photo taken from www.drummerworld.com; no photographer credited there
Others have written eloquently and with evident sincerity about what a loss Levon Helm's death represents, and how his voice both personified and defined Americana. I echo those feelings and observations, and can only republish here the entry on the man inside my Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. I haven't updated it to make it a posthumous account (and the names in capital letters just indicate that there are entries in the book on them too). If it contributes anything extra in present circumstances, perhaps it's in the amount of detail it logs about Levon Helm's career and its focus on how much he also added to Bob Dylan's:
Helm, Levon [1940 - ]
Mark Lavon Helm was born on May 26, 1940 in the tiny town of Marvell, Arkansas, 20 miles west of the Mississippi River and 75 miles southwest of Memphis. He learnt to play guitar as a child but switched to drums after being taken to see that time-warp outfit, the F.S. Walcott Rabbits Foot Minstrel Show (slightly rechristened the ‘W.S. Walcott Medicine Show’ on a song written by Canadian BAND member ROBBIE ROBERTSON on the group’s third album, Stage Fright).
Levon Helm was well placed to absorb country and blues music, R&B and early rock’n’roll, and after gigging locally with his sister on washtub he formed a high-school group, the Jungle Bush Beaters. Moving to Memphis he managed to sit in with CONWAY TWITTY and then got ‘discovered’ by RONNIE HAWKINS (another Arkansas good ole boy).
Helm joined The Hawks and they moved up into Canada, making Toronto their base. In 1959, signed to Roulette, Hawkins & the Hawks had two immediate hits with the derivative ‘Forty Days’ and its follow-up, ‘Mary Lou’. From there the other members of what would eventually become The Band were brought into the group - Robbie Robertson (then known as Jaime) as guitarist, RICHARD MANUEL as pianist, RICK DANKO as bass-player and GARTH HUDSON on organ.
Quitting Hawkins eventually (each side has its own version of how this came to pass) the group went out as Levon & The Hawks, then briefly as the Canadian Squires, and then as Levon & The Hawks again.
They met up with Bob Dylan in 1965 and Levon was the drummer on the early electric gigs that followed the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL electric début - starting at Forest Hills, New York that August 28. The rest of Dylan’s band at this point were Robbie Robertson on guitar, AL KOOPER on organ and Harvey Brooks (aka HARVEY GOLDSTEIN) on bass. This unit lasted only a short time, and after a Hollywood Bowl concert on September 3, Dylan got together with Helm, Robertson, Danko, Hudson and Manuel to rehearse in Woodstock, New York, for further live gigs.
On October 5 they went into the studio with Dylan for the first time, followed by more live concerts and a second studio stint on November 30 (from which comes the single ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’) - but Levon wasn’t with them for this session (though he’s credited as drummer on the session in the sleevenotes to Bootleg Series Vol.7). He’d quit, playing his last Dylan concert of the tour in Washington DC on November 28. He couldn’t stand all the booing that Dylan’s electric performances were bringing down upon their heads. He went home to Arkansas, worked on oil rigs in the Gulf and felt like giving up, but played some dates around Memphis with the Cate Brothers Band. By December 4, at Dylan’s Berkeley concert, the rest of the Hawks were still in there, but Levon had been replaced by BOBBY GREGG. The whole of the amazing 1966 tour took place without Levon Helm.
He returned to the fold only for the last part of the informal Basement Tapes sessions. Those sessions began without him in June 1967 at Dylan’s house in Woodstock and contined over that summer and autumn, partly at Dylan’s house but mostly at ‘Big Pink’, the group’s house at nearby West Saugerties - in the Basement. A total of 145 tracks plus 7 further fragments were recorded, with the band members spreading themselves out into multi-instrumentalism, so that when Levon Helm rejoined them he was sometimes drumming but on other occasions played mandolin and bass. Yet he had only come back among them in October. Exactly when he arrived, what he missed and what he played on are impossible to say reliably.
When Dylan made his first public appearance for 20 months in January 1968 at the WOODY GUTHRIE Memorial Concerts, the Hawks (or The Crackers) played behind him, and Levon Helm was on stage with them for the first time in over two years. The group went on to become The Band, and it was Levon’s lead vocal carving into us on ‘The Weight’, ‘Rag Mama Rag’, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘Up On Cripple Creek’, ‘Jemima Surrender’ and later on ‘Strawberry Wine’, ‘All La Glory’, ‘W.S. Walcott Medicine Show’ and, on the rock’n’roll revival album Moondog Matinee, ‘Ain’t Got No Home’, ‘Mystery Train’, ‘Promised Land’ and ‘I’m Ready’.
