Levon Helm: Drummer and soulful singer at the heart of The Band

With their thick beards and bygone attire, The Band went against the ethos of kaftans and flares

I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin' 'bout half past dead." The enigmatic opening line of "The Weight" may have been penned by Robbie Robertson but the tough-but-tender vocal by Levon Helm, emerging from behind his drum kit, was equally important in establishing The Band in their own right rather than simply as Bob Dylan's backing group during his controversial switch from acoustic to electric music.

A year before the song's appearance in mid-1968, The Beatles had seemed to point the way for their contemporaries with Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an expansive psychedelic album that exploited production technology. So the rough-hewn, down-home aesthetic of the Music From Big Pink LP - on which Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson melded folk, country, rock 'n' roll, rhythm & blues and Helm's beloved blues into a distinctive whole – came as a surprise. Eschewing acid-induced Technicolor mind excursions, they crafted terse, almost mournful vignettes of rustic toil and civil war in 19th-century America.

It was an Americana classic before the concept had been coined. Writing in Rolling Stone, the former Dylan organist Al Kooper detected the Beatles, Dylan, Beach Boys, Coasters, Hank Williams and gospel harmony group the Swan Silvertones in its 11 tracks, which included the Dylan-Danko song "This Wheel's On Fire". He extolled the music's "honesty", branding it "white soul". And the linchpin of The Band, Kooper ventured, was Helm: "In Dylan's first band he kept us together like an enormous iron metronome."

Whereas his Band-mates all hailed from Canada, Helm was born to cotton farmers Nell and Diamond Helm in Arkansas in the American south, growing up in a house without electricity. Christened Mark Lavon, he changed his name to Levon because it was pronounced that way by fellow members of The Hawks, the early 1960s group who backed rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins and became The Band. They branched out on their own in 1963, becoming Levon & The Hawks. Two years later they were recruited to back Dylan on his first electronic tour. The booing by folk purists, indignant over Dylan's perceived sell-out, disillusioned Helm, who left to work on an offshore oil rig.

Dylan soon retreated to the wooded hills of Woodstock in upstate New York. The Band, still minus Helm, followed in 1967, renting a pink-painted wooden house where they wrote and rehearsed. Helm was invited to rejoin. By early '68, when they cut their debut album, he took lead vocal on "We Can Talk" and "The Weight", also supplying subtly propulsive drums. Indeed, Ringo Starr later hailed him as "the greatest drummer", while Kris Kristoffersen rated him "one of the best singers ever, right up there with Ray Charles".

With their functional name, and publicity shots sporting thick beards and the bygone attire of farm labourers or medicine-show preachers rather than kaftans and flares, The Band went against the prevailing ethos. But reviewers lauded the album's originality, as did George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Richard Thompson and Elton John.

The critically acclaimed follow-up, The Band, repeated the trick of sounding at once ancient and modern. Vocal duties were widely shared but Helm sang "Rag Mama Rag" and "Up On Cripple Creek", which reached Nos 57 and 25 respectively in the UK singles chart, as well as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". Another five albums followed, ranging from the superlative Stage Fright to the lacklustre Islands. In a troupe of multi-instrumentalists, Helm diversified on 12-string guitar, mandolin and bass, also featuring on 1975's The Basement Tapes, the official release of 24 much-bootlegged Dylan-Band collaborations from the '60s.

Plagued by drug problems – Helm, Danko and Manuel were afflicted during the early '70s – The Band broke up in 1976 after a lavish farewell show filmed by Martin Scorsese as The Last Waltz. Behind the scenes, Helm later revealed, Robertson was resented for his alleged willingness to go along with the record label's tendency to promote him as the star, with the others mere sidemen. In his 1993 autobiography Helm often referred to the guitarist-writer as "Robbie" when reliving escapades on the road but "Robertson" when discussing publishing disputes.

The Band re-formed without Robertson in 1983, by which time Helm had forged a career as an actor (he played Loretta Lynn's father in 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter and appeared in The Right Stuff). Even after Manuel's suicide in 1986 the group continued to record and tour. Three years later Helm built a wooden studio near Woodstock, complete with "Beware of the Bear" sign, named The Barn, rebuilding it after fire destroyed it a year later.

Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1999, he underwent extensive radiation treatment and had a tumour removed. Despite damaged vocal cords he recovered to record a clutch of albums blending traditional tunes with new material. Dirt Farmer (2007), Electric Dirt (2009) and last year's Ramble At The Ryman all won Grammy awards. He also staged the Midnight Ramble jam sessions, featuring guest artists, in a specially constructed venue at his home.

A 2010 documentary film about Helm was called, pointedly, Ain't In It For My Health, and yet the Levon Helm Band, including his daughter Amy, were still gigging until the cancer returned last month. Robertson, onstage in Cleveland, sent reconciliatory "love and prayers" and later visited Helm, who he said was "like an older brother to me", in hospital in New York.

Mark Lavon Helm, musician and actor: born Elaine, Arkansas 26 May 1940; married Sandy (one daughter); died New York 19 April 2012.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform