Levon Helm may be gone but his legacy will never die
Legendary drummer/vocalist of The Band, Levon Helm, passed away this week, after a 14 year battle with throat cancer that reduced his incredible tenor to a whisper in recent years.
“Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon,” Helm’s manager Barbara O’Brien said in a statement. “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.”
Helm was born in Arkansas in 1940 to cotton farmer parents who raised him on music. As a teenager he became the drummer for Ronnie Hawkins, who eventually took the group up to Canada, where he added guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko and keyboardists Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson to make The Hawks.
As their chemistry as a band developed, they split off from Hawkins, forming their own group aptly titled The Band.
In 1965 they were recruited by Bob Dylan to be his backing band when he decided to go electric, enraging his folk fans.
The hostile reception they received on the tour bothered Helm enough to make him give up music for a couple years, but they managed to convince him to return and the incredible album Music From The Big Pink was recorded, named after the house near Woodstock they rented to jam in.
The classic was quickly followed up by their self-titled album, widely considered their masterpiece. The old time roots Americana sound they perfected made heavy use of Helm’s Southern drawl.
Though they never became huge commercial stars, in the early 70s they were highly celebrated by critics, and songs like “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and the tune that has been covered by more bands than probably any other – “The Weight” – received regular radio play.
The band came to an end in 1976, when Robbie Robertson decided he wanted to pursue a career on his own. A star-filled six hour long goodbye concert was arranged and Martin Scorsese made it into one of the most successful rock n’ roll documentaries of all time – The Last Waltz. Upon its release, Helm was bothered by the way it portrayed Robertson as the leader of what was a band of equals, and that members Danko and Manuel could barely be seen in it.
Despite his issues with the film, his performance in it is remarkable – his vocals were the only ones that didn’t need to be rerecorded for the film – a huge feat considering he was the one pounding away at the drums throughout an exhausting six hour set.
In 1983 Helm reunited with the band (without Robertson), but tragedy struck when Manuel committed suicide after a concert in 1986.
Though Robertson and Helm remained at odds for the rest of their years, it appears they made peace in his final days, when Robertson visited him at the hospital.
One final Band album was released in 1998, the same year Helm was diagnosed with cancer.
As treatment stole his voice, he was unable to sing again until 2004, and in 2007 released the solo album Dirt Farmer, which earned him a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. He went on to win two more Grammys, one for Best Americana album for his 2009 release, Electric Dirt, and another in the same category in 2011, for Ramble At The Ryman.
He also had a successful acting career, most notably starring as Sissy Spacek’s father in the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Rolling Stone listed him as one of the 100 greatest singers of all time, a title he most definitely deserved.
Sources: Wikipedia, National Post, Vancouver Sun, LA Times