Levon Helm – Multi Talented At Many Things
Levon Helm was in the right place at the right time. He saw the birth of rock and roll and though he’s too much of a gentleman to say it, his role in helping to keep that rebellious child healthy is more than just instrumental. Levon’s father bought him his first guitar at age eight. At eleven, whenever he wasn’t in school, the boy could be found at KFFA’s broadcasting studio in Helena, Arkansas. He would watch Sonny Boy Williamson do his radio show, King Biscuit Time. When he was seventeen, Helm was invited by Conway Twitty to share the stage with Twitty and his Rock Housers. Which led to more opportunities.
His musical destiny
Ronnie Hawkins came into Levon Helm’s life in 1957. A charismatic entertainer and front-man, Hawkins was gathering musicians to tour Canada where the shows and money were steady. He needed a drummer and Levon fit the bill. Levon joined Ronnie and his “Hawks” on the road. The young Arkansas farm boy, found himself driving Hawkins’ Cadillac to gigs, happily aware that all the unknown adventures of rock and roll would be his destiny.
Dick Clark’s American Bandstand
In ’59 Ronnie got “The Hawks” signed to Roulette Records. They had two hits, “Forty Days” and “Mary Lou,” sold 750,000 copies and appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Hawkins and Helm recruited four more talented Canadian musicians in the early sixties, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson. Under Ronnie’s tutelage they would often perform until midnight and rehearse until four in the morning. Other bands began emulating their style, now they were the ones to watch and learn from.
Tired of Hawkin’s strict rules, and eager to expand their own musical interests, the five decided to break from Hawkins. They called themselves “Levon and the Hawks.” Levon and the Hawks also did a favor for Bob Dylan, they helped to create a new sound for him by helping go electric. They toured with Dylan even though his folk fans hated the new sound.
Meanwhile, Helm took a break from the band while the rest of them took refuge in Woodstock, N.Y. They rented the famous pink house that became their recording studio. Danko reached out to Helm to join them because Capitol Records gave them a recording contract. The residents of Woodstock called them “the band” and that’s what they became. Their music became a combination of all the different styles and influences they were all exposed to over the years.
More importantly, was that they were creating brilliant music and the hard work perfecting their skills were finally paying off. Living together at “Big Pink” allowed complete collaboration of their artistic expression. allowing them to try different themes, harmonies, hard driving rhythms and amazing instrumentation. The critics, peers and fans all took notice of the news styles and sounds they were hearing. Their first release, Music from Big Pink is a hit!
They release the second album self titled, The Band
The critics and fans consider this their masterpiece and go to release seven more albums in total. Many of their hits such as “The Weight,” “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, spawned from stories of Levon’s beloved south. Helm moved up to Woodstock and got married to Sandra Dodd and Woodstock became his permanent home. He invited Muddy Waters to his new studio and they recorded Muddy Waters in Woodstock, which garnered Helm a Grammy Award for the project.
The Farewell Concert
The Band held a farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976. It was a bittersweet time for many who felt the group’s demise was too soon. They called it The Last Waltz which included Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and an all-star guest list of peers and friends that read like the “Who’s Who” of rock and roll. The event eventually sold as a triple album and was also filmed, becoming a historical “rock documentary.” The band went their separate ways to work on their own projects.
Levon formed the RCO All-Stars, which included members of Booker T. and the MGs and debuted on Saturday Night Live. The party celebrates the group’s self-titled album and it’s held at the Barn, where Levon’s daughter, six-year-old Amy Helm, sang publicly for the first time.
Following a Levon solo LP recorded in Muscle Shoals, the Band reunited in 1983, minus Robertson, and toured and recorded three albums over the next 15 years. Along the way, Levon acted in such films as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The Right Stuff” and guested on albums like All the Kings Men, recording a track with Keith Richards and Elvis’ band-mates guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana at the Barn.
The Midnight Rambles
In 2004, Helm opened his beloved Barn to host his very own “Midnight Rambles”.The Ramble has become a community, a place for people to meet, sing, laugh, trade stories.” Folks brought covered dishes to share, and they chatted with Levon, before taking the stage. Soon, word about the Rambles spread far and wide. It was a place where artists and fans came to just enjoy the music.
In 2007, he went into the studio to record Dirt Farmer in 2007. His first solo album in 25 years. It includes songs he learned as a child by his dad, Diamond Helm. It won the first of three Grammy’s in a row for Levon, the second being 2009’s Electric Dirt, and the third 2011’s Ramble at the Ryman, documenting the touring Ramble.
Levon Helm passed in 2012. Just days before his passing, he urged his loved ones to “Keep it going” – to continue the tradition, keeping music alive and thriving at the Barn. And they have.