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

Phil Shaw
Saturday 21 April 2012 01:27
Levon Helm in 1976 playing the drums at The Band's final live performance
Levon Helm in 1976 playing the drums at The Band's final live performance

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.

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