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Levon Helm Biography

Home > Music > H > Helm, Levon > Biography

Birth Name: Mark Levon Helm
Born: 1940/05/26
Birth Place: Marvell, Arkansas, United States
Years Active: 1957-present
Genres: Rock And Roll, Rhythm And Blues, Rock, Blues, Country, Folk

Levon Helm (born Mark Lavon Helm, May 26, 1940 – April 19, 2012) was an American rock multi-instrumentalist and actor who achieved fame as the drummer and frequent lead and backing vocalist for The Band. Helm was known for his deeply soulful, country-accented voice, and creative drumming style highlighted on many of the Band's recordings.

Helm was born in Marvell, Arkansas, and grew up in Turkey Scratch, a hamlet west of Helena, Arkansas. Helm was influenced by variety of musical styles — blues, country and R&B — listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio show and R&B on radio stations 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. Helm also witnessed some of the earliest performances by Southern country music, 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, Helm was invited to join Ronnie 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, Canada, where, in 1959, they signed with Roulette Records and released several singles, including a few hits.

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 of the United States, where they found regular summer club gigs on the New Jersey shore.

By the mid 1960s, songwriter and musician 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 drummer 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 with Dylan, they followed him to live around Woodstock, New York, and remained under salary to him. The Hawks recorded a large volume of demo and practice tapes in Woodstock, playing almost daily with Dylan, who had completely withdrawn from public life the previous year. These recordings were widely bootlegged and were partially released officially in 1975 as “The Basement Tapes.” The songs and themes developed during this period played a crucial role in the group's future direction and style. The Hawks members also 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 their new manager 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 contracted their services to Capitol Records. This arrangement allowed The Band to release recordings on other labels if the work was done in support of Dylan. This allowed The Band to play on Dylan's Planet Waves album and on The Last Waltz, both non-Capitol releases. The Band also recorded their own album, 1968’s “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 exception of “The Weight.” However, 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 vocals, alone or in harmony with Danko.

Helm remained with The Band until their 1976 farewell performance, “The Last Waltz,” which was recorded in a documentary film by director Martin Scorsese. Many music enthusiasts 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.

With the breakup of The Band in its original form, Helm began working on a solo album 1977’s “Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars,” followed by 1978’s “Levon Helm.” Helm recorded solo albums in 1980 and 1982 entitled “American Son” and (once again) “Levon Helm.” Helm also participated in musician 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. In 1986, while on tour, Manuel committed suicide. 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 Danko toured with drummer Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. Other musicians in the band included singer/guitarist Joe Walsh, singer/pianist Dr. John, guitarist Nils Lofgren, singer Billy Preston, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and drummer Jim Keltner. Garth Hudson was a guest on accordion on certain dates. Helm played drums and harmonica, and sang The Band staples, “The Weight” and “Up On Cripple Creek” each night.

In the late 1990s, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer suffering hoarseness. Advised to undergo a laryngectomy, Helm instead underwent an arduous regimen of radiation treatments at Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Although the tumor was then successfully removed, Helm's vocal cords were damaged, and his clear, powerful tenor voice was replaced by a quiet rasp.

The fall of 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 combined traditional tunes Levon recalled from his youth with newer songs 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 drummed on a couple of tracks for Jorma Kaukonen's February, 2009 album “River of Time,” recorded at The Barn studio. Helm released the album “Electric Dirt” on his own label in 2009. The album won a Grammy for the newly created Best Americana Album category in 2010.

Helm's performance career in the 2000s 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, allowed Helm to raise money for his medical bills and to resume performing after a nearly career-ending bout with cancer. Initially Helm only played drums and relied on guest vocalists at the Rambles, but Helm's singing voice grew stronger. On January 10, 2004, he sang again of his Ramble Sessions.

The Levon Helm Band featured his daughter guitarist Amy Helm, along with Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Jim Weider (the Band's last guitarist), Jimmy Vivino, Mike Merritt, Brian Mitchell, Erik Lawrence, Steven Bernstein, Howard Johnson (tuba player in the horn section who played on The Band’s “Rock of Ages” and “The Last Waltz” live albums), Byron Isaacs, and blues harmonica player Little Sammy Davis. Helm hosted Midnight Rambles at his home in Woodstock that were open to the public.

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, Jon Herington of Steely Dan, and Jimmy Vivino of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien's" The Max Weinberg 7. Other performers have included Sean Costello, The Muddy Waters Tribute Band, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Carolyn Wonderland, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Justin Townes Earle, Bow Thayer, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Taylor, Ollabelle, The Holmes Brothers, Catherine Russell, Norah Jones, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Phil Lesh (along with his sons Grahame and Brian), Hot Tuna (although Jorma Kaukonen introduced the group as “The Secret Squirrels”), Michael Angelo D'Arrigo with various members of the Sistine Chapel, Johnny Johnson, Ithalia, David Bromberg, and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

In 2011, Helm released “Ramble at the Ryman,” a live album recorded during his September 2008 performance at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. The album features Helm's band playing six songs by The Band and other cover material, including some songs from previous Helm solo releases. The album won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album.

Helm died on April 19, 2012, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.