Watching a professional musician play the drums is an impressive sight. Watching someone who can coordinate their arms, legs and voice into a song is a feat to witness. But Levon Helm made it look so easy as he marveled millions with his gruffy, soulful voice and creative drumming technique. At the helm of the “classic USA sound”, there was little that the singer/drummer couldn’t accomplish. Apart from being a lead singer and drummer for “one of the most popular and influential rock groups in the world”, Helm was a producer, songwriter, studio owner; the list goes on. But for an influencer who was as talented as his music was faceted, Helm is noted as a gentle soul with an easygoing attitude, who just happens to have Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Before Helm became a frontman for the ages behind a drum kit, the former farmer boy from Arkansas was looking for a new place to call home. Radio broadcasts from The Grand Ole Opry instilled Helm’s early fascination with music. His exploration into the world of rhythm and blues led him to become a multi-instrumentalist. It wasn’t until seeing Elvis Presley perform live that he decided to take his craft seriously. The entranced musician packed his drum kit with a change of clothes and made his journey to Memphis. Helm’s spirited nature and intricate drumming style led him to begin working sessions with touted artists, including Conway Twitty. But his first break wouldn’t come until native Arkansan and rockabilly singer, Ronnie Hawkins, asked the young drummer to play for his band. Hawkins and his backing band, the Hawks, were able to convince Helm to be a part of the emerging group and make a relocation to Canada. Word of a new scene in Toronto established the group as a hit act from Roulette Records. With a pair of hits that sold nearly a million records, Hawkins and Helm enjoyed their materializing success. But this crop up was just a precursor for something greater than they ever imagined.
While settling in Toronto, Hawkins and Helm began adding to the Hawks with an accomplished list of musicians from the area. Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson were all talented enough to be lead singers of their own band. Instead, they found themselves as backing musicians who were constantly at odds with Hawkins’ outbursts and harsh treatment. The members decided they’ve finally outgrown Hawkins musically and outed him with Helm becoming the new leader. What began was a series of name changes from Levon and the Hawks to the Canadian Squires and back again. The young act of many names was noted for being ambitious but mature as a musical unit. This attention fell on the ears of the greatest songwriter in history, Bob Dylan. The icon took a liking to the group and invited them to be his backing band with an emphasis on electrifying his sound. The controversial direction led to many boos from fans against Dylan’s change during his US and world tour in the mid-60s. Helm began losing interest in music due to the harsh backlash from fans throughout Dylan’s tour. His return to Arkansas following the tour was thought to be the drummer’s last stint in the business. But a new beginning for the artist started not long after his initial departure from music.
Helm returned with his former bandmates with Dylan influencing the group back together. Their sessions together grew into something larger as they began recording music that led to a full-length album. Taking the name “The Band” for their years together as a backing group, Helm and company released their 1968 debut Music from Big Pink. Dylan’s contribution to the writing of the music and Helm’s vocals attributed hits that stood atop americana. Likewise, Manuel and Robertson’s combined artistry spawned a collection of classics alongside Helm. With the timeless tracks of “Tears of Rage” and “The Weight”, The Band became a group that critics and artists adored for years to come.
The Band continued their multitude of praise with Helm becoming a talent lead singers and drummers alike envied. Several more hit records were released with sold out tours across the nation and world edifying their legendary status. But the weariness from touring led to the group performing a farewell extravaganza in their final concert dubbed, The Last Waltz in 1976. The Band released one final record the following year before Helm and the others drifted apart. But Helm’s peak musicality continued taking shape with his debut record Levon Helm & the RCO All Stars. The drummer’s lead of blues-rock ensembles were magnificent as live performances while on tour lasted for hours. Follow-ups with eponymous titles and a country rock album, American Son, equated a pursuit into acting. The first among many roles included notable appearances in cult classics, including Coal Miner’s Daughter. But Helm found himself missing his former bandmates with memories of previous tours coming back while on the road. The idea of getting The Band back together was just the right move.
Helm’s reformation of The Band brought everyone back minus Robertson, who found prolonged success in a solo career. But the group’s diminishing popularity while stress from touring combined with alcohol and drugs drove Manuel to suicide. His passing fell heavily on Helm who saw to keep everyone together to honor their friend. For his efforts and contribution to The Band, Helm became an inductee into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame with his bandmates in 1989. Helm and the group released a few more records over the years before a return to his solo effort 25 years later with Dirt Farmer. After experiencing personal tragedy and a battle with cancer that affected his vocals at this stage of his life, Helm continued strong with other solo recordings backed by a highlight recording of his live performance in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. But just a few years after the feel-good performance record was released, something else would return that had cut his vocals. Permanently.
Helm’s cancer had returned and was in its latter stages before claiming his life in 2012. Artists, critics and fans mourned his passing as the profound influence left behind was greatly felt. In his response to Helm’s passing, Dylan stated, “(He was) one of the last true great spirits of my life or any other generation.” Fans and artists paid tribute to the fallen icon as thousands came into attendance for his wake. The legacy as a multi-Grammy award winning artist and dual hall of famer eclipses a career filled with magnificent performances. Memories of his profound affect on others can be best attributed to his benefit concert held by the multi-talented Grace Potter. Her performance on The Band/Dylan classic “I Shall Be Released” summarizes Helm’s life and affect on music. With words that echo how much music meant to Helm and how he dedicated his life to have others love it in the same way.
Written by Trenton Luber