmonica player Little Sammy Davis. He hosts Midnight Rambles at his home in Woodstock, New York that are open to the public.

The Midnight Ramble is 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", 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. Others have been Sean Costello, The Muddy Waters Tribute Band, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Justin Townes Earle, Bow Thayer, Luther Johnson (Guitar Junior), Ricki Lee Jones, Kate Taylor, Ollabelle, The Holmes Brothers, Catherine Russell, Norah Jones, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Johnny Johnson and David Bromberg.

For drumming, Levon Helm has switched to the matched grip in recent years and adopted less-busy, much simplified style of drumming as opposed to his years with The Band, when he played with the traditional grip. [5]

Helm has been touring every year for the last few years, generally on the northeasterly part of the American mainland, traveling to shows by private bus. Since 2007, Helm has performed in larger venues including at 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. The Alexis P. Suter Band has been an opening act. Helm is a favorite of Don Imus and has been 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 the works.

Dirt Farmer and After

Fall 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—Levon's birth name is Mark Lavon Helm and he was called by "Lavon" (luh VAHN)[6] until other members of Ronnie Hawkins' band started calling him "Levon" (LEE vahn) because they found "Lavon" hard to pronounce.[7][8][9]

In 2008 Levon Helm performed at Warren Haynes' Mountain Jam Music Festival in Hunter, NY. Helm played alongside Warren Haynes on the last day of the three-day festival. Levon also joined Bob Weir & Ratdog on stage as they closed out the festival.

Levon Helm performed to great acclaim at the 2008 Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, held June 12-15.[10][11]

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 Electric Dirt on his own label on June 30, 2009.[12] The album won a best album Grammy for the newly created American category in 2010.

He performed on the Dave Letterman show on July 9, 2009.

He toured, in a supporting role, with the Black Crowes in 2009

Tributes

"Levon", a song recorded by Elton John with music written by him and lyrics written by Bernie Taupin. It is from John's fourth album Madman Across The Water and was recorded on February 27, 1971. "The Band" was John's and Taupin's favorite group in those days.[citation needed]

Marc Cohn wrote the song "Listening to Levon" in 2007.

Helm is being featured in a currently untitled documentary by North Carolina film director Jacob Hatley which includes footage of Billy Bob Thornton.[13]

"The Man Behind the Drums", written by Robert Earl Keen and Bill Whitbeck, appearing on Keen's 2009 album The Rose Hotel

Discography

With The Band

Selected solo and other efforts

  • 1977 Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars (ABC) U.S. #142[14]
  • 1978 Levon Helm (ABC)
  • 1980 American Son (MCA)
  • 1982 Levon Helm (Capitol)
  • 1999 The Ties That Bind (Raven Records)
  • 2000 Souvenir, Vol. 1 (Breeze Hill) – Levon Helm & The Crowmatix
  • 2005 Midnight Ramble Sessions Volume I
  • 2005 Midnight Ramble Sessions Volume II
  • 2006 Levon Helm & the RCO All Stars Live (Levon Helm Studios)
  • 2007 Dirt Farmer (Vanguard), U.S. #102[14]
  • 2009 Electric Dirt (Dirt Farmer Music), U.S. #36

References

External links

Awards
Preceded by
Emmylou Harris
AMA Lifetime Achievement Award for Performing
2003
Succeeded by
Chris Hillman
Preceded by
Patty Griffin
AMA Artist of the Year
2008
Succeeded by
Buddy Miller

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