The Band accompanied Dylan again at his Isle of Wight Festival appearance on August 31, 1969. In turn, at their 1971 New Year’s Eve concert in New York City, Dylan came on in the early hours of January 1, 1972 and as well as singing ‘Down In The Flood’, ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, he also played guitar behind Levon as Helm sang on ‘Don’t Ya Tell Henry’. (These performances were finally released in 2001 among the many extra tracks on a 2-CD reissue of The Band’s Rock Of Ages album.)
In 1974 The Band rejoined Dylan for his so-called Come-Back Tour of North America, from which came Before The Flood, which followed their working together one more time in the studio, on Dylan’s Planet Waves. In 1975 a S.N.A.C.K. Benefit gig in San Francisco featured Dylan, NEIL YOUNG, Rick Danko and Levon. And then came the end of The Band, with the concert at the Winterland Palace in San Francisco on November 25, 1976, filmed by MARTIN SCORSESE as The Last Waltz, and one last album, Islands.
Levon would make his feelings about the last years of The Band, and about the Scorsese-Robertson partnership, in many a subsequent interview and then in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire (which carried this endorsement by Dylan: ‘Torrid and timeless… wisdom and humor roaring off every page… you’ve got to read this’.)
After The Band split up, Helm made a series of solo albums, all calling on a huge cast of friends in the studio, beginning with Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars in 1977. Dylan sang ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ as a guest at a Levon Helm & Rick Danko gig in New York City on February 16, 1983; Dylan & Helm performed ‘Nadine’ during Helm’s Lone Star Café gig in NYC on May 29, 1988, and the two were reunited again on the ensemble finale song (‘Only The Lonely’) at the ROY ORBISON tribute concert in LA on February 24, 1990.
By this time The Band had reformed in a partial sort of way, with Earl Cate of the Cate Brothers and without Robbie Robertson (in 1983), but after Richard Manuel’s suicide in 1986 the trio that was left took years more before they made a new Band album, Jericho, recorded in 1993 at the studio Helm now owned in Woodstock. It included a version of Dylan’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’; when Dylan subsequently took to performing it in concert, he followed their way of doing it rather than his own.
Ahead of making Jericho, a rather enfeebled version of The Band appeared at Dylan’s so-called 30th Anniversary Concert in New York City in 1992, and on January 17, 1993, Levon (and Garth and Danko) played live with Dylan once again, at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration party, the so-called ‘Absolutely Unofficial Blue Jeans Bash (For Arkansas)’. More albums billed as by The Band followed - including High On The Hog in 1996, which included Helm singing the Dylan-HELENA SPRINGS song ‘I Must Love You Too Much’ - but in the late 1990s Helm formed a new blues-based band of his own, Levon Helm & The Barn Burners (featuring his daughter Amy).
He and Dylan came to one more conjunction of sorts in 2003, when the Dixie Hummingbirds’ recording of Dylan’s ‘City Of Gold’ was included on the Masked and Anonymous soundtrack. It came from their album Diamond Jubilation, on which Levon and Garth Hudson both played, as indeed did Dylan tour-band members LARRY CAMPBELL, TONY GARNIER and GEORGE RECILE, and which Campbell produced. In 2007 Campbell also produced a significant new Helm album (and Levon's first in 25 years), Dirt Farmer. This award-winning work was followed by Electric Dirt.
Helm has also appeared in (and sometimes narrated) a number of TV profiles of other artists (including ELVIS ’56, 1987, Legends: The Who, 1997, and JOHNNY CASH: Half A Mile A Day, 2000) but has also put in plenty of time as a movie actor. His 13 rôles to date have included playing Loretta Lynn’s father very creditably in the 1980 bio-pic Coal Miner’s Daughter and a bible salesman in Feeling Minnesota, 1996.
Levon Helm may not be the intellectual of the group and he may not be a prolific songwriter - on the original Band albums he co-wrote only ‘Jemima Surrender’, ‘Strawberry Wine’ and ‘Life Is A Carnival’ - but his vocals were a crucial part of the classic sound of The Band, a sound that influenced so much music, and he has always been a superb rock’n’roll drummer.
So. One more thing. It said much about Levon Helm's spirit as man and as musician that he was one of those who loved the unpredictability of working with Bob Dylan. Look at his face, in The Last Waltz, when Dylan comes on stage and Helm is seen, thrilled and delighted, at the immediate prospect of not knowing what the hell is about to happen. It's one of the several reasons I loved the musician and admired the man.