It doesn’t seem possible that Levon Helm was just in Ann Arbor in late March, playing one of his Midnight Rambles…Helm died Thursday in a New York hospital after his battle with throat cancer took a sudden turn for the worse some weeks ago.
I know I need to hunker down and listen to “Music from Big Pink” about 100 times this weekend. The Band’s funky blend of rock, country, blues and gospel helped change music.
His family posted the news on his website, levonhelm.com: “Levon Helm, 1940-2012: Levon passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.”
Helm’s unmistakable, gravely voice was heard on some of The Band’s best-loved and most popular songs, including “Up onCripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
He was born in Elaine, Arkansas, and grew up loving both the country music and blues that he heard on the radio. Helm joined the band of rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins in 1957, and followed him to Toronto when Hawkins relocated to Canada.
Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks had several hits, including “Forty Days” and “Mary Lou,” and appeared on “American Bandstand.”
The Hawks were the nucleus of what was to become The Band, once Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson joined.
Because they were based in Toronto, they came down to Detroit a lot. Detroit drummer Lynn Bruce remembers running into Helm and the Hawks in 1959, when they were riding high on national airplay.
“I was in a Detroit teen club band called The Del-Royals with future Motown bass player Bob Babbitt and guitar player Danny James,” Bruce recalls. “We had a record hop at the Rouge Park roller rink for some DJ. As I was unloading my drums, a guy with a strong Southern accent asked me if I needed help. He helped me carry all my drums in, and then told me that he had to go play.
“I just thought he was there as a fan to watch the show, but he was the drummer for Ronnie Hawkins and they were pushing Ronnie’s record ‘Forty Days.’ The guy was touring, promoting his band’s hit and he stopped to help a local drummer carry in his drums even after he had carried in all his own. The drummer’s name was Levon Helm. A genuine nice guy. After all these years, I still think of Levon and that single act of kindness to me.”
The Band was of course the subject of “The Last Waltz,” one of the most influential concert films ever, but the Scorsese film also led to the decades-long rift between Helm and Robertson, because the latter was so dominant in the film, portrayed as the leader of The Band to the detriment of Helm.
It was bittersweet that the two old friends patched it up this week in Helm’s hospital room. Robertson revealed on his Facebook page that when he heard Helm was in the last stages of his illness, he visited his former bandmate in the hospital inNew York.
“I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together,” Robertson wrote.
Garth Hudson of The Band issued this statement:
Levon Helm left us today at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19, 2012, I am terribly sad. Thank you for 50 years of friendship and music. Memories that live on with us. No more sorrows, no more pain. He went peacefully to that beautiful marvelous wonderful place. He was Buddy Rich’s favorite rock drummer…and my friend. Levon, I’m proud of you.”
I never knew that the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song “Levon” was named in honor of helm. John told Entertainment Weekly:
“When I heard The Band’s ‘Music from Big Pink,’ their music changed my life. And Levon was a big part of that band. Nigel Olson, my drummer, will tell you that every drummer that heard him was influenced by him. He was the greatest drummer and a wonderful singer and just a part of my life that was magica. They once flew down to see me in Philadelphia and I couldn’t believe it. They were one of the greatest bands of all time. They really changed the face of music when their records came out. I had no idea he was sick so I’m very dismayed and shocked that he died so quickly. But now my son [Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John] has his name.”