The music world has suffered a big loss with the passing of Levon Helm at the age of 71. After fighting throat cancer to the point of successfully teaching himself to speak and sing again, Levon finally succumbed to the disease several days ago. His passing was peaceful and occurred about ten minutes after all of his friends said goodbye. His mark on music cannot be underestimated and his upbringing in Arkansas had a huge influence on The Band’s sound. He saw Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys when he was six years old and decided he was going to become a musician. Levon listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio and witnessed traveling shows such as F.S. Walcott’s Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, which featured many popular African-American artists. The King Biscuit Time radio show made a big impression on Levon as he fell in love with the blues and studied it vigorously. He would watch Sonny Boy Williamson’s drummer, James “Peck” Curtis, and imitate his R&B drumming style.
“He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I’m going to miss him, as I’m sure a whole lot of others will too.” – Bob Dylan
After high school, Levon was asked to join Ronnie Hawkins’ band, “The Hawks,” who were a popular group across the South and Canada, where rockabilly was all the rage. In the 1960s, Helm and Hawkins put together a version of The Hawks that featured an all-Canadian lineup of guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson. Each of the musicians were multi-instrumentalists. In 1963, the band separated from Hawkins and started touring under the name “Levon and The Hawks,” and later as “The Canadian Squires” before finally changing back to “The Hawks.” It was this band that Bob Dylan recruited for his backing band, however, Levon left the band shortly after witnessing fans’ reactions to Dylan’s new, electric sound. Mickey Jones filled in on drums as Levon went to work on off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico until he was asked to rejoin the band. The Hawks and Bob Dylan recorded endless material up in Woodstock which influenced the band in terms of their own songwriting. Soon after, the group signed a contract with Albert Grossman under the name of “The Band.” This led to their debut album, Music from Big Pink and the rest is history.
“Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.” – Robbie Robertson
While The Band eventually dissolved after Scorsese filmed The Last Waltz, their music has proved more and more influential as time goes by. For a rock ‘n’ roll band, the group had a lot of soul in their sound which was thanks, in no small part, to Levon’s Southern influence. Levon, Richard, and Rick did the majority of the singing for the group and their voices matched each other perfectly. Levon went on to record some terrific solo albums and after losing and regaining his voice, he battled on with the release of Dirt Farmer, which won him a Grammy, and the follow-up, Electric Dirt. His legacy will live on forever and what better way is there to honor him than with music. Check out this live performance of “Don’t Do It,” a Holland–Dozier–Holland tune originally made famous by Marvin Gaye, at the Academy of Music in NY. This has to be one of the greatest covers I’ve ever heard. May Levon’s terrific music and smile always shine down on us.